How to Love the Lord

Learning about Jesus’ Jewish culture never ceases to add depth to his words. For instance, it appears that Jesus was involved in some of the same key discussions that other rabbis participated in. One important rabbinic discussion that was going on in Jesus’ time focused on the question, “Mah hu clal gadol b’Torah?” – literally, “What is commandment-big of the Law?” We can hear those very words being asked of Jesus in Mark:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31, NIV)

Jesus didn’t use his own words to summarize the Torah for the lawyer. He quoted Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the first two lines of the Shema (pronounced “Shmah”), the “pledge of allegiance” that Jesus as an observant Jew would have said every morning and evening. By doing this, a Jew would remind himself of his commitment to love God, to dedicate himself to following God and doing his will.

The rabbis of Jesus’ day said that when a person prayed the Shema, he “received upon himself the kingdom of God,” meaning that he was placing God as king over his life. Some Jews teach their children the Shema as soon as they learn to talk! It is the central affirmation for a Jewish person of his or her commitment to the Lord. (Jesus’ next statement, “love your neighbor,” is from Leviticus 19:18. You can read about it here.)

Many have heard of the Shema. But it is helpful to unpack some of the richness of these lines that were central to Jesus and to his faith. Let’s look at some of what it means. First, lets look at the saying in Hebrew:

Shema (Hear)
Israel,
Adonai (the Lord)
elohenu (our god)
Adonai (the Lord)
echad! (one/alone)

Shema” is the first word and is usually translated “Hear!” But the word shema actually has a stronger meaning than that. It has the sense of “take heed” or “obey.” In fact, when we see the word “obey” in English in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word behind it is usually “shema”! When Jesus says “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” he really means, “you have heard my teaching, now take it to heart and obey it!” Likewise, the Shema is telling the Israelites to obey – to act out their belief in the Lord, not just to “hear.”

The word “echad” in Hebrew is the word for one. Jews and Christians have often debated its meaning, since Jews have used the fact that it means “one” to see it as a reason that they cannot believe in a trinity. Christians point out that it can mean a compound unity, like one bunch of grapes. But, the widely used Jewish translation of the Scriptures, the JPS Tanakh, says that the best reading of the word in this phrase really is not “one” but “alone.” So, instead of reading that sentence as “The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” it is more accurate to read it as “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!”

This changes the emphasis of the whole sentence so that instead of being a creed of monotheism, it is actually a command for their absolute allegiance to God. This also fits better into the rest of the passage, which tells them to love God whole-heartedly and to obey his commands.

Let’s look at the next phrase in Deuteronomy,

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”

On the surface, we think we understand heart, soul and strength, but knowing the Hebrew background of the words adds great richness to this command.

Heart (levav) in Hebrew does not just mean your emotions, but also means your mind and thoughts as well. So we are to use all of our thoughts to love the Lord – as Paul says, we “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor 10:5). In the gospels the phrase “and all your mind” is there to emphasize that fact, but from Moses’ time it would have been understood that way as well. Whenever we read “heart” in the Old Testament we should understand it in terms of the intellect as well as the emotions, because in Hebrew, it can mean your mind.

Soul (nephesh) also can have a different sense in Hebrew than just your “spirit” or “emotions.” Nephesh means “life” as well as “soul.” So the Jewish interpretation is that you are to love the Lord with all of your life, meaning with every moment throughout your life, and be willing even to sacrifice your life for him. If Jews are able, they will quote the Shema at their death to make a final commitment to the God of Israel. Many a Jewish martyr has exclaimed the Shema with his last breath as a testimony to that fact.

Strength (me’od) is an unusual word usage which really means “much” or “very”. You could translate the passage “with all of your much-ness” or “with all of your increase”. It is interpreted to mean “with everything that you have” — your money, your time, your possessions and your family. Loving God with everything you have is a high calling indeed!

So, as we re-read Jesus’ favorite law from Jesus’ favorite book, we can capture it in this modern way:

“Listen up, Israel – The Lord is your God, he, and he alone!! You should love him with every thought that you think, live every hour of every day for him, be willing to sacrifice your life for him. Love him with every penny in your wallet and everything that you’ve got!”

AMEN!

~~~~~

To explore this topic more, see chapter 3, “Loving God with Everything You’ve Got” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 42-54.

Beautifying God’s Commands

by Lois Tverberg

“The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.” Exodus 15:2

From this line that was sung when God delivered Israel from its enemies, rabbinic thinkers saw the words “I will exalt him,” and asked the question, “How can mere mortals hope to exalt God, the Creator of the entire universe?” Their wise answer was that they could exalt him by doing his will in the absolute best and beautiful way possible. They called this “hiddur mitzvah,” meaning to beautify God’s commands.

Christians may be surprised that the word mitzvah, meaning commandment, is positive rather than negative in Jewish culture. We tend to assume it refers to burdensome regulations, but the usual Jewish usage of mitzvah is that it is an opportunity to do something good that God told you to do. Jewish people say things like, “I had a chance to do a mitzvah today when the elderly woman asked for my help.” Or, “It’s a mitzvah to celebrate Passover with a lovely dinner with family and friends”. The word is always used in a positive way, suggesting that doing what God has asked is a joy and a spiritual opportunity, not a burden. (1)

Sukkot BoothThe idea of hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the command) goes even beyond this – that if God tells us to do something, we shouldn’t just do the minimum, but to perform it in the best way possible, sparing no expense or trouble. Since God told Israel to build booths for the Feast of Sukkot, when a Jewish family decorates their sukkah (booth) skillfully and elaborately, they “beautify the command.” When one poor Jewish man was asked why he spent $50 for a citron, a lemon-like fruit required for Sukkot, he replied, “Why would we worship God with anything less than the very best?” Spending sacrificially on doing God’s will is a way of showing great love for God. (2)

Man examining citron

We can see Jesus describing this behavior of hiddur mitzvah, going far beyond the minimum, in his story about the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan man obeyed God’s command to love his neighbor by personally caring for the wounded traveler, carrying him to the inn on his own donkey, and investing a large sum of his own money to care for him. Because he was a Samaritan in Israel he even risked his own life, because as an enemy of the Jews, he could have been accused of being the attacker. (Luke 10:33-35)

If we are grateful that Christ has died for our sins, to bring us into relationship with God, we should want to serve him as well as we possibly can too. As Paul said,

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Col. 3:23-24


(1) An example of the positive Jewish attitude to the mitzvah can be found in this article.

(2) See http://www.cckollel.org/html/parsha/bereishis/mikeitz2002.html and http://www.kmsynagogue.org/Sukkot1.html for more about hiddur mitzvah – both articles are a little difficult to read.

Photo: http://samgrubersjewishartmonuments.blogspot.com/2010/07/sukkah-for-new-york.html and Sotheby’

The Good Samaritans

by Lois Tverberg

“Then the men who were designated by name arose, took the captives, and they clothed all their naked ones from the spoil; and they gave them clothes and sandals, fed them and gave them drink, anointed them with oil, led all their feeble ones on donkeys, and brought them to Jericho, the city of palm trees, to their brothers; then they returned to Samaria.” 2 Chronicles 28:15

Probably the most familiar parable of Jesus’ is that of the Good Samaritan. But we can get more insight when we see it in light of the Scriptures that Jesus knew.

In 2 Chronicles 28, a scene takes place after the nation had split into Israel and Judah. Judah fell into idolatry, even sacrificing children to idols. Because of this, the Lord let Judah be attacked and defeated by Israel. The Israelites were on the verge of taking 200,000 Judeans away as slaves when a prophet reminded them that God let them defeat Judah as a punishment for idolatry, and they were guilty for worshipping idols too. He tells them that if they took their own brothers captive, it would compound their guilt before the Lord. So some of the leaders of the tribes repent and set the captive Judeans free, as it says in today’s passage.

We rarely read of a story of such compassion between nations at war, where one binds the wounds of the other and gently restores them to freedom. It is fascinating to see the parallels between this passage and Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke. Jesus mentions the town Jericho, one of the few times he mentions specific places in parables. The victim is stripped naked, like some of the Judeans were, and the Samaritan anoints the man and puts him on a donkey and carries him to Jericho, as the earlier Samaritans had done with the Judeans.

Good Samaritan

The Samaritans in Jesus’ time were despised by the Jews, and they despised the Jews themselves. They also had a history of attacking Jews who were traveling to the Temple for festivals. This makes the irony of the Samaritan as the one who helps the wounded man especially powerful. Jesus was using this hatred between Jews and Samaritans in His time to make the answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” especially clear. He surprises his audience by bringing one of their worst enemies into his story. But, more than that, he reminds them that at one time, these same men from Samaria did one of the most merciful things ever done. They had recognized their sin against the Judeans, and realized that their enemies were not only their neighbors, but even their brothers! Jesus was saying that “our neighbor” is even our hated enemy, who really is our brother too.


Photo: www.artandarchitecture.org.uk

Why Parables?

WHy Parables?by Lois Tverberg

All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable. – Matthew 13:34

It comes as a surprise to some that Jesus did not invent the parable, but he was employing a traditional method of teaching that was used widely in first century Judaism. Because of this lack of knowledge, at some times in history Jesus’ words have been misunderstood. At one point, it was thought that parables were allegories – stories where each character is a hidden reference to a certain person or situation. For example, Augustine read the parable of the Good Samaritan as an allegory – the man traveling on the road was Adam, the man who helped was Jesus, the inn was the church, the innkeeper was Paul, etc. Among first century rabbis, however, this interpretation would have been foreign to the way a parable was told .

In Jesus’ culture, a parable was a story from human experience that helps explain a spiritual reality. It is the product of the language of Hebrew which does not have many abstract terms to describe God, so instead uses physical imagery, describing God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm.” The rabbis used parables especially for theology – to explain why God does things the way He does. (1)

Why Parables 2Jesus, like other rabbis, teaches theology at a very high level by describing God as a king who throws a banquet and invites the outcasts, or a shepherd who looks for his sheep. Beyond just defining him, Jesus paints a picture of God’s character in vivid colors. His stories go beyond just defining and explaining, they elicit an emotional reaction. People can feel viscerally the irony of a majestic king sitting at a table with beggars and outcasts, and sense the shocking grace the king is showing them. And they can imagine the anguish that a shepherd endures and his great joy when he finds a lost sheep. This is exactly the point – Jesus was a passionate teacher whose goal was not just to give people an intellectual knowledge of God, but to teach them about God’s powerful love for them, and cause them to return that love to Him.


1 An excellent resource is The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation,by Brad Young, Hendrikson Publishers, 1998.

Photo: Brooklyn Museum and Guercino