Until fairly recently, the Jewishness of Jesus was often downplayed, even ignored. Today’s gospel passage has Jesus affirming the most central of Jewish traditions, namely the command of Deuteronomy 6 known as the Shema (so called from the first word in the statement meaning ‘hear’). The words of the Shema are recited repeatedly every day by every faithful Jew.
Although not a prayer in itself, the Shema is an integral part of Jewish liturgy and prayer. It is a creedal statement that still functions like an overture to Jewish life and practice. The doorpost at the entrance to a Jewish home generally features a tiny rectangular box known as a mezuzah. It contains a scroll bearing the text of the Shema.
Those who enter touch the mezuzah with the greatest reverence. When I first encountered this practice, I was deeply affected by the power of the symbol to link one with the deep story of a people, in this case with the Jewish people.
In Matthew’s story, Jesus the Jew provides an honest response to the less than honest questioning of an expert in Jewish law. He overlooks the hostility of the lawyer and evokes the text of the Shema. He thus invites the lawyer to return to the heart of their shared tradition. He links the teaching of the Shema on wholehearted love of God with a second commandment taken from the book of Leviticus 19: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. The lawyer’s unfair ‘testing’ of Jesus is evidence that this is precisely what he fails to do: he addresses Jesus as teacher, a term of respect, and yet fails to show him the respect due to him as neighbour.
For Jesus, the whole of the Torah and the teaching of the prophets can be summed up in the commandments to love God with all one’s being-heart, soul, and mind, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Not just love, but intensity of love is the issue here. We see such intensity of love in the lives of Catherine and Ray Hamlin whose fistula hospital in Addis Ababa has, for 50 years, restored health and dignity to the most marginalised of women.
I see it in the heroism of my own friends who pour out their lives for the sake of those in remote communities, in Timor and elsewhere. The witness of their commitment functions like the mezuzah in our lives: it draws us back into the heart of the gospel tradition and calls us to a deeper, more intense love. It also helps us to deal with the insincerity of those who seek to score points and undermine the dignity of others.