Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!
Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God,
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
And with all your strength.
Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.
The Shema Israel (שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל) is among the most important verses in the entirety of the Hebrew scripture. It is a foundational prayer in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. The Shema is the first portion of the Torah learned by many observant Jews, the last prayer offered each week by Catholics in their recitation of Saturday compline, and the passage cited by Christ himself when asked to name the first and most important commandment. It is an affirmation of Judeo-Christian monotheism and the most basic of all instructions to those who desire to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. However, the prayer’s most revolutionary contribution to theology may come in its titular first two words—Shema Israel—Hear, O Israel! It does not say speak, O Israel or decide, O Israel, but hear. Why does this particular instruction—hear—matter?
Israel did not come to know and understand God in a vacuum. All around the ancient near east, very particular types of religions developed. Often these religions involved extremely influential politicoreligious figures who practiced various forms of divination. It was not uncommon for religious proclamations, under the guise of visions, locutions, or divinations to serve as little more than justifications for desired political action. When the ruling class wanted to go to war, for example, whaddya know, the entrail-reading of the week indicated that war was precisely what the gods wanted as well. Individuals or groups could easily manipulate the “will of the gods” to conform to human desires, ideas, or plans. Not so with Israel. For the Jewish people, there was no need to use nebulous and ever-changing visions, locutions, or divinations to interpret the will of the divine–the Law of God was written and regularly proclaimed aloud for all people to hear. The Torah provided the Law of the one transcendent God, free from human manipulation and political machinations.[i] Hear, O Israel means to listen to the Word of God, do not impose upon it your meaning or manipulate it to suit your preconceived plans. Scripture is not well-suited to proof-texting or eisegesis.
By citing the Shema Israel in conjunction with Leviticus 18:19[ii] when asked to name the first and greatest commandment, Jesus is reaffirming the duty to devote ourselves entirely to the one true God and to serve our neighbor, but he is also indicating that the very structure of religious life established by Moses in Deuteronomy is unchanged. A faith dictated by changing ideologies or consistently interpreted to favor a predetermined course of action is not transcendent; it is human. The God of Israel demands more from us. Followers of Christ, like our Jewish forefathers, are first and foremost called to hear God’s word and only then to speak or discern where he is leading us. When we are too ready to use the name of God to justify our decisions and actions, we run the risk of behaving precisely like ancient near-eastern priests conjuring up bizarre rituals and proclaiming that divine commands conveniently conform to our personal or collective agendas. Our faith in Jesus Christ should inform our actions as a society and as individuals, of course, but it should never be used to justify actions that we have already determined are appropriate. The hearing must always come first and, frankly, should be happening far more often than the speaking.
Jesus offers us a simple lesson in today’s Gospel, love the one true God with all of your being and our neighbor as yourself. Before we do anything, we are called to listen to the very first words of the first and most important commandment, hear, oh Israel, and allow his instructions to guide and transform us.
[i] Now, of course we cannot be so naïve as to suggest that the teachings of Judaism and Christianity are never manipulated for human purposes, but these represent perversions and are not structures built into the faith itself.
[ii] “Love your neighbor as yourself”
Image: a close-up photo of the Shema inscription on the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem. Original version by: SuperJew. Derivative work: Rabanus Flavus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25979603
Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.
You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.