The Bible is a huge book, but in its essence it is really very simple. There is one way we can evaluate the quality of a human life or the collective life of a community of people -- look to see how they (or we) are doing with regard to the Shema. The Shema is the scarlet thread that runs through the whole Bible.
The Bible is at its core a story of love between a relational God and human beings. We humans are special, because in us God invested his own image, which includes the ability to relate personally to God and one another. The love between God and human beings flows in two directions. First comes God’s love to us. God creates human beings for a mutual relationship of love, but God’s proactive love always precedes human responsive love. The number of biblical passages that speak of God’s love for us are almost countless. A particular passage we looked at last week in our group is Gen 3:8, where God comes to walk with Adam and Eve in the Garden in the cool of the day. The picture is one of ongoing affection and companionship.
First comes God’s proactive love to us, and second comes our responsive love to him. This is summed up in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the Shema – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength.” I have gone over this passage many times, but I never realized how it serves as the scarlet thread running through Scripture. The Bible is a commentary on God’s proactive love for us and how well we respond by loving him back – and loving him with our “first love” that puts no other commitment above him. The history of Israel is a narrative of the ebbs and flows of Israel’s love for God. It’s not primarily about their obedience to the Law. It’s about their love for God that expresses itself in obedience. As Jesus would later say, “If you love me, you will obey my commands.”
What about Jesus? He couples the Shema with the commandment to “love your neighbor” (Lev 19:18) and states that all the Scriptures are built around these two commands. Now we see how Jesus interprets Scripture: it is a story of Israel’s love for God being expressed in their love for one another.
What is noteworthy about Jesus is that he turns the Shema toward himself. Because he is one with the Father, to love Jesus is to love the Father. That is, the Shema now runs through Jesus. He calls people into wholehearted devotion to him. In Luke 14, Jesus tells people that if they don’t set aside every other love and follow him, they cannot be his disciples. Being a disciple of Jesus is equivalent to obeying the Shema.
When it comes to the human response to God, the Shema, especially as it runs through Jesus, is the bullseye of the entire Bible. We have to understand that this is the one thing we cannot get wrong. We can have differences in theology, styles of worship, and so on, but if we miss the boat on loving God, it’s all over. There is on other boat to catch!
Practically this means being honest about where our fidelities lie. What do we really value? Have we given ourselves entirely to God or are we holding out conditions that have to be met before we will commit to him? Furthermore, it means loving others. Jesus said that if we love him, we will obey his commands, and he left one command: that we love one another (Jn 13:34). If we are quiet in God’s presence, it won’t take long before we see the truth about these things. And the good news is that God is always ready to receive us, no matter how partial our love for him has been in the past.
“Love the Lord your God with all you are.” This is the bullseye, and we get one bullet to shoot. There is nothing else worth aiming at.