Very Near Indeed

Image excerpted from “Hillel and Shammai
From The Czernowitz Haggadah series, Oil on canvas, by Alexander Vaisman


The Readings for the 15th Sunday, Tempus per Annum

Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”

Luke 10:26

LET’S FIRST LOOK at Moses, speaking in Deuteronomy. Our NABRE translation uses the pronoun “it” in verse 14: No, it is something very near to you. However, the Hebrew says, “The word is very near you.” It uses the Hebrew Word Devar which can mean a spoken word, an action, a teaching, a command, a reason. It makes sense that in Greek it’s often rendered as Logos. Moses insists the Word is very near. It’s in the hearts of the people of Israel and they need only do it.

The Word (Devar) must mean something other than the Covenant itself. The Word is not about laws, about do’s and don’t’s. Devar is something in the heart.

There’s another implication as the Bible unfolds. In Hebrew translations of the New Testament, Devar is the word used in the 1st chapter of John’s Gospel.

הַדָּבָר לָבַשׁ בָּשָׂר

Hadabar lavash basar, the word became flesh (literally “meat”). The Devar is very near to us all. And as the Devar is the second person in the Trinity, he dwells, together with the Father and the Spirit, within our very beingness, within our heart, as Moses said. We need to bring ourselves into relationship with God within our lives.

Jesus the Devar in the Flesh, makes the same point in the Gospel: Jesus asks “What is written in the Law?” But the conversation moves to what is written in the young man’s heart.

Jesus is not stepping outside of the bounds of Judaism here. During the period called “Second Temple Judaism” (generally circa 4th Century BC – 2nd Century AD) there were a number of different schools of thought within the Jewish Community. These went across the spectrum from what we might think of as “liberal” (in that they denied some of what we might consider important Jewish tenants) to what we might think of as “conservative” in that they look more like what we see as traditional Judaism today. Curiously, in their own time, the labels (if they had ever used such – which they did not) would have been reversed. Judaism was a wide spectrum of traditions and practices, some with more or less respect for the temple, some with more or less respect for the religious hierarchy, and some with more or less literal understanding of the law. Two of these schools of thought were “House of Hillel” and the “House of Shammai”. Among the questions on which they disagreed was the question of “the greatest commandments”. They both agreed that Loving God with heart, soul, and strength was the first commandment. Shammai said the second commandment was to observe the Sabbath. Hillel, however, said the second was to love your neighbor. Hillel won within Judaism’s discussion of this and – in today’s Gospel – Jesus (along with his interlocutor) is clearly siding with Hillel. (He sides with Shammai in other places though…)

The Samaritan is not a Jew, he’s usually the “bad guy” in Jewish Stories. But he knows enough (in his heart) to do the righteousness required by the law even though he is outside the covenant. He has the Devar written on his heart so he can bring it into place in his life.

Both testaments are telling the same story, moving us to the same place: the Word of God must be written in our hearts to have any effect.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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