How to Love the Lord
Learning about Jesus' Jewish
culture never ceases to add depth to his words. It appears that Jesus
was involved in some of the same key rabbinic discussions that other rabbis
participated in. For instance, one important rabbinic discussion that
was going on in Jesus' time focused on the question, "Mah hu clal
gadol b'Torah?" - literally, "What is commandment-big of
the Law?" We can hear those very words being asked of Jesus in Mark:
One of the teachers of the law came and
heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer,
he asked him, Of all the commandments, which is the most important?
The most important one, answered Jesus, is this: Hear,
O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God
with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and
with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor
as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:28 - 31, NIV)
Jesus didn't use his own words
to summarize the Torah for the lawyer. He quoted Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the
first two lines of the Shema (pronounced "Shmah"),
the "pledge of allegiance" that Jesus as an observant Jew would
have said every morning and evening. By doing this, a Jew would remind
himself of his commitment to love God, to dedicate himself to following
God and doing his will. The rabbis of Jesus' day said that when a person
prayed the Shema, he "received upon himself the kingdom of God",
meaning that he was placing God as king over his life. Some Jews teach
their children the Shema as soon as they learn to talk! It is the central
affirmation for a Jewish person of his or her commitment to the Lord.
Jesus' next statement, Love your neighbor, is from Leviticus 19:18. We
will discuss that in the Director's Article for December.
Many have heard of the Shema. But it is helpful to unpack some of the
richness of these lines that were central to Jesus and to his faith. Let's
look at some of what it means. First, lets look at the saying in Hebrew:
Adonai (the Lord)
elohenu (our god)
Adonai (the Lord)
"Shema" is the
first word and is usually translated "Hear!" But the word shema
actually has a stronger meaning than that. It has the sense of "take
heed" or "obey". In fact, when we see the word "obey"
in English in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word behind it is usually
"shema"! When Jesus says "He who has ears to hear, let
him hear" he really means - you have heard my teaching, now take
it to heart and obey it! Likewise, the Shema is telling the Israelites
to obey - to act out their belief in the Lord, not just to "hear".
The word "echad" in Hebrew is the word for one. Jews
and Christians have often debated its meaning, since Jews have used the
fact that it means "one" to see it as a reason that they cannot
believe in a trinity. Christians point out that it can mean a compound
unity, like one bunch of grapes. But, the most authoritative Jewish text,
the JPS Tanakh, says that the best reading of the word in this phrase
really is not "one" but "alone". So instead of reading
that sentence "The Lord our God, the Lord is one", it is more
accurate to read it as "The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!" This changes the emphasis of the whole sentence so that instead of being
a creed of monotheism, it is actually a command for their absolute allegiance
to God. This also fits better into the rest of the passage, which tells
them to love God whole-heartedly and to obey his commands.
Let's look at the next phrase in Deuteronomy,
"Love the Lord your
God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength."
On the surface, we think we understand
heart, soul and strength, but knowing the Hebrew background of the words
adds great richness to this command.
Heart (levav) in Hebrew does not just mean your emotions,
but also means your mind and thoughts as well. So we are to use all of
our thoughts to love the Lord - as Paul says, we "take captive every
thought to make it obedient to Christ." (2 Cor 10:5). In the gospels
the phrase "and all your mind" is there to emphasize that fact,
but from Moses' time it would have been understood that way as well. Whenever
we read "heart" in the Old Testament we should understand it
in terms of the intellect as well as the emotions, because in Hebrew it
can mean your mind.
Soul (nephesh) also can have a different sense in Hebrew
than just your spirit or emotions. Nephesh means life as well as
soul. So the Jewish interpretation is that you are to love the Lord with
all of your life, meaning with every moment throughout your life, and
be willing even to sacrifice your life for him. If Jews are able, they
will quote the Shema at their death to make a final commitment to their
God. Many a Jewish martyr has exclaimed the Shema with his last breath
as a testimony to that fact.
Strength (me'od) is an unusual word usage which really means "much" or "very". You could translate the passage
"with all of your much-ness" or "with all of your increase".
It is interpreted to mean "with everything that you have" -
your money, your time, your possessions and your family. Loving God with
everything you have is a high calling indeed!
So, as we re-read Jesus' favorite law from Jesus' favorite book, we can
capture it in this modern way:
"Listen up, Israel - The Lord is your
God, he, and he alone!! You should love him with every thought that
you think, live every hour of every day for him, be willing to sacrifice
your life for him. Love him with every penny in your wallet and everything
that you've got!"
Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All rights reserved. This article is copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.
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