What is the highest value of our culture? How does that single value arrange other values?
When we ignore the rhetoric and simply look at someone’s lifestyle (ourselves or others), we’ll soon learn the answer to the question: what’s most important? The question asks more than values. It points toward a life orientation. It helps to answer the greater question: what is the purpose of life?
In a relationship with God, we can ask the same question: what’s most important? How does that question impact our prayer life, our family life, our social life? What one principle or character trait tells others we are followers of Christ?
A scribe asked Jesus that question. While Jesus’ answer may have been a common one at the time, the underlining understanding Jesus gave the answer changed more than his followers. It changed the world.
Jesus answered the first part of that question with the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4-5. Love God with all your being. Love in this sense was not an inner emotion or psychological state alone. In the time and culture of Jesus, love meant allegiance. As God made a covenant with his people (a formal allegiance between a king and his subjects), he demanded a response. A commitment and a faithful life to that allegiance (i.e., covenant) was the only answer.
Jesus backed up the Shema with another important verse: love of neighbor. This meant allegiance to one’s community. Of course, different groups could interpret this phrase in different ways.
What did love for one’s neighbor mean to the followers of the Nazarene? For the evangelizing Christians, love meant a certain openness to the stranger, the outcast, and the sinner. For many Christians had found themselves with those titles in the past. In addition, it meant caring for those who had no one else to care for them: widows and orphans. Finally, it meant a code of conduct that showed the utmost fidelity to community itself. They clung to each other for survival, for strength, and for growth.
What’s most important? What’s first? With apologies to the late Bud Abbot and Lou Costello, the question can be put another way for the Christian. Who’s on first? Just as that line set up the classic comedy routine, that line sets up our perspective on life. Who’s on first in our life? Is it us or Jesus? If the answer is us, we’re on our own. For, we have put ourselves in God’s place. So there is no room for God or others. If, however, the answer is Jesus, we can rest assured God is helping us to love him with our very being and everyone else as ourselves.