When you are caught in an emergency situation and you have to evacuate your house – what would you grab in the 60 seconds that you have available to you? Would it be a photo album, a piece of jewellery, device or memento? Sometimes it is good to be forced to boil things down to their essence. Maybe the experience of churches being closed for four months this year has helped to focus us on what is important in our worship?
Within Judaism, there were many commandments that were contained within the second to fifth books of the scriptures, the Torah. 613 mitzvah were usually counted. So out of these, which was the most significant? The question that the scribe puts to Jesus in the Gospel today (we’ve jumped over a chapter and a half of Mark to be in Mark 12:28-34 during holy week) is a common one: which commandment is the greatest? The first part of the answer that Jesus provides is also fairly common. He quotes from the prayer that every faithful Jew would take upon their lips when rising and resting: the Shema. It is found in the book we call Deuteronomy (second law from the Greek), but which in Hebrew is called “the Words” (Debarim in Hebrew) from the opening line – which is how all books in the TaNaKh are named.
The opening line of the prayer from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 in Hebrew is:
Shema Yisrael (Hear/Listen [& obey] Israel)
Adonai eloheinu (the Lord our God)
Adonai echad (the Lord [is] one).
And, as for you, love (ahavah) the Lord (YHWH) your God, with all your heart (lev), with all your soul/life-force (nephesh), and with all your strength/all that you have (me’od).
When Jesus recites this, he adapts the three different components that within Jewish thought (and similarly within all Ancient Near East communities) encompassed the whole person: heart, soul and strength. There is no word for mind in the Hebrew Bible. Within Greek thought, there had developed an understanding that it is within the mind (nous in Greek) that thoughts take place – so Jesus adds this category to the traditional three to encompass all that we are meant to offer to God.
To complete his answer, he adds a second commandment (“that is like the first”) – “And love your neighbour as yourself.” (quoting from Leviticus 19:18b) There is no evidence that any other Jewish rabbis at the time did this. By combining these two commandments as the equally important greatest commandment, we have a unique creedal statement from Jesus (which Scot McKnight calls the Jesus Creed). Perhaps we could do no better than to learn and daily pray and then live out the Jesus Creed ourselves.
Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad.
Ve’ahavta et Adonai elohecha