“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 mind, and with all your strength.” Mark 12:29-30
Jesus’ words are from the Jewish prayer, ’Shema Israel’, ‘Hear, O Israel’, they are from the daily prayers of the Jewish people; they were known to all his listeners; they express the heart of their faith. The scribe listening to Jesus knows the words; they are words that he and Jesus share; it does not take thought or reflection for the scribe to understand what it is that Jesus is saying.
The scribe does not stop to analyse the words spoken by Jesus, he does not pause to think ‘what does that mean?’ The words and their meaning would have been taught to him many times from his childhood years onward. It is the sound and the rhythm of the words that are enough to bring a whole world of meaning. Even the first words, ‘Hear, O Israel’, would have been enough to bring him memories of all the years in which he had heard them, memories of home and family, memories of community, memories of happy and sad times, memories of the faith that had sustained his people all through the centuries, memories of God being with his people.
Jesus might have spoken differently, he might have expressed what the prayer said in a different way, he might have gone into an explanation of what it was that was being said, but he chooses to speak very familiar, very traditional words in the knowledge that the words themselves will carry all the meaning he wishes to convey.
Jesus knows how important to people are traditional words and symbols, he knows that we will respond to particular sets of words in a way that we might not respond to others.
In the 21st Century, when the temptation is to push aside tradition, push aside old ways, we would do well to remember Jesus’ conversation with the scribe.
Ann Morisy, a writer on mission in our times says, believes that the ways of the traditional church still have much to offer, in her book ‘Journeying Out’, she writes, ‘The fact churches have been present in a community for decades, if not for centuries, counts for something. No other agency will have the voice and depth of history that the church represents, and the local church must harness and be allowed to harness, this asset wisely and generously because it cannot be easily replicated’.
The words, the traditions, the symbols of the church, do not have the same resonance as the ‘Shema Israel’ had for the scribe, but there is in our heritage a way of speaking to people in a way that is beyond words. Ann Morisy recognized this happening after the murder of two young girls in Soham in England, recognized that the awful events challenged the church to do what only it could ‘to give the community access to the church’s substantial repertoire of high symbols in order to provide succour in their intense distress’.
There is a way of speaking that is beyond simple words. There are words that can bring a response from us without us even thinking. Attending commencements, the Trinity College, Dublin name for a graduation ceremony, a ceremony that takes place entirely in Latin, the ceremony closed with the sentence, ‘Comitia solvantur in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti’. ‘Let commencements be adjourned in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’.
At the mention of the Holy Trinity, older people around us made the sign of the Cross and said ‘Amen’. The Latin words were sufficient to draw on their memories of the faith of their childhood. Had they been asked about those memories, there would have been a whole range of experiences and thoughts that might have been recalled; some might have been positive, some might have been negative, but what is significant is that words, or perhaps just the sound of the words, were enough to bring a reaction, to trigger something deep inside them.
There are moments in church when there is still a sense of meaning beyond words. During the harvest festival services, it is very noticeable that there are two hymns, ‘Come’ ye thankful people, come’, and ‘We plough the fields and scatter’, where there is a sense of everyone present joining in words that have for us a whole world of meaning that goes far beyond the words on the page.
While the conversation with the scribe shows that Jesus knows the importance of meaning beyond words, I wonder if the church shares his understanding. For centuries, the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer were at the heart of the life of the Anglican church. While it was vital to progress, there cannot be meaning beyond words if people have no understanding of the words in the first place, there is now a danger of going too far to the other extreme and throwing out words that bound our community together.
The words of ‘Shema Israel’, the words spoken by Jesus, had powerful meaning for the scribe because they were common prayer, they were prayer known and used by the whole community. They were a prayer known by the community and they were a prayer that created a sense of community; the scribe was a complete stranger to Jesus, but as soon as Jesus spoke the words, they were bound together.
The churches that have endured through the centuries are those that have had a deep tradition of common prayer, prayer that people have shared Sunday by Sunday, year in year out. Common prayer allows people who have come in, perhaps for the first time, perhaps after being away from the church for many years, to open the prayer book and to share in the prayer of the community, to be bound together with those who have been there every Sunday throughout their lives.
‘Hear, O Israel’ says Jesus. He knew about people, he knew about churches.