Our first text presents us with one of the best known scriptures in the Hebrew Bible. In this text Moses describes to the people how it will “go well for them” in the new land that they are on the verge of occupying. The message is given not just to those Israelites who hear it, but to their “children and their children’s children.” The key to multiplying and being fruitful in the new land, says Moses, is adherence to the following command: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Most scholars believe that Deuteronomy was written in response to a national crisis during the time of king Josiah in which the Israelites had slipped into rampant paganism–and thus abandoned the “one God.” The Shema (as it’s come to be known) is prayed twice daily by observant Jews, and it is traditional for Jews to recite the Shema as their “last words.” In our gospel reading today Jesus will present this command as the “greatest” of all commands but will be quick to supplement it with a second command, linking the love of God with compassion and kindness for our neighbors.
The beginning of Psalm 119 declares that those who keep the Lord’s commandments are “happy.” The Psalmist then presents his/her commitment to follow these commands, and thus experience such ‘happiness.’ Psalm 119 is the largest chapter (poem) in the Bible. It contains 176 verses and is divided into stanzas 8 verses long. Each stanza begins with a successive letter from the Hebrew alphabet, making Psalm 119 one of a dozen acrostic poems in the Bible. Psalm 119 is an elaborate prayer extolling the virtues of Torah (almost every verse presents a synonym for Torah; e.g. word, promise, rulings,
etc.) and the Psalmist’s loyalty to it.
Our epistle lection continues the semi-continuous readings from the book of Hebrews where Christ is shown to be the mediator of a new covenant. In this Sunday’s reading the sacrifice offered by Christ is compared to the sacrifice offered by the high priest on the day of atonement. Christ is said to enter into a greater and more perfect tent (i.e. the place Christ entered is greater and more perfect than the tabernacle of old). In this greater and more perfect tent Christ offers a greater sacrifice. The Hebrew writer reasons that if the blood of bulls, goats, and heifers can purify the flesh than the blood of Jesus, given through the Spirit, can purify our consciences which will deliver us from ‘dead works’ to the ‘worship of God.’
In our gospel reading a scribe comes to Jesus and asks him what the greatest command is. Jesus answers with the Shema (see above). The scribe commends Jesus for his answer. Jesus in turn commends the scribe for commending him! Jesus’ commendation of the scribe is one of the most meaningful encouragements in all the Bible, “When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” It is important to point out that Jesus was not asked what the “two” greatest commandments were, but what the ‘greatest” commandment was. Yet Jesus answers not with one command but with two. In addition to the Shema in Deuteronomy 6 Jesus also quotes from Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In doing this Jesus summarizes the entirety of the law. We are reminded that the Ten Commandments first focus on our relationship to God, and then focus on our relationship to each other. The greatest commands that lead one close to the kingdom of God have both a vertical and a horizontal axis.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts, minds, prayers, and hymns for Sunday consider Jesus’ answer to the Scribe. Why was it important for the Scribe to ask the question the Scribe asked? Do you think Jesus’ answer was surprising? What is it about agreement the answer Jesus gave that meant the scribe was close to the kingdom of God? In what ways are you/we close to the kingdom of God?