The following is a reflection given by Sister Janet M. Peterworth, OSU, on Sunday, October 31, 2021 at St. William Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Why do I hear, but do not understand? If you hear, but are having trouble understanding, take advantage of the complimentary demonstrations offered this week. Call Acute Hearing Center to schedule your no-obligation appointment.”
When I saw this ad in the Courier-Journal, I thought of Moses. Yes, Moses. Seems to me that Moses should have taken advantage of that offer for his people. He had to say several times in the Book of Deuteronomy, (his last chance to teach a new generation before they entered the promised land without him) “Hear, O Israel. Hear, O Israel.” And this opening, this “pay attention” opening, has stayed with the Jewish people down through the ages. The Shema, as it is called, became the twice daily prayer within Judaism and still is today.
And according to Tim Mackle’s blog post, “What is the Shema?” for the BibleProject, the opening line “Here, O Israel” does not simply mean to let the sound waves enter your ears. Instead, he says, “The word “hear” means to allow the words to sink in, provide understanding and generate a response. In Hebrew the words ‘hearing’ and ‘doing’ are basically the same thing.”
After telling the Hebrews to listen, to hear, Moses then tells them that the Most High God must be their only God and the action is simply loving the Most High God with their whole heart and soul and mind and strength. Did I say simply? Does that mean simple? Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But when we try it, we know that it is not so. This kind of love, that Moses is talking about and Jesus repeats in His response to the scribe, is not a warm, fuzzy, emotional type of love, but a demanding tough love. It is a love that can cost dearly.
In Deuteronomy a new generation of Hebrews is getting ready to cross into a new land, and while it may be full of “milk and honey,” it is also full of cultures that believe in different gods, many gods. Moses knows this command is not only the greatest command that he is giving the people, but the hardest. No wonder he wants them to hear and really understand. Just to be on the safe side, perhaps he should send all of them to the Acute Hearing Center advertised in the Courier-Journal. These people needed to be able to hear and be fully committed to God.
In today’s Gospel, Mark has Jesus saying the Shema. He no doubt grew up saying it. It was a formative prayer for Him, and he drew on it when the scribe asked him the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” This question comes at the end of a series of questions that the Jewish leaders were using to catch Jesus in some questionable orthodoxy. Mark shows sparring going on between the leaders who were trying to trap Jesus so they could arrest him for something…anything. Now enter the scribe with an important question. This official did not seem hostile. It was an honest question that Jewish scholars loved to debate; “Which is the greatest of the 613 prescriptions of the Jewish law?” Jesus’ answer was equally as sincere when he went just a bit further and put loving God and neighbor together as a compact whole.
And after Jesus’ sincere answer to him, the scribe affirmed Jesus’ teachings that love of God and love of neighbor are important, and he adds on his own accord, more important than temple sacrifices or temple taxes or temple “anythings.” And the scribe went away saying nothing else. Does he show up again with the crowd at the trial? Does he show up again with the religious authorities who wanted to cover up the resurrection? It is anybody’s’ guess. The only thing we know is that Jesus saw this man as “not far from the Kindom of God.”
And that raises the question of what in the world that means. Does “not far from” mean “close?” Some translations use that word. And you know the old saying, “Close only counts in horseshoes.” Does close, (not far from) count for something here? Could it be that it doesn’t fill the Shema that means hearing and doing? Could it mean that the scribe accepts these greatest commandments intellectually but not with his heart and soul and mind and strength? Could it mean that he gives assent to and tolerates his neighbor, but does not reach out and minister to that neighbor?
Well, maybe “not far from” just means “not quite there.” Not quite there with one’s whole heart and soul and mind and strength. But does Jesus credit that scribe for trying…trying to get close, for realizing that loving God is not all about temple ritual but about loving others? Well, to borrow a phrase from our recent past, “You betcha.”
In a moment we are going to sing the litany of the saints and as I thought about the feast that we anticipate today (All Saints) and will celebrate tomorrow, I got to wondering if those we call saints are those who step beyond being “not quite there.” Beyond being just “close.” Are saints the ones who really live the Shema? Are they the ones who don’t have trouble hearing and who do understand? Are they the ones who do not need to go to the Acute Hearing Center? Are these the ones who love God and neighbor with their whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and live like they mean it? Are these also the ones who have already transitioned into the next life still doing that?
You know, I don’t know what being a saint really means, but if it does mean loving God and neighbor with the whole heart and soul and mind and strength then,
“When the saints go marching in. When the saints go marching in. I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in.”
Moses spoke to the people, saying:
“Fear the LORD, your God,
and keep, throughout the days of your lives,
all his statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you,
and thus have long life.
Hear then, Israel, and be careful to observe them,
that you may grow and prosper the more,
in keeping with the promise of the LORD, the God of your fathers,
to give you a land flowing with milk and honey.
“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.”