“Hear, O Israel”.
These words from our first reading introduce the great declaration of the Jewish faith, which they call the “Shema”. It is the centrepiece of daily Jewish worship and piety, as well-known and central to Jews, as the Lord’s Prayer is for us Christians. In Christian celebrations, you have only to say the words “Our Father”, and everyone there will be able to take it up and recite the prayer right to its conclusion. In the same way, in Jewish circles, you would only have to intone the words “Hear, O Israel” and everyone would know how it goes from there.
The great “Shema” continues: ”The Lord is our God, the Lord alone”. The people of Israel, throughout their history, would have put great emphasis on the words “our God”. In ancient times, they would have believed, with other civilizations, that there were many other gods out there. Each nation had their own god or gods. Wars between nations were also seen to be wars between each nation’s god or gods. If a nation won battles, it was because their god or gods were mightier than those of the nations they defeated. It was a source of national pride that you had your own god, to whom you owed devotion and loyalty alone, a god who saw you as his own people, and pledged to fight for you and protect you and provide for you. Even though Israel believed in the existence of other gods for much of their Old Testament history, nonetheless, they knew they were to have a commitment to their god, Yahweh, alone. In time, they would come to understand that all these other “gods” were man-made idols, human creations of silver and gold, of no worth whatsoever.
Thus, in the words of Psalm 115: ”Our God is in the heavens, he does whatever he pleases / Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands / They have mouths but do not speak; eyes, but do not see / They have ears but do not hear; noses but do not smell / They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they make no sound in their throats / Those who make them are like them, so are all who trust in them” (vv 3 – 8).
The “Shema” in our first reading continues: ”You shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”. Jewish commentary on this verse indicates that the word translated as “heart” refers to the core of on e’s very being, the seat of one’s whole thought, will and feeling. We are to love God “wholeheartedly”, in the fullest sense of that word. The word “soul” refers to emotions, passions and desires. The opposite to loving God wholeheartedly and with one’s soul is not hatred, but apathy , in other words, going through the motions with no passion, without putting one’s heart and soul into it. I believe the reason why many people have turned away from their faith and their church, is that they never came to that point of wholehearted allegiance and personal commitment to God, despite being baptized and confirmed and going to church regularly as a child. In large part, that is down to us clergy and religious who taught the Catholic faith as religion, a thing of rules and regulations, instead of teaching it as relationship.
I have shared with you in the past how, as a young man at university, a born –and-bred Catholic, I was approached one day in the cafeteria by an evangelical Christian who asked me if I had a “personal relationship” with Jesus. I was bewildered by the question, and could only stammer out that I had been a Catholic all my life. To which this young man responded “That is not what I asked you!” I had to admit to him, and to myself, that while I had no doubt that Jesus was God, nonetheless, I had never thought of him in terms of someone with whom I could have a dialogue, communication, a real relationship. That revelation changed my life and my attitude to my faith, and began the journey to my becoming a priest. It also, by the way changed me from being a shy, reclusive person to one who was able to form and enjoy close relationships with others. Because Jesus is not just interested in us having a close, personal friendship with him, but also with His Heavenly Father, and the Holy Spirit, and also with other people. Which is why Jesus added onto the Jewish Shema, the other great “commandment” – to “love one’s neighbor as oneself.”
Now, Israel does have that particular commandment: “to love one’s neighbor as oneself“ as part of its covenant relationship with God. But it is tucked away, hidden amongst a collection of 612 other commandments. What Jesus does in our gospel today was to haul it out, and put it right up there alongside the great “Shema” commandment, as equal in importance to that one. Furthermore, whilst Jews in Jesus’ time restricted the concept of “neighbour” to include only fellow-Jews, and in many cases, only to fellow Jews who thought and acted and were from the same social group as their own, Jesus extended the idea of one’s “neighbour” to include anyone in need, regardless of race, religion, colour, gender , social upbringing , or whatever. To be in some kind of need is enough to qualify you as my “neighbour” to whom I owe an allegiance of love and service.
To take this a little bit further, to “love one’s neighbor as oneself”, surely implies that I have a proper love for myself, otherwise how can I possibly love someone else like myself? This has all kinds of practical implications for us. I should not ever consider myself as “worthless” or as “good for nothing” or “of no use to anyone”, regardless of what other people may say about me. Ruining my health, doing damage to my body through addictions, hazardous activities, slothfulness, and so on, also contravene this commandment to love myself. And it is a commandment. Just like loving God with one’s whole heart, soul and might, and loving one’s neighbor are commandments, not options. Israel well understood that its duty to love God was inseparable from action and regularly connected with the observance of his commandments. Love and action go together, both for God, our neighbor, and ourselves. As the wise saying has it ”What you say is one thing. What you do speaks a whole lot louder.”
The great “Shema” concludes with the commandment to love God, not just with all one’s heart, and soul, but also with all one’s might. That word “might” can be understood as “very, very much”. Jewish commentary indicates that , for practical purposes, loving God with all our might can mean “with one’s wealth”, since we often invest our wealth in what we hold most dearly.
To sum up, the Shema, calls us to love God exceedingly, wholeheartedly, with everything we are and have … our thoughts, feelings, intentions and desires. Jesus adds to that commandment, that of “loving neighbor as oneself” with all that this involves. The question remains “why? Why should I bother loving God so completely, so intently?” And why should I love my neighbor as myself, come to that? For Jews, it was the realization that God had first loved them, in rescuing them from slavery in Egypt and bringing them into the Promised Land to give them a country of their own. St John, in his first letter, takes this a step further and points us to the Cross, where we see the love of God, in the person of his Son, Jesus, pouring out towards us in a sacrifice of total self-giving.
This is what St John says: ”Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us first and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love comes to perfection in us“ (1 John 4: 7-12).