It can be quite complicated for us to understand God’s simplest rule. Deuteronomy instructs us to, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” That’s three categories—heart, soul and strength. Jesus’ paraphrase seems to add another: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” This gives us four—heart, soul, mind and strength. But the scribe who responded to Jesus summarizing his words only used three. He said, “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” He combined soul and mind and called it, “understanding.” This should at least give us a clue as to how this works. Just because we have three or four words does not mean we have three or four neat and clearly defined categories. That’s the way OUR minds work. We want to know exactly what’s what, so we can figure out what is being asked of us. But this approach doesn’t work for two reasons. First, the language is poetic, not concise and scientific. Second, their understanding of how the body works is very different from our understanding, and this fact permeates the whole of what is being expressed.
So to begin this morning, we’re going to do a very simple high speed class in human physiology whereby you forget everything you know about how the body really works in favor of a much more primitive understanding, an understanding that just so happens to still show up in our language every day.
First of all, forget the brain. They couldn’t figure out what the brain did. Generally speaking they were pretty unimpressed by it. Aristotle thought it was a glorified cooling unit. Later on people thought of it as extra storage space, sort of like a filing cabinet. While we think of everything involving personhood as coming from the brain and all of the other organs in the body serving straightforward biological functions for life to exist, they spread personhood throughout ALL of the organs in the body. Had it even been medically possible at the time, this would have made organ transplants unthinkable.
The true center of personality and will was not the brain; it was the heart. The heart for them is what the brain is for us. The inner person and will was physically located in the heart. The heart could experience emotion, but it wasn’t limited to emotion. The heart did all the thinking and decision-making. Many other emotions were located elsewhere, but the heart was the control center. Tender feelings and things related to conscience apparently hung out in the kidneys. I don’t know why. But according to Proverbs 23, our kidneys rejoice when right is spoken, and according to David, our kidneys teach us in the night. (And not just to get up and go to the bathroom!) Other strong emotions are located in the intestines. The emotions that come from our intestines, or guts, tend to be more instinctive and visceral. A lot of the time when our English translations use the word “heart” or “inmost being” to translate a word in the Old Testament the original word is actually kidneys, liver or bowels. If we translated it literally it would make no sense to us.
We have inherited some of this understanding into our language. Stop and think about it for a moment. Don’t we still talk about following our heart and paying attention to our gut instincts? Don’t we say things like, “I listened to my heart” or “My gut told me not to trust her”? And, since a lot of the time when we are experiencing intense stress we have chest pains or our intestinal tract reacts, there is a certain logical connection. We may intellectually know that the source of our thought processes and emotions is the brain, but we still speak as if they are spread throughout the body.
So what is a soul? In Hebrew it’s nephesh. In Greek its psūchê, the word we get psychology from. It’s means a number of things, including a living being. People can be referred to as “souls.” We use it this way too. While the original Hebrew idea did not split people up into soul and body existing separately from one another, there are places in the New Testament where a distinction is made between the soul and the body. Jesus told us not to be afraid of those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. The soul that belongs to God survives death. The soul appears to be the heart in spiritual form. Rational thoughts come from the mind, which is part of the heart and the soul. The exact physical location of the soul was much debated. Some said it lived in the heart, others the kidneys, and others throughout the entire body. The only thing everyone seemed to agree on was that it had little to do with that weird organ located between our ears.
Not to preach two sermons here, but since the words “soul” and “spirit” are often used interchangeably in scripture, there is a strong argument that despite Paul separately naming body, soul and spirit, spirit and soul are really the same thing. That, however, is a topic for another day.
Jesus quoted the words of the Shema— “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” He then went on to quote the words that follow, also considered to be part of the fuller Shema. These are the central most important words of Jewish faith and practice, but he quoted them with an addition—not a new category—but a more detailed explanation of an existing category. Jesus added, “mind.”
To love God with all our heart is to love God with all that we are—the full force of our personality and self. To further state that we should love God with all our soul is an overlap, because while personality dwells physically in us the soul is the spiritual manifestation. And when Jesus adds, “mind” he is adding a dimension to both heart and soul. He’s placing a special emphasis. The word means understanding, critical thought, thinking things through. It is not enough to have the ability to think. Jesus wants us to actually think, and to think about God and what God wants us to do.
The simplest category of all is the final word—strength. We are to give it our all. The spiritual and the physical work together. We could use our strength for evil. We could use our strength for self-indulgence. God wants us to use our strength for good. And strength is not just about muscles. It’s our energy, but more than our energy. It’s what we own and the power of our income. It’s what we know and the power of our knowledge. It’s the power within that can keep a dying woman alive long enough to see a grandchild born, or the power of a group of people energized to lift a car off an injured person, an act that in ordinary circumstances they would be incapable of. Strength is strength of mind, body and resources.
What we have then are not separate categories, but layered categories. This is the language and thought of a culture very different from ours. When we try to force our clear-cut divisions onto these words we end up missing the mark. It’s not clearly delineated; it’s fluid. It’s not separate; it’s different aspects of a whole. Scripture says that we are made in the image of God, and God exists as a trinity, but who among us can explain the trinity? So it is that we might try to explain human nature and yet never fully comprehend it. We are both physical and spiritual. God’s simplest rule is that we love God with all that we are, and following on from there, that we love our neighbor as our self.
Biblically speaking, the heart is the center of our personality, controlling our intellect, emotions, and will. It’s air traffic control. No take offs or landings happen without the heart authorizing them. If there are, that person is in serious trouble. The soul is the spiritual manifestation of the heart. But just because the heart and soul controls everything, doesn’t mean all the decisions and actions are right. We know they’re not. In order to bring them into alignment with what is right, the heart and soul need to love God, and the word Jesus uses for love is agape love, not mushy love. The heart and soul need to be able to do what is right even when they don’t feel like doing what is right. And this is where the second part of Jesus’ answer comes in.
After the single most important law comes the second most important—to love our neighbor as ourselves.
There is a reason Jesus gave two answers, not one, because it is not possible to love God and hate people. There are those in our world who act as if hating people and loving God are not inconsistent with one another. They pour forth hate and loathing for the other, while at the same time proclaiming they are good Christians. This is a dangerous self-deception. God loves all of humanity, even those we might despise and reject. God desires that all come to faith and be saved. 1 John 4:20 says, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” Jesus taught us that we are to love even our enemies. And yet we know how hard this can be for us. Throughout our lives there have been people who have actively caused us harm. And we live in a time where fear of the outsider and the “other” is fed and encouraged by those who seek to use fear to gain and hold power for themselves. We’re told that the people seeking asylum at our borders are dangerous, diseased criminals. Websites and preachers of hate tell people to hate and fear Jews, Gays, African Americans and Native Americans. Fear of the “other” is rife, and human nature is easily manipulated by fear.
To love one another with agape love does not mean we have to have warm feelings for them. It means we do what is right. We act in their best interest. In the case of those who have caused us personal harm, that is not the same thing as giving them whatever they want. Any parent knows that to act in the best interest of a child does not mean indulging their every whim. To love God and love our neighbor means to do what is right by our neighbor—truly and objectively right. And the only way we are going to know what is right is if we put God first. When we put God first and love God with all that we are and all that we have, the way we look at other people changes. They, too, are God’s creations, and God can help us to see them in a new way.
It is simple, but it is not easy. But when loving and serving God is our ultimate priority we change and become a source of blessing and healing in the world. Jesus said, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Amen
6 These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, 2 so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. 3 Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.