Living by Heart

Lectionary Reflections
Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Mark 12: 28-34
November 4, 2012

I picture the scribe standing off to the side, eavesdropping on groups of opponents who come in waves to trap Jesus with trick questions. If the scribe turned and spoke to us, I imagine he might say:

"Why are you looking at me with such suspicion? Do you think that I'm here to ask Jesus a trick question? It's true I am a scribe, a lawyer. It's true I spend my time teaching our pupils about the 631 commandments in the Torah, arguing about which is the greatest. It's true many of my colleagues have been collaborating with the chief priests to get Jesus killed since he came into town and cleansed the Temple a few days ago (11:15-19). But not me. I'm the exception that proves the rule. I think he's the real deal. I hate to see him backed in a corner over there as one after another group of his haters (chief priests, elders, Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees) come with trick questions to trap him—questions about his authority (11:27-33), about taxes (11:13-17), and about which of a woman's seven husbands she will be with in the resurrection time (11:18-27). Jesus is a good debater, but they'll get him eventually. They don't live by the heart of the Law. They live by fear, by the book and by power over the poor. They can't let a heart like his keep beating. The last group is leaving! I'm about to get my chance to ask a real question, not a trick question."

And then the scribe says to Jesus, "Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?"

And do you know what Jesus answers? He quotes the Shema, the prayer that is central to Jewish identity: "Shema Yisrael. The Lord your God, the Lord is One."He combines Deuteronomy 5 with Leviticus 19:18: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself."

Defining "Heart" in the 21st Century

For his first-century listeners, Jesus probably could have stopped with "You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart," because all that follows (soul, mind and strength) are implied in the biblical understanding of heart. But we twenty-first-century listeners have shrunk the definition of heart to emotions. So when we hear "Love God with your whole heart," we might think Jesus means "Have only happy feelings about God."

Our culture defines the heart as feelings, expressed in such sayings as "I gave you my heart. You broke my heart. I wear my heart on my sleeve." It's as if we would all join in a chorus of Albert Morris' 1974 song, Feelings:

Nothing more than feelings
Trying to forget my feelings of love
Wo o o feelings
Wo o o feelings
Again in my heart.
For all my life I'll feel it
I wish I'd never met you, girl
You'll never come again.

Says N.T. scholar Douglas Hare, when commenting on the parallel version of this scene in Matthew 22, "In an age when the word 'love' is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment. Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that Deuteronomy 6:5 demands of us, but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment. Similarly, to love our neighbor, including our enemies, does not mean that we must feel affection for them. To love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously. (Hare, Interpretation, 260)

When Jesus commands us to love God and neighbor with our whole hearts, he is not the first to pair the two loves. The apocryphal book The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs refers frequently to loving the Lord and the neighbor. In Luke's Gospel the lawyer who questions Jesus is the one who identifies these two commandments (Luke 10:27). (Hare, Interpretation, 259)

In the first century, there were two competing rabbinical schools, that of Hillel and that of Shammai. As the story goes, once there was a Gentile who came before Shammai and said to him, "Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying, "That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it."

What Does It Mean to Love God with Our Whole Heart?

Loving God and loving our neighbor with our whole heart is more than just having positive emotions about them. I'm reminded of all the weddings I've performed in which I've said to the bride and groom, "Jane, will you love John?" and "John, will you love Jane?" Not, "Do you love?"

12/2/2022 9:10:34 PM
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  • Alyce McKenzie
    About Alyce McKenzie
    Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.