The Dean - The Very Rev Andrew Nunn
Deuteronomy 6.1-9; Hebrews 9.11-14; Mark 12.28-34
I come from a long line of storytellers.
Both my grandma and my mum had the ability to tell stories and they must have learnt it from somewhere – and they told their stories using the same words, the same phrases every time. So we very quickly learnt the stories – about my mum’s gift of pompom dahlias to her school teacher and the naughty boy in the playground pulling the heads off one by one; of me zigging and zagging as a little boy on holiday in Scarborough and managing to get lost; of bombs dropping on Coventry during the war and my mum watching the fires burning from the Spion Kop. I could tell you the stories word for word. But mum used the same principle with praying with us as children – the prayers never changed – the same ones every night in the same order. But though repetitive it was never boring and the words and the phrases sank into us, like water filtering through the ground building up a resource there for the future.
I was reminded of this whilst I was in Jerusalem co-leading on a course. Some of the people on that course had come from New Zealand. The whole student body was made up of people from across the Anglican Communion. But amongst them was this quite large group of Maoris. Very quickly I learnt a lot about their culture – and one of their priests told me that their history was never written down, it was passed on from generation to generation and without embellishment, the same story told in the same way, with the same words, the same gestures. One of the traditional carvings that caused consternation with early settlers was a face with a tongue which stuck out from the mouth and ended in the ear. It represented this great oral tradition I was told.
Moses is delivering the law to the people, and so that they can absorb it, because there was a great deal of law to absorb, he gives them the Summary of the Law, as we call it, the Shema as the Jews call it, he boils it down into something that is memorable. And then he tells the people
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.
It was to be an oral tradition, even though, as we know, the law was written down as well. But Moses is clear that it was to be recited, that it was to be talked about, that the children would learn because the parents taught them, that the conversation would embed the words in the hearts of the people.
And then he goes on to tell them something else
Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
As I sat in the large square outside the main synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, people of all kinds made their way past. Amongst the crowds and amongst the Jews were those who’ve taken these words of Moses quite literally. They are those men, always men, who you’ll see with a black box tied to their forehead and, if you could see their arm, another box strapped there. These boxes are called phylacteries, or more properly, Tefillin, boxes that contain parchments on which is written this Shema, this summary of the law.
As Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish philosopher wrote
"as long as the tefillin are on the head and on the arm of a man, he is modest and God-fearing and will not be attracted by hilarity or idle talk; he will have no evil thoughts, but will devote all his thoughts to truth and righteousness".
It’s a very literal response to the command of Moses – you carry the law at the forefront of your mind to influence your thinking, on your arm to influence your acting. And this literalism carries on to every Jewish home where a Mezuzah, a decorative case, is attached alongside the door and touched by everyone entering the house – again it contains this law.
There’s no escaping it – it’s there in conversation, it’s there bound to the head and the arm, it’s there as you enter and leave the house – the law of the Lord is at the forefront of people’s consciousness.
So when Jesus challenges back the man who challenges him in today’s Gospel we have to realise that both of them lived close up against this law, they would know it by heart and find it with them all the time. But there’s a big difference. Jesus doesn’t end with the Shema, these oft repeated, lived with words, but rather he brings them alive by adding a second commandment from the tradition, something that no other rabbi had done. His first commandment is about loving God, but his second commandment, hot on its heels, is about love for neighbour and love for self.
As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews makes clear in our Second Reading, the old law, the sacrificial system that was the business of the temple, was deficient – it could never achieve what it wanted to achieve. But Jesus enters, the true High Priest, not with the blood of a goat or a calf but with himself, a perfect offering that we might worship the Living God.
This is what is stunning about Jesus. He doesn’t discard the old law, he’s at pains in the gospels to make that clear when he says in St Matthew’s Gospel
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
Not one letter not one stroke of a letter is be done away with, all is to be perfected, all is to be completed. He came not to abolish the law but to fulfil it, he came to give flesh to the law, his own and not that of some sacrificial offering. Jesus brings the law alive and that was what stunned the teacher who made the challenge.
The vocation that we receive is to be the storytellers of the law, to accept the challenge of Moses, to talk about it, to live close to it and to accept the challenge of Jesus to give life to it, to understand what that law means for us in our daily living.
So whether we’re a parent or a godparent, whether we have children or not, whether we’re a teacher or simply a friend we need to be asking ourselves three questions – how do I live with God, how do I live with my neighbour, how do I live with myself. All three need to be in balance, and we can’t ignore ourselves there in the mix, in the living out of what it means to know the Living God.
That word ‘Shema’ which the Jews use for what Moses gives to them, simply means ‘hear’. We will only hear the law when we talk about it, talk it through, work out what it means now, here, for us, in this place at this time, to hear what it means to love God, what it means to love our neighbour, what it means to love ourselves. And to hear we simply have to listen. For those who hear this are not far from the kingdom of God.