Number One Priority (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; James 2:14-26; Matthew 6:24-33)
When Jesus was asked about the Greatest Commandment, do you remember what he answered? He said that folk were “to love God with all that is in them” (paraphrased from our Old Testament Lesson in Deuteronomy 6), and “to love our neighbours as intensely and with as much care as we love ourselves” (paraphrased from Leviticus 19). For those who follow Jesus these two are Policy from headquarters. Whatever else we do contextualizes either the love of God or the love of our neighbour. Today I want to think aloud about what it can mean for us to love God in our time and place.
For those who were here last week, I suggested to you that the God that we meet in the Bible, in Israel’s history, in the life and teachings of Jesus, in Paul’s ministry, etc., has a character the power of which is expressed not only in watch care over the big things, but in the care and tending of the small, the weak, and the despised, and that any view of God that does not include care for the last and the least does not describe the One Jesus called Abba. Jesus (and with him Judaism and Christianity) considered the words, “You shall love the LORD our God with all your passion (your soul, so called), with all your physical efforts (your strength, so called), and, then, summed up as “with all your heart” (which is the place Hebrews spoke of as coordinating thinking, feeling, and doing) as basic to all service of God. My paraphrase is simply, “Love God with everything in us.” With our best. Loving God is our Number One Priority. Of course, what that means is important to understand.
Let us lay a groundwork with the passage in Deuteronomy 6. It is, many times, helpful to look at the verbs in a text in order to understand the direction of what’s being said. If I was even close to right last week about who God is, then God is of higher and deeper mystery than any words we might use to describe God. This also applies to words in the Bible. Nonetheless the words in the Bible can give us insight into God’s character and our duty towards God.
Our Deuteronomy Lesson begins with words that most Jews in the world have memorized in Hebrew. “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one.” If you looked at the pew Bible you’ll notice this translation is a tiny bit different. In fact, all words are ambiguous as we move them from one language to another (and even within the language of their writing). If you look at the little footnote in the pew Bible you’ll find some other alternate translations, but if we can stick to mine (which is fairly straightforward): “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one.” Note the words are addressed to “Israel,” (the people of God, us, among others). This whole people is addressed as if it were one person (all the verbs are singular), and the speaker is included in this one people for whom the LORD is God (“our” God). If you would be in this one people there is but one God. The LORD (that’s Yahweh in Hebrew) is our God, and is one. There may have been many deities in that world, but for this people “our God” is this one and no other.
All the rest of the verbs in our text take on the flavour of command (as the main verb, “to hear” was a command). The next verb is “to love.” Those who have chosen to enter into covenant with this God have a number one priority: “to love the LORD with everything in them.” And there is only enough of this kind of love for one. What does it mean to love God that way?
As I have said before, in the culture of the Bible, “to love” did not primarily mean “to have a warm feeling (even an overwhelmingly passionate feeling) about God.” To love meant to “embrace socially and publically,” “to associate with openly,” and “to show loyalty toward” “to keep the values of” someone, openly and in public life. Those who love God have God’s values as their own publicly. There isn’t room for competing loyalty, because that’s to buy into competing values. So much for loving God.
Now we come to those other verbs. The pew Bible has the verbs “to keep, to recite, to talk about, to bind, to fix” and “to write.” These apply, the text says, to “these words that I am commanding you today.” What words? Ambiguity again. Since the verbs are all coordinated with the verb “to love,” which is coordinated with the command “to hear,” it’s clear that the things commanded have to do with loving God. It would take us some time to talk ourselves through all these verbs. Suffice it to say that, if you are in covenant relationship that you keep the words (that is, loyalty), recite them, teach the ideas to a new generation, talk about the words in many settings (that is, interpret and find new ways of applying them) in a public way.
Further “Bind them on your hands and heads, write them on your doorposts and on your gates.” We can read these words at least a couple of ways, either woodenly, and end up with ancient words written on our heads, hands, doorposts and gates, like monuments or gravestones, or we can understand the words to be saying, “Make God’s values a part of our deepest selves.” I choose the second, more figurative, way of understanding these words and commend the practice to you as more difficult, but more rewarding and long lasting than repeating ancient words. As we keep these words (most of which have really to do with how we relate to others) we are loving God. That’s why, when Jesus was asked about the great commandment, he added that another one that summed up how we love God: “Love your neighbour (the one who needs you) as you do yourself.” Let’s leave Deuteronomy 6, as rich as it is.
The Epistle Lesson from James further encourages this second, or figurative, path of understanding. In James’ community, apparently, there were those who said that faith meant simply repeating the ancient words and making others not only to subscribe to them, but to certain ways of understanding them in order to be “in” the community. They called that “faith.” This is not the only or best way to understand the word “faith,” and James reacts to the misunderstanding of it as merely repeating old words and statements and confessing, “We Believe!” He contrasts this with living God’s values as a practical, daily matter. He uses the example of the one who is concerned about those who have no home or food, and so wishes them well, (“be warmed and filled”) or even prays for them. And James isn’t very nice about this here. He actually says, in pretty blunt Greek, “What’s the use of that?” It is useless to satisfy oneself that mere words (even uttered in prayer) that say we embrace God’s values are enough. What is needed is action according to these values we embrace (or “love”). Mere confession of such so-called faith is dead. At one point James says, “You believe that God is one? (Remember that’s how our passage in Deuteronomy 6 began.) “Dandy,” James says, “Even demons believe that – they believe it fervently – and are terrified.” James says that we need to make sure that what we say about God works itself out in appropriate and public action. If we say that we have no other gods for our community, then we’d better demonstrate it by living in ways that are consistent with God’s values. Words alone are not enough. Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them” (Mt. 7:16). We learn who we are by what we do, and what we do is determined by whose values shape us. That could be very concerning to people of faith.
Indeed, it could lead us to worry about our lives. In our Gospel Lesson from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus started by restating “the LORD is our God, the LORD is one,” when he said, “No one can serve two masters.” He contrasted God and “mammon,” an Aramaic word for “possessions.” Jesus spoke about choosing the wrong master, the old gods of wealth and prosperity and driving ourselves to get them. Jesus contrasted this with choosing and serving the right master, living in covenant with the God who liberates slaves from all kinds of harmful values.
Right after this part about getting the right master, Jesus spoke about worry. Sometimes we read the Bible as if it were little pearls on a string, with nothing much relating the self-contained little pearls. If we read other things that way, we’d never understand anything longer than a sentence, and if we read the Bible that way, we won’t either. Sentences that are next to one another are usually related to one another. Jesus said having the wrong master will drive us to worry. Now, Jesus isn’t saying that if you live a Christian life you won’t or shouldn’t worry about some things, but this kind of worry comes from having the values that say, as the culture at large still does, “Get more, build more, buy more.” That’s not loving God with everything in us, or even our neighbours as ourselves. These are the values of “other gods that compete.” The worry Jesus is counseling against here has to do with having more and more and never enough, and being worried when we can’t keep up.
Such worry is unnecessary, first, because it does no good. God takes care of us whatever happens (remember, Jesus taught us to pray for our daily bread, not our daily cake). Second, such worry is unnecessary because worry is no guarantee of success. We can’t add a day to our lives (or an inch to our height) by worry. What will be will be. And God, though the community of the faithful will support us whatever that is. If we choose the right master, it is the God who values the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, and us too.
This number one priority of loving God with everything in us means entering covenant with the God who is our God, and is one (singular, all alone, with no other to challenge). This greatest commandment is really a call to live in covenant with this God and with one another. It requires a change in values that is absolute. It means trusting and committing ourselves to the values of living with others in the way of neighbours. This requires the adoption of values we find in this God.
The way Jesus put it in the Sermon on the Mount was that, instead of living by worry about making it big in the world, make your quest, first, the values of God (the ancient words he used were “kingdom of God”) and, second, the things God does and encourages in us that conform to these values (the ancient words he used were “God’s righteousness”) and you will have what you need in this world (the ancient words were “and all these things will be added to you”). This was Jesus’ take on what Deuteronomy 6:4 called “Loving the Lord our God with everything in us as priority number one.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.