Today’s readings all center around the great command that God gives to the Israelites through Moses, which is recounted today in the reading from Deuteronomy. This final book of the Torah is a collection of Moses’ great sermons near the end of his life where he recounts the great deeds God has done for His people and reiterates the Law and the 10 Commandments that came to them on Mount Sinai. The command that is given today is known in Judaism as the Great Shema, which is the word in Hebrew meaning “to hear.” The Shema has a very central place in theology and daily prayer practice of Jews to this day.
The actual words of the command are notoriously hard to translate into English because written Hebrew omits the verbs. The actual words in the command in the original text in Hebrew is only four words. This can be translated any number of ways. The traditional Jewish translation is “The Lord your God, the Lord is one.” The command can also be translated in various ways ranging from “The Lord your God is the only Lord” to “The Lord God is Lord alone.” Regardless of how one parses the words, there does seem to be a central emphasis on the unique oneness of God as well as the fact that God is Lord. This idea was so central that the Bible commanded Jews to recite this command at least twice a day in their morning and evening prayers and are also the last words that Jews are suppose to say as a prayer litany as they are physically dying.
In the gospel passage from Mark today, Jesus is being tested by a scribe. Mark uses a very unusual title in Greek for this Scribe that other Gospel writers never use with the Scribes. Mark refers to him as a grammateus, which was a specific Roman governmental job of keeper of public documents. While this Scribe was also apparently a devout Jewish man, he also worked for the Romans as what we would now call a registrar of deeds. Jesus boldly proclaims that the greatest of all commandments that God ever gave to His people is the Great Shema where you proclaim that God is your Lord and love Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Jesus goes on to say that if you are doing that and truly mean it, then it should be second nature that you love your neighbor as yourself because your neighbor is someone made in the likeness and image of that God you are professing to love with all your being.
The Scribe is very taken with this answer because this is precisely the legal language that was incorporated into legal documents like wills, written oaths, and marriage contracts that would satisfy devout Jews who did not wish to invoke pagan deities in their legal transactions as was common Roman practice but also satisfied Roman law insofar as things sworn on oath like covenants had to invoke the help of the divine in keeping the contract. This is why Jesus responds that the Scribe is “not far from the Kingdom of God” because the Scribe is doing the will of God and helping his fellow men as a secular clerk in the Roman courts. Jesus is implying that you don’t have to be a rabbi or super holy person to do the will of God. You simply do the vocation God calls you to by loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. As Christians, we believe we accomplish this Great Commandment by hearing the words of Jesus and following Him as Lord and loving others as He chose to love.