“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 people will respond to particular sets of words in a way that they might not respond to others.
In the 21st Century, when the temptation is to push aside tradition, push aside old ways, it is wise to remember Jesus’ conversation with the scribe.
Ann Morisy, a writer on the church in the Twenty-First Century, 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 that the awful events, public tragedies, can challenge the church to do what only it can do, “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. 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 progress was vital, 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 what it was that bound a 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.