When you were growing up, what is a lesson that your parents had to teach you multiple times? My two year old daughter often acts like, you know, a two year old. One of the lessons that we’ve had to instruct her in over and over again is not to stand up in her chair at the table. She does it repeatedly and we enforce it repeatedly. We aren’t just wanting to be nags or control freaks — although I hear when she’s a teenager she will be convinced that we are — we are actually worried about her wellbeing. We want her not just to live but to live well. We want her not just to be safe but to be a safe person.
Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Bible and the continuation of the story of creation started in the Bible’s very first chapter. Some of you who know the Bible well might be thinking, “Wait, I thought Genesis 1-2 covered the creation story and then we moved on?” The creation of the world, yes. But not creation as a whole. The opening chapters of Genesis describe how God took a formless and void world, shaping it and breathing life into it. As Genesis 2.4 reads, “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.”
But God is not done creating. Just ten chapters later, God begins his work of creating, forming, and breathing life into a people. Appearing to a man named Abram, God promises to form and shape his family to be a blessing to the world. This promise has two prongs to it — (1) a family that will out-number the stars in the sky and (2) a land of promise where they will live as his faithful people and be a light to the nations around them.
As the first five books of the Bible unfold, we see the ball being moved forward towards the fulfillment of these promises. Abram’s family becomes very large, but they find themselves in slavery in a foreign land. So God frees them from their slavery, but spend forty years in the desert as God continues to shape and form them as his faithful people. He gives them the law which is meant to guide their faith and life as his people in the land. Finally as we turn to the opening pages of Deuteronomy, the time has come for them to enter the land of promise. Finally they will be able to settle down and get some rest.
And so their leader named Moses brings them right to the border of the land. But he does something interesting. He turns back to the people and repeats the law they received in the desert. What a weird thing to do.
Deuteronomy literally means “second law” or “second giving of the law.” Now why on earth, would Moses or God for that matter believe it important to give the law a second time? Studies suggest that 93% of communication is nonverbal. So something important to notice is the posture of Moses’ message. Yes, he addresses what lays ahead, be he does so by turning to the people and events BEHIND him. You can almost hear him saying, “Aaron, remember that time when…”
There was going to be a change in leadership, a change in location, and a change in their daily rhythms of life. But one thing would not change: just as he walked with them out of Egypt and across the Sea of Reeds, God would honor their faithfulness and walk with his people into the unfamiliar.
Remembering the past while standing in the present and looking to the future was going to be important. Perhaps even formative. Which brings us to Deuteronomy 6.
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 strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
Deuteronomy 6 fits within that retelling of the law and is an extremely important passage for Christians and Jews alike. In Judaism, this is known as the Shema Yisrael, the “Hear O Israel.” This is a prayer that is recited twice a day a religious commandment. It serves as something important not only to remember but to proclaim.
For Orthodox Jews, the Shema is also prescriptive in what they are to do. Literally. The text says, “tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads,” so they use these little boxes called tefillin which include written verses of the Shema. The same goes for “write them on your doorframes and on your gates.” Here Orthodox Jews place a parchment called a mezuzah inscribed with the Shema and place it rolled up in a container on their doorway.
Apparently remembering, proclaiming, and enacting who God is and what he did is of vital importance. On yourself, on your house, and even in your neighborhood.
The importance of this passage and its function is not limited to Orthodox Jews, however. In the New Testament, in the Gospel According to Mark which we will study together coming out of Christmas, we get a clear signal that this will be important for Jesus and his followers as well.
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?”
This was a favorite question of the religious leaders at the time. If you put it in political terms, it was similar to a question of a presidential candidate “What is your campaign platform?” It gave an opportunity for a teacher to share what they thought was most important, while providing their listeners with a litmus test to see if this teacher was on the correct side of the aisle. Jesus has just given a different answer that the teacher of the law agreed with, so now he wants to know if this Jesus guy is legit. The crowd is primed and waiting to hear his response.
“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.”
So according to Jesus, the most important commandment of the entire Old Testament is from the Shema, a passage about remembering who God is and what he has done.
But he also adds the love of God to love of neighbor from Leviticus 19.18. This is a command against exploiting the people around you, whether they are from your tribe or they are foreigners. Don’t exploit, but instead do good.
Well, all of that is well and good. But we still haven’t answered the original question: why? Why is a second giving of the law important for the people of Israel and why does Jesus quote its most famous section as the most important commandment?
The key is to recognize that it actually has very little to do with the law itself. Moses and Jesus aren’t repeating these laws merely so people will blindly follow them. The people of Israel got in trouble for just trying to follow the law. In the book of Amos, God says, “Yes, you’re worshiping, but you’re just doing it out of obligation. That kind of worship in repugnant.”
In the same way, Jesus confronted people who just tried to follow the law. In Mark 12, the teacher of the law agrees with Jesus’ answer. And we read that when Jesus saw that the man had answered wisely, saying “You are not far from the kingdom.” Which on the one hand sounds like affirmation, right. It’s actually a direct confrontation. You are not far from the kingdom. But you’re not there yet. Jesus is confirming that wisdom or agreement with laws is not enough. It must lead to transformation, to faithful action of loving God and neighbor. Again you see the laws aren’t the end all, but are meant to shape God’s faithful people in three different ways.
First, God is shaping us to be people of memory. Many scholars suggest that the Ten Commandments are actually eleven, that the first commandment should be seen as “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” Remembering who God is and what he has done is incredibly important to understanding of who we are.
God is also shaping us into people of hope. To the people of Israel and to us, God has given a vision of a future which is good. For us it’s future in which Jesus returns, where there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain. A future which includes people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. A future free of violence where we will beating weapons into plowshares because they will no longer be necessary.
BUT IT CANNOT END HERE. The people of Israel would have been satisfied here and the teacher of the law would have been satisfied here, but this stops short of the shaping and forming of God’s people to live as his faithful people. So God is also shaping us as people of practice.
By people of practice I mean those who love God and love others in real-life and real-time. We are acting of memory of what God has done, and acting as if that hope is true.
Being God’s people means actually living like God’s people in the land regardless of who was in charge of what the law of the land was.
I’ve had people suggest that following liturgy, following something like the Narrative Lectionary that determines what we read and study week in and week out squelches the Holy Spirit from working.
I believe that the word of God is living and active, that the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and brought the scriptures into existence is working through the text to provide us with exactly what we need as God’s people.
I’ve read and studied the Shema dozens of times before and I was a little uncertain what I wanted to say. But as I was preparing this week, there was a moment when it clicked, when I sensed the Spirit revealing to me and to us what he wants us to hear in the echoes of Deuteronomy. And it’s a profound message for us as launch this new church in Richfield.
As Community Church, God is calling us to be shaped and formed as his faithful people here in Richfield.
As followers of Jesus, we want to be people of memory come together and acknowledge who God is and what he has done for us. He created the world, he sustains our world, he formed us, he breathed life into us. He also didn’t abandoned us, but acted within history through Jesus to break the power of death and free us from sin that so easily entangles us.
We also want to be people of hope, pointed to the future that God has promised us: the completion of the kingdom of God where the old order has passed away, including death and mourning and sorrow and pain.
But as people of memory and people of hope, God is also forming and shaping us to be people of practice. You see the good news of Jesus is that the kingdom of God is already among us — that there is good news for the poor, that the prisoners are no longer in chains, that the blind can now see, that the oppressed are being set free, and that we are recipients of the Lord’s favor.
This is good news that we bring through words and works to our jobs, our neighborhoods, and our city, news that stands in contrast to the headlines we see in the local paper and scrolling across Twitter. God is forming and shaping us — Community Church — to be his people in Richfield, living in such a way that we bring blessing to our neighbors and neighborhoods.
Now that is a compelling way to love God and our neighbors.