Hear, O Israel
March 5, First Sunday in Lent:
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
“Hear, Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your being and with all your might…”
And you know how the rest goes…
“And you shall love your neighbor as yourself…”
Here’s how it continues…”And these words I charge you today shall be upon your heart. And you shall rehearse them to your [children] and speak of them when you sit in your house and when you go on your way and when you lie down and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as circlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and in your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Alter Translation)
It’s known in Hebrew as the Shema, (from the word “to hear”—Shema Israel—Hear, Israel); it has been called the creed and the catechism of our Jewish siblings.
It’s part of our creed as well. This we affirm…that God is one, and this is what we are to do…love God with all our heart and all our being (really our “life-breath” our essence) and all our might. And we are to teach this to our children, and remember this when we rise, and when we fall asleep, when we leave and when we return…this knowledge and practice should always be at hand…should always be before us.
It’s Jesus (the divine son of God, and the Jewish Rabbi) who long after this confrontation in the wilderness we hear about today, adds the familiar coda to it…a summation of the whole rest of the Torah which reminds us of the whole reason God puts humans into creation in the first place…we are put in the garden…in creation…”to till it and keep it.” We’re here to take care of…creation and each other…to be the servants of…all of creation. And Jesus sums this up by adding a phrase to the Shema, “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these,” he says (Mark 12:31)
The Shema—this creed—this core value—is what lies behind, and beneath, and echoes through this whole conversation that Jesus has with this “tempter.”
His first response, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” comes from Deuteronomy 8, and is taken from a long passage warning not to forget God—not to forget these core values—in times of prosperity.
In the wilderness God fed the Israelites with manna in order to “make you understand that that one does not live by bread alone,” but now, you’re about to enter into the promised land so:
“Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments…When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is [God] who gives you power to get wealth.” (NRSV)
Do not say to yourself, “my power and the might of my own hand have gained this wealth.”
It’s all gift…everything is gift…but we are often tempted to take credit for all kinds of things…
The next two temptations: to religious pride, and to political power (isn’t it interesting that the last temptation is framed in a way that presumes that “all the kingdoms of the world” are already under demonic control…) to these temptations Jesus responds with other quotes from Deuteronomy, this time from the chapter 6 which begins with the Shema. And again with echoed warnings about forgetting what we’re supposed to be about.
When the LORD your God, “brings you to the land that [God] swore…to give you—[the] great and goodly towns that you did not build, and houses filled with all good that you did not fill, and hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant,” (sounds like the world we have all been born into), “you will eat and be sated. Watch yourselves, lest you forget…” (Deut 6:10-12, Alter trans.).
Watch yourselves, lest you forget…but we always do. This is supposed to be the core…the non-negotiable teaching…That God is one and that we are to be in loving relationship with God and with all God has created…we are to “till and keep” creation…loving God and loving our neighbor…and how are we doing with that?
Jesus easily deflects these temptations because he’s Jesus, but also because he is grounded in scripture and never, ever forgets this core principle.
But in the midst of multiplying temptations we forget, we take credit for it all ourselves, we just get it wrong. We act much more like the humans in the Genesis passage.
This is not a simple story, and deserves a longer study, but three details stand out that illustrate how humans typically respond when we forget this core truth. The first is: by amending the command. God says, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;” except this one.
But that’s not the way the woman says it. She corrects the serpent…God didn’t say we couldn’t eat of any tree, God said we can’t eat of this one, but then she adds…“nor shall you touch it.” But God never said that. She adds another injunction to the divine command…She’s never seen talking to God, so we have no idea where this comes from, and maybe it’s meant to be helpful (if we can’t eat it, better to not even touch it) but it sets up the rest of the temptation.
The second detail is that once the serpent responds she starts to overthink the situation.
She sees that it’s good for food, and that it’s pretty to look at, but not just pretty…it’s actually “lust to the eyes” (“delight” is a little too restrained here—she’s got an intense desire “to see” and “to know”)…so she takes the fruit (although I like to imagine that she touched it first because, remember she thinks she’s not even supposed to touch it), and when nothing bad happens then, she thinks “Ok…might as well eat it.”
The third detail is this: “She took of the fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” He’s standing right there the whole time. He doesn’t correct her. He doesn’t argue with her. He doesn’t tell the serpent to take a hike…he just goes along.
So here we are this morning; the vast majority of us living in houses we did not build, filled with things that we by and large did not make. We eat our fill of food we did not grow. We’re happy when the Dow goes up—when our silver and gold is multiplied—and it is so very easy to forget God, to think “my power and the might of my hand did this.” As our society become more complicated, and more fragmented, our temptations multiply and out opportunities for sinning…for “missing the mark”…expand exponentially…temptations to subtly amend those core demands “we can till and keep this part of the garden…but not that,” “we’ll serve them but not them”, “we’ll love God and our neighbors when it’s convenient”…Temptations to overthink…to act too quickly…too rashly…Temptations to stand aside and do nothing…to keep quiet…to wait…It’s a long list of possible temptations…a great litany of things…things done and things left undone, right?
How do we stay connected? To God, and to one another? How do we return to that core teaching? How do we continually remember that God is God and we are not? How do we remember that we are to work with God in tilling and keeping the world…in tending and serving our neighbors? Lent is a time to really work on these connections. To reconnect with this core…to hear once again the call to love God and our neighbors in new ways; to reengage with the practices that give life, and to put aside those habits that deplete life.
May God’s grace and mercy fill us and strengthen us to face our temptations, and remember that the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And we are to love the LORD our God with all our heart and with all our being and with all our might…” And that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves…Always.