English service - March 19, 2023
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
“The Love of God and Strange Math”
In the last few months in English worship, we have been focusing on God’s teachings to us about the family. We’ve seen some of what Jesus’ own human family demonstrates about the Lord’s plans and hopes for our families, especially parent-child relationships. We focused last month on how we can use technology in ways that actually help us grow and thrive as individuals and families. Also, Pastor Sasaki helped us by giving a message on how God can enable us to build marriage relationships marked by His love, for example respecting and serving each other.
Today I want to look back at the foundations of healthy relationships as the Bible’s God teaches them. The principles we find in today’s Bible passage apply to all relationships but in particular to the family. Let’s take a simple verse-by-verse approach as we go through them in a little more detail.
Moses is speaking to the people of Israel, giving them the “commands, rules and laws” which he has received from God (v. 1). At this point, the “children of Israel” have been freed from slavery in Egypt, and they are preparing to enter the new home God is preparing for them in the land of their ancestors, today’s Israel. Moses instructs them about God’s laws. He says (vv. 1b-2):
Obey them in the land you will take over when you go across the Jordan River. Then you, your children and their children after them will have respect for the LORD your God as long as you live. Keep all of his rules and commands I'm giving you. If you do, you will enjoy long life.
As is often the case in the Bible, God’s commands come with a promise attached. If you do this, it will lead you to life, health, and strength. These teachings are for your benefit. It’s not that God doesn’t have enough friends and so feels desperate for you to follow Him, or that He will whack you if you don’t because He is petty and small-minded. No, He teaches out of loving care for us as His creations, His children.
God is not saying here that if you follow Him in faith, your like will be free of major problems. He does not provide here a neat, easily understandable explanation of why there is so much suffering and evil in the world. He simply tells us the truth that living in relationship with Him connects us with our best, fullest, most meaningful life.
Verses 4-5 are called the Shema. Shema means Hear, and the most well-known English translation, the King James Version, begins with “Hear, O Israel.” The New International Reader’s Version has it: “Israel, listen to me. The LORD is our God. The LORD is the one and only God. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength.” Many Jewish people today pray this prayer twice a day. Others pray three times: in the morning, the evening, and before going to sleep at night.
These words are in Deuteronomy, the last of the five Books of the Law, or the Books of Moses. These are the first five books of the Bible, which it says are written by Moses. You may know that of all the hundreds of laws, the 10 at the core of them all are the 10 Commandments. They are in Exodus 20 and include “Do not commit murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal.” Here in Deuteronomy, near the end of the last book, God seems to be giving us a summary of that summary, putting all the deep, rich meaning of His Law in a simple form that we are able to remember, keep in mind, and put into action. Moses expected, for instance, that parents would be able to understand the teaching, follow it, and pass it on to their children. The Lord is telling us that, when you boil it all down, what we need to remember most in life comes down to one relationship—our link with our Maker, Almighty God. And that key relationship is formed, empowered, and guided by one thing—love. Someone called this “strange math.” Here 10 commandments are 1 commandment. So 10 = 1.
“. . . Love the Lord your God. . . .” (v. 5). He doesn’t make the core command “. . . Obey the Lord your God. . . .” He knows that true obedience is an act that people choose willingly and freely. Parents who love their children will keep this in mind as we teach them to obey.
Families are there for the formation of persons, you may recall we learned again last month. Parents need to keep being formed ourselves, and we are given the job of raising children so that they are formed and empowered to grow into their best selves. This is common knowledge, isn’t it. But it’s not necessarily common practice in our lives. So God tells us and keeps telling us in order that we will have this truth planted deeply in our souls.
With all your heart, soul, and strength, Moses says. Those are worth breaking down a little one by one. The word translated “heart” is lev. It includes both thinking and feeling. In Western thought, we often divide between these two. You may hear people say something like “It’s not enough to know God on an intellectual level alone. You have to know Him in your heart.” It makes sense to us to divide the parts of human life that way, but we don’t really find that kind of separation of thoughts and emotions in the Bible. They are both in a person’s lev, or heart, and often work together.
Next is loving God with your “soul,” or nefesh. That word focuses more on feelings, but it is not only emotions and often gets translated in ways that include the whole person.
Then there is “strength,” or me-od, which is used in an interesting way. It’s translated as a noun here, but if you look it up in a lexicon, it’s listed as usually being an adverb. It comes out as “very” or “exceedingly” in a lot of cases. It may sound strange to hear Moses saying, “Love God with your exceedingly.” The rules of grammar are not the main point here. Maybe you get the idea. God loves us passionately, with umph, and He wants us to love Him the same way.
It may be interesting to compare the various categories that people of differing cultures inside and outside the Bible use in our minds to understand human beings. But I think that rather than focusing on the subtle differences between these, we can probably get the writer’s point better by taking them as a whole. The important thing isn’t so much how you divide the aspects of being human in your mind. Far more, God is telling us to love Him with 100% of who we are. I think The Message version of the Bible gets it across well. It reads: “Attention, Israel! God, our God! God the one and only! Love God, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that's in you, love him with all you've got!” Our God wants us to live with a whole-hearted faith.
That’s why Moses continues in v. 6: “The commandments I give you today must be in your hearts.” That’s the first step toward having healthy, strong relationships between family members. When it comes to raising children, God’s starting point is for the parents to have a strong, healthy relationship with our Father. You can’t pass on something you don’t have. But when we willingly accept as our own the faith that God gives us, we will have something to pass on to our children. Without that, sending our children to church or school or some other place and expecting them to receive rich, full training in character and faith through the people there may prove to be unrealistic. We believe they will have a good experience at Open Door if they come here, and we must work hard for that always to be true. But they probably need more. The parents themselves need to be growing in faith along with their children. When they do, many possibilities open up. And that seems to be God’s greatest dream for families.
When we get to the New Testament, we hear Jesus teaching basically the same thing, yet adding to it in a couple of important ways. The first three gospel writers tell of Jesus quoting from today’s reading in Deuteronomy. Yet the wording He uses is a little different. Try comparing them and see how as you listen and read.
(1) In Matthew (22:37), He talks about loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind.
(2) In Mark (12:30) it’s with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
(3) In Luke (10:27) it’s with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.
You notice that none of these is a direct quotation of Deuteronomy 6:5. Also, Jesus adds “mind” in all three versions. Loving God with all your mind is part of growing into your fullest, most complete self, He says. There is a key foundation of Christian education here, you may notice, too.
In two versions of this story, Jesus is answering the question of which Old Testament law is the greatest one. In another version He is responding to the question of what a person can do to receive eternal life. But in all three cases, He adds something else to the Deuteronomy 6:5 command. He inserts “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (quoting Leviticus 19:18). Here’s more “strange math” from God’s word. We learned before that 10 = 1 (all the 10 Commandments boil down to 1: love). Now we see that 1 = 2. In other words, the command to love God cannot be separated from our great need to love people if we are to become our true, best selves and live the lives God has in His best dreams for us. “What did you learn at church today?” If someone asks you that, you can answer, “10 = 1 = 2.” (But please don’t do that without explaining. That person may think you are crazy!)
Christ teaches love not just as a warm feeling or a theological concept but actions coming from seeing people the way God sees them. That’s what He means when He presents “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” as the foundation for healthy human relationships. Jesus obviously has this in mind when He teaches (Matthew 7:12), “In everything, do to others what you would want them to do to you.” He adds that this principle of love “is what is written in the Law and in the Prophets.” When you act with the love motive, you are keeping God’s Law, the Bible says. Romans 13:8b says, “Those who love others have done everything the law requires.” And notice that Jesus says that love is the whole point of not only the Law but the Prophets, as well. In other words, it covers the entire Bible’s teachings. Following Christ is all about learning to live in the power of love.
And of course a large part of that happens in the context of family. So Moses says in Deuteronomy 6:6b-9 the following:
The commandments I give you today must be in your hearts. Make sure your children learn them. Talk about them when you are at home. Talk about them when you walk along the road. Speak about them when you go to bed. And speak about them when you get up. Write them down and tie them on your hands as a reminder. Also tie them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses. Also write them on your gates.
You may have heard of people who tie a string to their finger to help themselves remember something that is so important, they want to be sure not to forget it. Many Jewish people throughout the centuries have applied these teachings literally. Jesus Christ probably did, too.
For example, as Sasaki-san pointed out recently, some people strap a little box with Bible words inside it to their head as they pray. One of the key quotations written there is today’s reading from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. If you see a person walking down the street with a box sticking out of his head, it may look strange to you. But this teaching helps to make it understandable, doesn’t it. Strapping a box like that on your left arm is one discipline you can choose to make it your habit to keep God’s word in your mind. Some Jewish people will have a mezuzah on their door as a place to keep God’s word in their memory and in honor. That is another way.
Probably the point is not to do it exactly the same way as others have. There may be other ways that help us to remind us of what is important and keep ourselves from the constant distractions that we so often have in our world of Internet, smartphones, and so on. I have seen people with Bible words tattooed on their bodies. What ways might work for you? Maybe some prayerful creativity would bring some interesting results. If you find a way that works well for you, let me know, OK? I’d be interested to know.
Whether we are Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, or agnostic—whatever view we have of the world and what is true, good, and beautiful—we probably all have some number one. It’s very, very difficult to live in this world as a human being without making choices about values and beliefs. We all have them. Whether we call them religious or not, they play the role of religion in
shaping and guiding our lives. The Bible’s God calls us to put Him at the top of the list of what is important and worthy of our trust. We are given the chance to live in a relationship of love with Him and, through that, with the people around us each day. That is the good news I am glad to bring to you again today. Now that we have heard it, let’s ask Him for help in truly receiving it into our hearts and lives.
Lord, you have told us to listen, to make love our priority, and to find ways to live it out. Help us to do that first and most in our relationship with you. Out of that bond, help us to grow closer to those in our human families, our places of work, circle of friends, church, and everywhere we are connected. This is our prayer, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
BBC. (2023). Jewish Ways of Living. Judaism. Religious Studies. Retrieved March 12, 2023 from https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/z4kg4qt/revision/3
Heitzig, S. (2021, June 21). The Legacy of a Godly Dad. Calvary Church with Skip Heitzig. Retrieved March 6, 2023 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4PBdPZzDn0
Mohler, A. (2022, November 2). Deuteronomy 6. Southern Seminary. Retrieved March 12, 2023 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbaOVngky_k