When we hear the Lord Jesus quote the Shema in order to express the greatest commandment, He draws us back into the beautiful drama of the book of Deuteronomy.
Hear, O Israel. You shall not have strange gods.
Now, the “strangeness” of any god other than God—this strangeness runs deeper than just ancient Jewish national identity.
Serving any god other than the real God estranges any human being from himself, not just a Jew.
The ancient Israelites received gestures of love and friendship from the Almighty Creator of heaven, earth, and every nation. Therefore, when we Gentiles read about God’s dealings with the Israelites—that is, when we read the Bible—the storyline does not come off as “strange” at all.
To the contrary, a harmony sounds in the depths of our souls: This God of the ancient Israelites is no stranger to us. He is our Maker and our Lord. We have known Him since the first moment we looked with wonder upon His world. The Bible is not the book of a foreign people. It is our book, because this is our God. The one God.
In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people: Do not degrade yourselves by serving anyone or anything other than God.
Do not degrade yourselves. In other words: We do not serve God for God’s sake; we serve Him for our sake. Unlike the strange pagan gods who manipulate, mistreat, and play vicious games with their adherents, the true God deals with us with strong, serene, and generous love.
Of course, God is nonetheless breathtakingly demanding. While serving Him does not in any way demean us, it does, however, require of us something more than any strange god could ever demand.
A person could spend his whole life as a slave of avarice or lust, exhausting himself while piling up money or chasing pleasure. But the innermost depths of such a man would never be touched. All his other faculties get strained to the breaking point with futile exertion, but his heart of hearts atrophies within him, like an un-used muscle.
Serving God, on the other hand, demands constant exercise of the center-point of my very being. We cannot serve the true God any other way than by loving Him with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds, and all our strength.