Saturday of week 18 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Deut 6:4-13

Our reading comes from the second of Moses’ three discourses in this book. It is one of the key texts in Scripture for both Jews and Christians and consists of two parts. The first is to make our love for God the absolutely central characteristic of all our lives.
The opening words are: “Hear, O Israel!” and give the passage its common name, ‘Shema’, which is the Hebrew word for ‘hear’. It has become the Jewish confession of faith, recited daily by observant Jews.
It begins with the first principle: “Yahweh our God is the one, the only Yahweh.” This is certainly a declaration of monotheism. It is a divinely revealed insight, especially important in view of the multiplicity of Baals and other gods of Canaan and elsewhere, which one meets right through the history of Israel both in the time of the Kings and during the later exile. Again and again, the Israelites would worship these gods (cf. for example, Judges 2:11-13).
Yahweh is not only the God of Israel; he is the only God. This is not where the Israelites originally began from. Throughout their history, a faith in a unique God is something that became more precise with time and experience, especially under the impact of the covenant and God’s choice of Israel as his chosen people. The existence of other gods was never explicitly affirmed but more and more became the affirmation of the living God, the unique creator and master of the world as well as of his people. This is accompanied by the constant denial of other gods, first as false and then as non-existing.
Then comes the necessary human response to this statement: “You must love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.”
This love, the echo of God’s love for his people, embraces the fear of God (in the sense of a deep respect and sense of awe), the duty of service and the observance of precepts. Strangely, outside Deuteronomy there is no explicit command to love God but its equivalent is found, for instance, in 2 Kings 23:25. Speaking of King Josiah, the Scripture says: “No king before him turned to Yahweh as he did, with all his heart, all his soul, all his strength, in perfect loyalty to the Law of Moses.” And in Hosea we read: “Faithful love is what pleases me, not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6). Although the command does not appear, the Psalms and the prophetic books, especially Hosea and Jeremiah, are full of the love of God.

These words, then, are to be engraved on each one’s heart. This would become a feature especially characteristic of the “new covenant”, with the emphasis on the inner spirit more than on external behaviour.
These words are to be constantly communicated to one’s children and in every situation.
They are to be fastened on one’s hand as a sign and on one’s forehead as a headband.
They are to be written on the doorposts of one’s house and on one’s gates.
The urging to bind the words to the wrist and as a headband was surely meant in a figurative sense but it was, and is, taken literally by some Jews. They tie phylacteries to their foreheads and left arms. ‘Phylacteries’ are small boxes containing strips of parchment on which the words of the text are inscribed. They also attach mezuzot (small wooden or metal containers in which passages of Scripture are placed) to the doorframes of their houses. However, a figurative interpretation is supported by other Old Testament texts.
In the Gospel, we see the Pharisees following this custom but Jesus criticises them because it was purely an external manifestation which did not correspond to what was going on in their hearts. They literally wore their heart on their sleeve. Speaking of some Pharisees Jesus said: “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? No they! Everything they do is done to attract attention, like wearing broader headbands and longer tassels…” (Matt 23:5).
Finally, Jesus, quoting today’s passage, lays it down as the greatest commandment of all (Matt 22:37). However, he significantly links this commandment with another from Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” And, to remove all ambiguity, he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan to show exactly who our neighbour is (Luke 10:25-37). In the Gospel, these two commandments cannot be separated and so we read in the First Letter of John: “Anyone who says he loves God and hates his brother is a liar, since whoever does not love the brother whom he can see cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:19-20).
The second part of today’s reading is a reminder to the Israelites that it was Yahweh who brought them into the land which he swore to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob he would give. Moreover they should not take for granted the presence of large and prosperous towns which they did not build, houses full of good things they did not provide, vineyards and olive trees they did not plant. After they have eaten all the food they want, they must not forget that it was Yahweh who brought them there from a life of slave-labour in Egypt.
Because the emphasis in Scripture is always on what God does and not on what his people achieve, they are never to forget what he has done for them.
“Yahweh your God is the one you must fear, him alone you must serve, his is the name by which you must swear.” Here, to ‘serve’ God means especially to ‘worship’ him. In this sense it is quoted by Jesus during his temptations in the desert as an argument against worshipping the devil (Matt 4:10)
Both of these lessons we need to take to heart.
– Loving and serving our God in our brothers and sisters has to be the determining factor of everything in our lives.
– And let us not take any of the good things in life for granted or as somehow our right. All is gift.
 

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