• Ex 22:20-26
• Ps 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51
• 1 Thess 1:5c-10
• Mt 22:34-40
The “Shema” is the core Jewish declaration of faith, joining the statement, “Hear [shema], O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!”, with other passages about the unity and uniqueness of God (Dt 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Num 15:37-41). The whole of the Shema, notes Jacob Neusner in Judaism: An Introduction (Penguin, 2002), “constitutes the creed of the Jewish faith. The three elements of the Shema cover Creation, revelation and redemption, that is to say, God as creator of the world, God as revealer of the Torah and God as redeemer of Israel.”
Observant Jews have long recited the Shema each morning and evening. It was certainly well known to Jesus, who would have prayed it regularly. So when Jesus was tested by a scholar of the law with the question, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”, it wasn’t surprising he drew from the Shema, replying, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.” Those listening would not have quibbled with his statement; it was a common view among Jewish rabbis of the time. The identity of Israel and the core of Judaism were rooted in the uniqueness of God, his covenants and gift of the Torah, and his selection of the Jews as his chosen people. To be a Jew meant loving and fearing God, and therefore keeping his commandments (Dt 5:29).
What is distinctive about Jesus’ response was his subsequent remark: “The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” This likely turned some heads! “The whole law? Really?” This was startling. Rather than simply noting that loving one’s neighbor is part of the Law, Jesus declared it to be intimately bound up with one’s love for God.
The two can be distinguished, of course, but they cannot be separated. They are two foundations upon which true religion and authentic morality are established.
This is a good example of how Jesus, an observant Jew, deepened and transformed the teachings of the Law and prophets, but without doing violence to them. Or, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in the introduction to Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), his first encyclical: “In acknowledging the centrality of love, Christian faith has retained the core of Israel’s faith, while at the same time giving it new depth and breadth.” Jesus, noted Benedict, “united into a single precept this commandment of love for God and the commandment of love for neighbour…”
No longer is love merely a “command”, but the response given by man to God’s free gift of love. Yet, at the same time, love is the new commandment, as Jesus explained to his disciples in the upper room: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35; see Catechism, par 1823). The essential difference is the person of Jesus Christ who is creator, the giver of the new Law, and the sole redeemer of mankind. He is the uncreated Son of God who through his death and resurrection offers to make us new creations, filled by the Holy Spirit with divine life and love (Gal 6:15; 3:26; 4:4-7).
This radical love distinguished the early Christians from their neighbors; it was not reliant on ethnicity, based in citizenship, or founded upon social status. It came from the love for God gifted to man by the God-man. Because of this love, wrote the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians, “the word of the Lord has sounded forth” from Christ’s disciples. The Shema declared, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God”; the gospel further declared, “Hear, O world! Jesus Christ is Lord and God!”
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the October 23, 2011, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
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