This is part three of a series on the “Shema” (Deut 6:4-9). I have been thinking a lot about the Shema over the past few years, and I still can’t get to the bottom of that passage.
Part one of this series covered the notion of biblical simplicity and how it is the proper response to the God of the Bible. It can still be found on the Gospel Coalition site. Part two, found here, talked about our “heart, soul, and strength” and how they can be directed by the love of God.
In part three, I look at one how to receive such a command in light of the life and death of Jesus Christ.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your self and with all your strength. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Deut 6:4–9
We have talked about how the Shema calls for God’s people to respond to his character with simple love, a love that is unique in the way that it infiltrates every aspect of their lives from the inner person to their outer influence in the world. Practically speaking, how were the people of God supposed to integrate their lives around the love of the Lord?
|Damián Ortega, Spiral of Violence, 2005
Courtesy of White Cube, London
Deut 6:6-9 offers an answer. The words that Moses is commanding them ought to be “on their hearts” so that they can talk about them with their children, and their friends, and the young people in their communities. They should write his words on their hearts so that they can speak of them when they are in their houses eating and conversing, so that they can talk about them when they are in public traveling for business, so that they can meditate on them when they are falling asleep at night, and refresh themselves in the morning with them when they awake.
From the Inside Out
There is a clear inner-to-outer movement in the application that reflects the heart-soul-strength movement of v.5. Write the words on your heart (inner self), bind them to your body (outer self), and write them on our door and gates (worldly effect). The spheres of life that are to be wholly consumed with covenantal love are marked with the written word.
How do you nurture and give expression of whole and simple love of God? Have your life formed (or as the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “conformed”) around his words to you.
This is highly practical guidance. We resist the slide towards fragmentation and division by reflecting on, wrestling with, and proclaiming God’s words and letting them infiltrate and form and illuminate every aspect of our life, the inner life, as well as the outer life.
Furthermore, the love of the Lord is to be generational in scope. It is to be passed down through the community from parents to children, from old to young, from seminary professor to student, from pastor to congregation. That is because the Lord’s relationship with Israel was always future-oriented. It was a relationship that had a telos, it had a future goal, and that future goal was the full integration of his people, the restored and expanded relationship between God and humanity.
But this is also why it could not be merely personal in scope. The divine-human relationship has to be public and communal, and so life has to be integrated and unified at that communal level. His people are called to be one, what our ancestors of the faith call catholic, just as he is one.
The Prayer that Changes It All
Of course, this leads to the question: How can we have any hope that such love is possible? Is this love attainable or is it a futile exercise?
Even the Scriptures seem at times to read like a case study in the futility of simple love. From Adam and Eve to the horrors of the book of Judges, from Saul to Solomon, and finally the whole bloody climax of God’s people stumbling tragically into exile, the Old Testament seems to make an argument that Moses’ dream of simple, whole-person love is la cause perdue.
Read in a certain light, the Bible reads like a tragedy of unrequited love, with the Lord cast as the faithful lover who dignifies his love, nurtures her, draws her to him, only to be passed over for the rogue, the rapist, and the abuser.
This storyline was not lost on the prophets of ancient Israel and Judah (Jer 3:6-11, Ezekiel 16, Hosea 1-3).
The Scriptures do speak of an Israelite who was able to return to the Lord the simple love he required. He emerges at an odd time in Israelite history (thought that adjective “Israelite” is notably anachronistic), a time when the nation was enjoying little prosperity, a time of colonialism with little chance of a New Exodus. The Judeans of the late Second Temple Period had to choose between spiritualists, ascetics, and sell-outs (Pharisees, Essenes, and Sadducees, respectively), none of which offered a compelling narrative.
Into this scene, comes a Judean who lived out the life of whole affection for the Lord, who achieved for the community what it failed to achieve time and again. As he prepared himself to die in order to secure a new heart and a new life for his people, the words of the Shema were on Jesus’ mind.
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.. . The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. John 17:20-23
The echoes of the Shema reverberate throughout Jesus’ prayer. The Christ knows something about simple love that Moses could not articulate, that the simple love that God calls his followers to is founded upon love between the persons of the Trinity.
In other words, for Jesus, simple Christian love is based on, flows from, and is empowered by the simple love that the persons of the Trinity have for one another, the love that the Father has for the Son and the Father and the Son have for the Spirit.
Jesus believed in a Trinitarian root of the flower of simple love. When he is about to give himself up on the cross, the night that he was betrayed, at his last free moment, when time was as we say “of the essence,” he prayed, as we do in similar circumstances, about the things he desired most, and that is for his followers to have simple love.
Being a faithful rabbi, Jesus has the heart of the Mosaic law on his mind when he prays to his father that last night. He has the Shema on his mind, and he updates it, expands it to account for the revelation of himself: “Let them love with simple love, being one with one another just as you, Father, and I are one.”
This account raises the question of Trinitarian relationship: Will the Father deny what the son asks of him? Could the first person of the Trinity say no to the second person of the Trinity? The rejection of Christ’s intercession is inconceivable because, as Christ knows, the Father and the Son are one in substance and in purpose. If the Son’s dying wish is for his followers to realize Moses’ dream of whole-person love, of simple love, and he takes this request to his Father, do we have any reason to believe that the Father does not respond with a resounding yes?
If the Father, the Lord of the universe, who formed the world, the cosmos, humanity, and you, is committed to bringing this sort of love to fruition in the life of his followers on behalf of his only and beloved Son, from whom he will withhold nothing, is there any reason at all that he won’t do so.
This is immensely practical. It is about who we are and how we love, and frankly there is no more impending, pressing, and practical need in the life of God’s people.
Jesus’ prayer means this: if you are in Christ, he is personally working through the power of his Spirit to develop this love in your life. There is no other way your life can turn out than as one that has tasted simple love (Phil 1:6).
That is your existential reality.