I consider myself an above average sports fan, having a well-developed appreciation for the athleticism, strategy, and emotional arch of the game. But what I’m not a fan of are all the pre and post-game interviews with players and coaches. It’s not just the predictable banality of their remarks that bothers me, rather it’s the excessive hyperbole with which such remarks engage – that tends to get up under my skin.
“We’re gonna leave it all on the field and give it one hundred and ten percent” It’s not merely the fact that such a statement is a mathematical absurdity that catches my attention – rather, like most overstatements it ends up being ironically reductive. So instead of being an exhortation to give more than all you are, it makes simply giving all that you are just another form of rhetorical hype and bravado – said more for effect . . . than actual meaning.
So when we come to the Shema “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might . . .” ~ (Deuteronomy 6:4, 5) The modern mind struggles to place this admonition into a correct perspective, tempted to respond out of sentimentality or spiritualized unction – as if the Shema were merely a challenge to up your percentage of love effort.
An observant Jewish friend of mine recently explained to me that the first line of the Shema isn’t actually intended to underscore God’s monotheism, as much as it is an ontological declaration about God – that in God, all things exist . . . for God is the very state of being, itself. Therefore, there’s an intended symmetry to be understood between the all that we are admonished to love God with . . . and the way that all things exist in God. In this way, loving God is understood as a confession about the true nature of existence . . . that there is no us apart from God.
St Bernard of Clairvaux believed that what the Shema places in stark relief is the tension between our default inclination to love God within a quid pro quo expectation of personal advantage — with our need to love God, for God’s sake. Therefore we are to desire God, and God alone – and not simply above all other things . . . but within all things. That every desire we have might be emptied out of its own ambition, and offered in oblation to the God who is One!
So when Jesus reiterates the Shema, in answering the question “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” He adds “ . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:34-40) – he wasn’t really adding something new to the Shema, as much as he was better explaining how all the Law and the Prophets is hinged on our understanding of God as One. Therefore, because loving God is all encompassing, it should be understood as all-consuming — allowing us to love one another as an essential expression of how we love God . . . (1 John 2: 9-11).
O my Jesus, I love thee . . .