Balancing Acts – First Things First

tom b

Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns and appears the second week of each month.

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, ” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.”

(Matthew 22:36-38, NRSV)

According to The Free Dictionary (, the idiom “First things first” can mean “the most important thing should be thought about or done before any other.” For Jesus this meant loving God. When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

The scripture account continues saying that Jesus added, “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:39-40, NRSV).

Generally speaking, I would say that most of us “get it” with regard to Jesus’ answer; that is, we are to love God and love neighbors. J. R. Dummelow in the One Volume Bible Commentary quotes Philo, a contemporary of Jesus as saying, “To speak briefly, of the innumerable detailed exhortations and comandments, the two which in the most general manner sum up the whole, are the duties of piety and holiness towards God, and of lovingkindness and justice towards man.”

Both of these are important as Jesus indicated when he scolded the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” While Jesus indicates that justice, mercy, and faith are “weightier matters” than tithing one’s herb harvest, he instructs them that they should attend to these things “without neglecting the others.” Even the smallest things done to obey and honor God are important and show our love for Him.

We might take issue today with the idea that tithing even our herbs in any way shows that we love God, but evidently, according to the scripture, Jesus accepted it for what it was, an attempt to be scrupulously faithful and obedient. It is not enough to show our love for God by our actions, small or large, as Jesus made clear, but it is important.

Showing our love for God, in all sorts of ways, small and large, is not only important, it is, according to Jesus, our first priority. The “greatest commandment” is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

I think that we have a bit of a problem today with this, the greatest commandment. We in the 21st century are not much “into” commandments, in general. And, as peacemakers we tend to be focused on loving our neighbors, even our enemies. We tend to concentrate our time and energy on practical matters: feeding the hungry, seeking justice for the oppressed, speaking out for those who are marginalized by society’s rules and conventions. As important as these are, and Jesus certainly emphasizes that they are, they are not to be our first priority.

God has called (commanded) us to love Him with all of our being – our heart and soul and mind – that is, with all that we feel and are and think. The problem is how do we love God? Surely, not by feeling all “warm and fuzzy” about God. And surely, not by simply going to church, singing songs, and praying prayers. And not by simply loving others.

In John 14, as part of His final discourse with His disciples before His crucifixion, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments … Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.” (John 14:15,24)

We love God, Jesus says, by obeying His commands, the things He has told us and taught us that are good and right and beneficial: things that honor God and things that promote well-being for all people and all of creation. We know His commands from His word recorded in the Bible; from understandings and teachings adopted and passed on in His body, the church; and from the promptings, guidance, and conviction of the Holy Spirit.

We have Jesus’ commands (words/teachings) about feeding the hungry (Matthew 25:31-46), loving our neighbor (Luke 10:28-38), and loving one another (John 13:34-35). But we also have His commands about killing, adultery, marriage, truth-telling, giving, prayer, worry, wealth, forgiveness and many other things in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). And we have the commandments of God throughout scripture, including the Ten Commandments. Staying strictly with the Bible we have the commands and teachings of Paul, Peter, James, John, and others acting for Jesus, directed by the Holy Spirit.

It may be true that, as Paul says in I Corinthians 13:12, “we see in a mirror, dimly,” that is, we may not totally understand God’s truth and God’s commands or we may to some degree misunderstand them; nevertheless, we do see and understand somewhat. And, we have the guidance of the Holy Spirit who will “guide [us] into all the truth” (John 16:13). If, as Jesus says, our love for Him is shown by “keeping His words” then Jesus certainly expects us to follow (obey) His commandments. He must feel that we are able to understand them sufficiently.

If we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, then we will need to do several things. First, we must set our wills to do what God has commanded, not what we want to do or what we think is right or what others are doing. Second, we must know and understand what God has, in fact, commanded. We have scripture, the teachings and fellowship of the church, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to guide our understanding. And lastly, we must, begin to faithfully do those things.

All of this is centered in our spiritual health and development. While all times are times to be focused on our spiritual health, the season of Lent leading up to Easter is especially appropriate. Traditionally Lent has focused on baptism or reaffirmation of baptism, but generally speaking it is a time for a focus on prayer, fasting, self-examination and repentance. Engaging in these activities, or spiritual disciplines, will help us to grow in understanding, in our ability to set our will to God’s will, and in our ability to do those things which God has commanded that are good and right and beneficial.

Even though we are already into the Lenten season, if you wish to start doing some Lenten devotions, here are three Lenten devotional guides available online:



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