Based on Ruth 1:1-18, Mark 12:28-34, Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Who here can tell me what the Hebrew word “sh’ma” means? It is the word that means hear (or listen). There are many occasions in the Bible that call out to the reader to “hear” or “listen”. In fact, many of Jesus’ parables have one of these words associated with them. We know that it is difficult to hear people in this time of distracting noise – and that hearing and listening are different. Here are some hearing-related facts for you from the NIH (Institute of Deafness and other Communication Disorders): About one in seven American adults (15%) 18 and older reports some hearing loss; approximately the same percentage of children. If you all have ever wondered about the men in your life and their hearing…men are twice as likely to have hearing loss as women and non-Hispanic white men are the most likely of any comparator race/ethnicity. So ladies, if he says he didn’t hear you, and especially if he is white and over 18 years of age, then statistically speaking he may very well have not heard you. Of note, approximately 29 million people in the U.S. could benefit from hearing aids – that’s about 1 out of every 8 adults.
That was a public service announcement about hearing, but what about the problem of listening? Hearing is something we all do passively – sound waves are generated by the world around us and they enter through our auditory canal and stimulate our inner ear. Listening is the conscious effort we put in to try to discern what those sound waves are telling us. Thus, when we can’t hear well – or when we are distracted by many things, it takes much more effort to listen. Sometimes, we are just too tired or worried to do more than hear.
This is what our scripture is talking about today. It is reminding us once again that hearing and listening are important so that we can focus on what is important and who is most important. Let us go to God in prayer and truly listen for God’s voice…
In wedding ceremonies, one of the most frequently quoted scriptures comes from the Book of Ruth. This is true for me as I am three for three in weddings I have officiated this year. This book occupies but four pages in most Bibles and is sandwiched in between Judges and 1 Samuel. It is an odd book that seems to serve little purpose in the great dramas that unfold before or after it – except for one little fact. If Ruth had not come with Naomi, her mother-in-law, she would never have met Boaz and King David would never have been born of Jesse. The fealty and love that Ruth shows her mother-in-law, as evidenced by her deep listening and trust in Naomi’s guidance, is one that resonates with couples as they are beginning their married life together. It is a deep listening that is born of a love of neighbor that Jesus is talking about in response to a question from a scribe.
Hear (or listen), Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” This comes from Deuteronomy 6 verse 4. Jesus quotes this foundational preface to the commandment that follows – “…You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem (or ornament) on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates….” This is why in observant Jewish households you will always find a “mezuzah” affixed to the doorpost that holds this scripture. Observant Jews touch it each time they leave and enter their house to remind them of the singular nature of God and of their relationship to their LORD.
Jesus answers the scribe with the Shema, but then goes farther in his teaching. It is not only important to love God with heart, soul and strength (Jesus adds mind as well), but equally important is to love the God in our neighbors as we love God in ourselves. Jesus says, “…There is no other commandment greater than these….” The scribe agrees with Jesus’ answer and states that these are far more “important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.” He is rewarded by Jesus telling him that he is “not far from the kingdom of God”. Did you catch that?! The scribe, who is employed by the Temple (the people that collect all the offerings and sell and then kill all the sacrifices) just said that all that is unimportant when compared to loving God with all you are and your neighbor as yourself.
Wow – that scribe not only heard God’s commandment but he listened and understood what Jesus had to say on the matter. He could have just blithely asked the question and then heard but not listened to Jesus’ response. Because he did both, in Jesus’ opinion, he unlocked the key to the kingdom of heaven. This is the essence of Jesus’ message to the Disciples and to us. You don’t have to memorize all 613 mitzvot and live by them, you don’t even have to live by the Ten Commandments (which Moses gave in Deuteronomy 5). All you have to do to is to love God as much as God loves you and everything else will take care of itself.
Because when we love God with our whole selves, then we let go of all the lesser idols (i.e., “gods”) that we have created in place of the One true God. In this complete love our hearts, minds, souls and might become focused on doing what God wants us to do – which is to take care of each other the same way that God cares and supports us. We come to understand that there is no more need to sacrifice and present offerings as a way to try to buy our way into heaven – we are already there. Instead, we offer ourselves (as our Holy Communion liturgy reminds us) “…in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us,….” We offer all that we have freely and unconditionally to the One who died so that we might be forgiven and whole and able to carry the gospel to all corners of our world.
Hear…listen…good people Israel – good people of Madison County, Virginia. The LORD is your God, and no other gods can stand before the One. No other gods can do what the LORD has done, is doing and will continue to do. No other gods can do this because they are idols of our own creation – fallible and limited and lifeless. There is only one living God, and that God sent God’s-self to become human so that we might grow into our God image and have eternal life. Hear…listen, believe and trust. Then go out from here and tell the world that the kingdom of God has indeed come near. Thanks be to our LORD and our Savior. To this all God’s people said loudly, AMEN!!