There’s an old story that’s told about a Jewish guy who buys a horse. The man who sells it to him tells him that this horse is different to other horses. It only starts moving when you say Baruch Hashem (Thank God), and only stops when you say Shema Yisrael (Hear O Israel).
The new owner is all excited and gets on the horse. Baruch Hashem he says, and the horse breaks into a trot. Shema Yisrael he announces, and sure enough, the horse stops.
One day as he is galloping on his horse through the forest, he sees that the path ends up ahead with a steep cliff. Suddenly he realizes that he has forgotten the two-word formula needed to make the horse stop. Shabbat Shalom he squeaks, desperately. The horse keeps going. Adon Olam he intones. The horse keeps going. Todah Rabbah. But the horse keeps galloping.
Realizing that he is about to die, he does what any good Jew should do when confronted with certain death. He screams out, Shema Yisrael. As trained, the horse stops suddenly barely a foot from the edge of the cliff. Shaking like a leaf, he pulls out his handkerchief and wipes the sweat from his forehead. “Whew” he exclaims, “Baruch Hashem!”
If Moses had a smartphone or laptop and perhaps an eye for trending on social media, then he might have entitled our Deuteronomy reading today: #MorethanSabbath. Just like our present day #MorethanSunday, it addresses what it means to live a life of faith and worship 24/7. These verses are as relevant now as they were then.
Our passage of scripture, which is part of what our Jewish friends call the Shema, gets to the very heart of worship. It tells us who God is and it tells us what our appropriate response should be.
In Judaism these verses are a central confession of faith, recited twice daily by the Orthodox, with their right hand over the eyes to avoid distraction. It’s said when rising in the morning and going to bed at night. It’s the first prayer taught to a child when they’re growing up and the last prayer to be said when dying. Centuries after it was first written, Jesus calls it the great commandment.
It gets its title from the first Hebrew word in our verses: shema, meaning ‘hear’. Shema Yisrael! Hear, O Israel! The word shema means more than listen though. It means obey too. Do something. If you don’t obey, if you don’t do, then you may have listened, but you’ve not heard.
The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once said that ‘Shema Yisrael’ means ‘Concentrate. Give the word of God your most focused attention. Engage all your faculties, intellectual and emotional’.
‘The Lord our God, the Lord is one’ implies a uniqueness. God is before all, above all and beyond all. They had left one land with many gods and were about to enter another one, Canaan – but the God that they had entered into relationship with, stood alone, apart and above.
How do you feel about God? Is God one of many gods, all jostling for your attention? Or does everything else somehow pale into insignificance? Unless we fully feel that way, our worship will only be half-hearted.
It’s a choice
But it is ‘The Lord our God’ not ‘The Lord your God’. Plural not singular. We’re meant to do this together, as a group or community. We’re not in this alone. We are a congregation, not an audience of individuals.
And what is the response to learning that our God is above all others? That’s when it does become personal: ‘You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’
Some translations add an important word at the start of that: ‘And’. ‘And you are to love…’ What seems like a command or demand to love now becomes a response. Instead of being forced or coerced, it’s a choice. Having heard that the Lord our God is beyond all others, love is the reply of our hearts to that revelation.
‘And you are to love…’ Love here in Hebrew means to act lovingly. To be faithful, loyal and attentive in that action. It’s less about feelings and more about doing. The love is evidenced by behaviour.
It should remind us of those words in the Letter of James: ‘Faith without action is dead’. Words are easy. Actions are harder. It’s not what we say in here, it’s what we do out there. The Shema is more than fine words – it’s a call to worship in how we live our lives. Actions speak louder than words.
‘And you are to love with all your heart…’ In the Hebrew Scripture the heart is the core of someone’s being, the centrality of the individual. It speaks of the inner workings of the mind. In Jeremiah, the Lord longed for a people that would have the law ‘written on their hearts’.
To love the Lord with all our heart is to place him in the centre of everything, every facet of our lives. Our relationships, careers, finances and ambitions. Whatever the Lord needs, we give it.
A living sacrifice
‘And you are to love with all your soul…’ the first time we see the Hebrew word for soul is in Genesis 2:7, the second creation narrative. God had formed the human from a mud pie and breathed into the nostrils to give life. The human became a ‘living being’. Other translations use ‘living soul’. Soul and being are being used interchangeably and both owe their life to God’s breath.
To love God with all our soul is to share the breath that was first given us. To return to the purpose for which we were made. We are to offer our bodies, our souls, ‘as a living sacrifice’, as Paul later said.
‘You are to love with all your strength…’ Strength here means energy, vitality, enthusiasm. It’s giving the very best of what we are. And the same word used for strength here is used in the first creation narrative. The word ‘good’, when ‘God saw that it was very good’, is the same word translated in this verse as ‘strength’. It’s as if God gave of his best in creation – and of his very best when making man and woman.
So, we’re to give to God ‘the good’, the very best of ourselves. The creativity, the energy, the innovation. Not the dregs and the leftovers.
The heart of worship
The Shema Yisrael asks us to give God the entirety of our being and our behaviour. Our conscience, our essence and our vitality. That’s the heart of worship. Worship is not what song you sing. Or what kind of liturgy you use or how many candles that you light. They may all be important – but worship should be a way of life – of who and what we are.
It’s a thought continued in the verses that follow. They were to teach these instructions to their children, to talk about them at home and away. At the start of the day and the end. And they were to make them very obvious to everyone. We don’t know if the intention was literal or metaphorical, but we have the command to bind them to the arm and the head, on the doorposts and on the gates. So, these are words to be kept in and by the community. They should be visual reminders, everywhere, constantly.
How obvious are we in our faith? In the way we live our lives, teach our children, in our daily routines and how we appear to others? Can anyone tell that we are Christian?
Love one’s neighbour
But despite our best efforts to keep the commandments and love God with all our heart, being and might, we all know that things can still go horribly wrong – both individually and as a community.
The Rabbi’s, Jesus amongst them, linked the Shema – that is centred on loving God with all one’s being – with the call in Leviticus to love one’s neighbour. Jesus called them the 1st and 2nd commandments (Mark 12:28-34). It forces us to ask how we can say that we love the Lord our God if our brothers and sisters are suffering? “As you did (or didn’t do) to the least of these…”
True love of God, true worship, demands that we stand where God stands and challenge any behaviour which denies dignity to people – people in all places and in all times. Hear O Israel, yes. But hear O world. Hear every last man and woman of us here in Bury Parish Church today.
Searching and finding
That’s the message of our Gospel reading too. These aren’t really stories about a sheep and a coin that are lost. They are more about those doing the searching and the finding. Jesus is telling us about a God who is where the lost things are. About a divine mercy which looks for us in the strangest of places. In the thickets and in the wilderness, in the sock draw and down the back of the sofa.
The shepherd noticed that one in a hundred was missing. Do we? We would do well to take stock of our own congregations. And if we do, then to what lengths will we go, to find and return any that are missing?
The father, in the parable that comes after our Gospel reading, the parable that we often call ‘The Prodigal Son’, missed the fact that he’d really lost two sons and not one. Today, sometimes ‘the lost’ aren’t those who never come to church or who’ve stopped coming to church. Instead, they’re people like you and me who are around church each week, but we’re sat here in the pews lost just the same. For all sorts of reasons, we’ve lost our sense of belonging or of trusting or in our sense of God’s presence.
Consent to be found
So, when did we last take stock of ourselves? This Lent, perhaps we need to recognize our own lostness – and then consent to be found. And that can be hard because we have to believe that we’re worth looking for and that God hasn’t given up on us, even if we’ve given up on ourselves.
I wonder if, in the end, “You shall love the Lord your God” becomes less of a great command and more of a great promise. Despite all the horrors and losses, all the grief and disappointment, we will come to love God – as from the first God has loved us and has searched for us. And, in loving God, we will come at last to love each other, and perhaps ourselves, too. Amen
‘Shema Yisrael’ was delivered by Ian Banks in Bury Parish Church at Evensong on February 26th, 2023. It was based on Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 16-25 and Luke 15:1-10.
- Buechner, F. (2006). Secrets in the dark. Harper Collins
- Hughes & Drake (Ed). (2021). Why Worship? SPCK
- Norris, K. (2004). The grace of aridity & other comedies. Portland Magazine
- Sacks, J. (2019). Covenant & Conversation. Maggid Books
- For the opening story – https://www.torchweb.org/torah_detail.php?id=44
- Most of all thank you to the inspirational Sarah Fisher for separate correspondence on this some years ago when I was writing an exegesis on Deuteronomy and for this particular post