Image via author, Bighorn Range, Wyoming
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 “Hear, Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. And you shall repeat them diligently to your sons and speak of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the road, when you lie down, and when you get up. You shall also tie them as a sign to your hand, and they shall be as frontlets on your forehead. You shall also write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
This passage is perhaps the passage in the Jewish Bible, the Torah, that is most revered in traditional Judaism. It is repeated as the core of both the morning and evening prayers. It is the first of the scriptures to be memorized by traditional Jewish children and will be recited by practicing Jews daily for life.
Jesus, when asked by a scribe which commandment was the greatest of all, refers back to this command. His answer makes the command relevant to us today. Mark 12:28-33 “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;you shall 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, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
Here, the commandment to honor our God as the one true God and to love Him above all other loves is identified by Jesus as “the First Commandment.” Not the first given, but the foremost commandment, the first in importance. Clearly, this commandment is of the greatest importance to all of us.
The Deuteronomy passage has a name, “the Shemah,” which means “Hear this” or “Listen.” The name is taken from the opening words, “Hear, O Israel.” This statement is considered more important than the Ten Commandments or any other part of the Old Testament Law. The command to listen was not telling people to hear words with the ears, but to take the words to heart, to honor them and practice them. The Shemah has two key parts which correspond to verses 4 and 5 in Chapter 6.
The first part is the reminder that the God we have chosen to follow exclusively is indeed God the Lord to us. The Jews were never good at this until the judgment of God upon the northern and southern kingdoms that led to their dispersal among the nations. The southern tribes eventually were returned to the land, but not the northern tribes. Once they returned, the Israelites from Judah never again worshiped the foreign gods of the people around them.
The second part of the Shemah is in verse 5, and it is this part on which we are focusing. “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Our God knew then as He still knows now that without a consuming love for Him our faith will quickly degenerate into human religiosity.
We see this in the system of religiosity present when Jesus arrived as Messiah. The faith had become a marathon of trying to do the right things, and the expression of it was measured in performance to the most minute details. Love had little to do with it. When the King of all love appeared to them, rather than embrace Him they killed Him.
In the passage we read from Mark 12, this is called the great or foremost commandment. That Jesus reiterates the primacy of this love for our God indicates clearly that this is “the big deal” of our faith. How big of a deal is this? And just how much of our life energy is to go into this love for our God?
In Matthew 10 Jesus clarifies this issue for us. “The one who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and the one who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And the one who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. The one who has found his life will lose it, and the one who has lost his life on My account will find it.”
Here Jesus defines the great commandment love our God intends for us to give to Him. Yet He never backs off of it nor does He explain it away. He means what He said, that we must love Him far more than we love our own life and living. Far more than we love any other person, activity, or thing in this life.
This, after all, is exactly what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus, a follower after our God.