The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5; “Shema” being the Hebrew word for “hear”) and Deuteronomy as a whole anticipate that once the Israelites move into the promised land, the temptation to idolatry will be a regular struggle. And so it is in The Shema, the daily prayer and greatest commandment according to Jesus, gets us in the habit of saying, “Hear, O Israel. The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” It’s a way of building up immunity to idolatry. If The Shema is to have its way with us, we will love the LORD with all the heart, soul, and might in us, with no love left over for any idol.
The Shema’s opening could just as easily be translated, “the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Praying The Shema this way is equally important to building up an immunity to idolatry. The pagan gods of ancient religions were temperamental, fickle, schizophrenic. Pagan worshippers were constantly negotiating – a greater and greater sacrifice, a longer and more flattering prayer in return for more children, more crops, more success for our army against someone else’s army. But the LORD is one. There is no negotiating with our God, because he doesn’t change, because he’s not temperamental and schizophrenic. His love, character and will don’t change. He does not hold us to one standard today and another tomorrow. He does not us you a certain amount today and a different amount tomorrow. He is not two gods. He is one God.
Idolatry is not a problem simply because it’s against the rules. It’s a problem because it takes the love in us and splinters it in a hundred directions. Idolatry means I’m going to love whatever seems to be beneficial for me to love from moment to moment. Idolatry means I’m going to love with only part of the heart and soul and might. Life free of idolatry means our love is free to move solely in the direction of the one God who put that love in us in the first place.
This is why there’s a danger to “putting God first,” because if God is first, what’s second? And how can this second thing manage to exist separate from God? Even if we’re giving God the biggest piece of the pie when it comes to our love and time and devotion, should there be a second thing asking for our love and devotion that God is not involved in at all? Are we maintaining little parts of our lives where God isn’t welcome? Little thoughts, little commitments, little loves that we’ve locked God out of? Do we justify them by telling ourselves that God still has the biggest piece of the pie?
Because God is one, it means everything in our life is being pulled in one direction. The various moving pieces of my life are not meant to be kept separate from each other. Behavior, career, marriage, finances, politics, friendships – they all originate in God and return to God. The heart of God is the source and destination of everything I think, everything I say, everything I do, everything I desire. It’s the in between that gets us in trouble. Somewhere in between the source and the destination, we fall for the lie that God isn’t one after all, that God is the god of my Sundays, the god of some of my finances and some of my behavior and some of my desires, but not all of it. And so the greatest command moves us to shema, to listen – listen to the God who truly is one God and let the one God begin to move your splintered loves back in the proper direction.