Book Review: The Greatest Commandment: The LORD’s Invitation to Love
What if I told you that Jesus had a spiritual practice that he performed every day? What if I told you that this spiritual practice formed his life? What if I told you that Jesus himself said that this spiritual practice was the most important thing in the world? And what if I told you that we know exactly what that practice was and that you can share with Jesus in this spiritual practice?
Well, there’s good news! Jesus did have a spiritual practice that formed his life. When he was asked what was important, he claimed that this was the most important thing. And, the even better news is that we know exactly what his spiritual practice was and we can share in that practice with him. If we are at all interested in following Jesus, we might want to consider making this practice part of our daily lives. The spiritual practice has a name. It’s called:
The Sh’ma was central to Jesus’s life. Unfortunately, few of Jesus’ followers today have even heard of the Sh’ma. Ask a Christian today about the Sh’ma and the response you get will likely be:
Thankfully, Marty Alan Michelson has stepped in to fill the Sh’ma void within modern Christianity. His book, The Greatest Commandment: The LORD’S Invitation to Love, is brief (107 pages), but don’t let the brevity fool you. It is the most compelling and thoughtful explanation of the Sh’ma I’ve ever read. After reading Marty’s book, you will have a deeper love and understanding for the Sh’ma and for Jesus.
The Sh’ma is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. Sh’ma is a Hebrew word that means hear, listen, or obey. The passage is named Sh’ma because that word begins the verses. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” The Sh’ma calls to us, as it called to Jesus, to pay attention to what God wants. The next verse tells us exactly what that is. God wants us to love. As Marty says, the Sh’ma emphasizes one thing:
“You shall love.”
The emphasis of love cannot be overstated. “And yet,” as Marty claims, “so many people, especially ‘religious’ people, get caught up in other stuff that they think God commands in religious tradition. They, and we, miss it [the point]” (40).
Readers of the Raven Foundation will know that we are guided by Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory. The theory claims that, as opposed to modern notions of individualism, humans are formed by our relationships with others. We are not individuals, but rather inter-dividuals. The Greatest Commandment doesn’t explicitly discuss mimetic theory, but mimetic theory is certainly there. And this is one reason that the Sh’ma is so important. Religion is often accused of being impractical and unreasonable. But Marty shows that the Sh’ma is eminently practical and profoundly reasonable for this reason: We are formed in our relationship with others and by our daily habits. If we are in relationships of violence, we will become more and more violent. If we develop habits of violence, we will continue to become more and more violent. But there is an alternative. For example, Jesus was formed by his relationship with the Sh’ma, which is based on the love of God. And we are invited to be formed by that same relationship of love. Marty states, “We are to participate in relationships with the LORD out of love. We are to partner in relational love. We are to generate relationships of love, to exist in love, and to extend love” (41).
For me, chapter 19 was the most profound part of the book in this regard. Here, Marty explains one of the most difficult verses the Sh’ma to understand. Verse 8 states “Bind them [these teachings] as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead.” In Hebrew, the last phrase literally says that we are to bind these teachings “between your eyes.” Marty ponders the significance of the symbolism expressed in this verse: “I wonder if this part of Sh’ma is intended not so much as a physical place on our body, but as the place from our body where we connect with other people, in relationships, eye-to-eye” (97). That’s profound because the Sh’ma is often misunderstood as being one dimensional in its emphasis on a relationship of love with God. But, when it comes to relationships, the Sh’ma is multi-dimensional. The Sh’ma doesn’t stop with inviting us into a loving relationship with God; it extends to inviting us into a loving relationship with one another.
I think followers of Christ would do well to incorporate the spiritual practice of reciting the Sh’ma every day. It will transform our relationship with God and with our fellow human beings. And, as Marty says, “If you recite the Sh’ma today and every day, you will stand in solidarity with the daily routine of Jesus. That is exciting!”
Indeed. That is exciting. And so is The Greatest Commandment.