Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Main Thing

The Main Thing

© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Matthew 22:34-46

Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?

I had a friend once who reflected that the main thing in life is keeping the main thing the main thing. Leading a discussion on this passage at a Bible study once, I started our conversation by asking a question:

“What is the main thing?”

I didn’t give the question a context, like “When it comes to college football, what is the main thing?” or “If you want to stay healthy into your old age, what is the main thing?” or “What is the main thing to know about the gospel of Matthew?” To have selected a context for a “main thing” discussion would have made responses to the broader question too easy.

Just sitting here, without benefit of any boundaries placed on our responses, what is the main thing? Now, granted, in that Bible study we were sitting in a room with a dozen or so fellow church members expecting a Bible study to happen, so that in itself gave a preconceived context to the responses I suppose. But I didn’t say anything to prejudice replies. In answer to my question, “What is the main thing?” I received these responses:

· Jesus is Lord

· For God so loved the word that he gave his only son...

· Forgiveness

· God loves you

· Faith in things unseen

· Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

· Love one another, including your enemy

· Turn the other cheek

· Life together

Some great responses, really. Then I asked, “If a person who was a total stranger to us and to our ministry were to observe us for a morning here at church, what do you think they would say by their observations among us that we believe to be the main thing here?”

· Coffee

· Music

· Community

OK, I wasn’t depressed that no one said, “brilliant sermons,” because I am a realist; and I was only just a little despondent because words like “worship” or “Bible” or “prayer” weren’t mentioned, perhaps because that group might have been in a self-critical or a little bit of a smart-aleck frame of mind. But I think the exercise could be valuable in any church at any time. It might be good for all of us to think on those two items in our own personal devotional time in the week to come. We can give the first one a little more context, if we like:

1) What is the “main thing” in my life?


2) What would an outsider, observing the worship of our church fellowship, perceive to be our “main thing?”

There is an old story about the rabbi who was approached by two men arguing over payment for a chicken. The first one said, “This man bought a chicken from me. So he should pay for that chicken, right?” The rabbi answered, “Yes, you are right, he should pay for the chicken.” The other man said, “Yes, I bought the chicken from him, but since I did pay him, I should not have to pay him again should I?” Again, the rabbi said, “You are right, you should not have to pay him again.” At this point, the rabbi’s wife, overhearing the discussion, interrupted the rabbi, “Don’t be silly, certainly both men can’t be right.” And the rabbi responded, “Ah, yes, you are also right.”

C.S. Lewis once reflected that our theological questions are often as confounding as the answers of the rabbi: “Can a person ask questions which God finds unanswerable?” Lewis asked. “Quite easily... How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask – half our great theological and metaphysical questions – are like that.”[1]

Our Bible passage, as you must be realizing by now, involved Matthew’s recollection of a time when the Pharisees asked Jesus a question about the main thing: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” The main thing. Jews of the time were obliged to observe 613 laws, all of which were equally binding. This was a trick question. Choose one and you shortchange the others.

And if we’ve thought about it a bit, we might recognize that Jesus’ response begs the question, first, because he doesn’t choose from among the 613 obligatory laws, but chooses instead to recite what Jews call the shema,[2] and secondly, because he fails to single out one law from among the great commandments, and actually combines two instead: “‘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. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Since Jesus connected the two disparate commands, saying the “second is like it,” it was made to sound as if the two commands are, for all practical purposes, one. Which, it turns out in Christian practice ever since, they are. Or should be anyway.

One great rule in debate, as Jesus knew instinctively, is this: If you decide to answer a question from someone trying to get the best of you in a discussion, always answer the question he should have asked rather than the one he did ask. In reply to a question about the greatest commandment, Jesus responded with two commands, a combination punch. The main thing was really two things, so inseparably bound together in his theological thinking that it would be impossible to have the one without the other. To love the Lord your God, without a commitment to love of neighbor? Impossible! To manufacture a love of neighbor without relying on the empowering love of God to carry it out? Unthinkable! Then comes some more of that biblically theological math that confounds us: “The two are one.”

To proclaim love for God while failing to seek the best for others is absurd. To attempt to love others without relying on the empowering love of God is a failed enterprise from the start. Going at either one without the other reminds me of an old Berke Breathed Bloom County comic strip in which Opus the penguin decides one day, through the strength of nothing but his own power, to give up television and become more learned. As he walked to the library he announced,

Attention, dark world of electronic gratification

I would like to announce my intellectualization!

No more tv! No boob tube-a-roo!

‘Twas turning my noodle to video goo!

Yes, there's something much better for smart chaps like me

From what I have heard, it's known as 'to read’!

Books! I'll read books! Be they large or quite dinky!

Straight from the shelves all musty and stinky!

Faulkner! O'Neill! Twain and Saul Bellow! ...

I think I'll curl up with a few of those fellows!

Yes, I'll soon be well-read! Such a fab thing to be!

I've allowed plenty of time, at least an hour . . . or three.

But, after standing, bewildered, surrounded, amid towering bookshelves reaching to the sky, closing in on him, the next frame finds Opus on the sofa, snacking in front of the TV set, a voice calling from the TV: Gilligan!

We all know what it is to begin with enthusiasm for something new, a diet, or an exercise program, or a self-improvement book, and then find ourselves a few days or weeks later, back in the old grind, nothing changed, Cheetos bags scattered around. That’s how it is when we resolve to love our neighbors as ourselves under nothing but our own power. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard versions of the ancient lapsed-church-member refrain: “Well, I don’t go to church, but I believe in God, and I pay my taxes, and I try to treat everybody fairly.” I wonder if God is flattered by our believing in him without ever speaking to him. Is that the way we would treat a relative we don’t even like very much? “Uncle Henry is a pain in the patootie, so I never speak to him, but I believe he exists, and that’s good enough for me.” I suppose Uncle Henry might be less than reassured that someone cares about him only enough to confirm that he exists.

If there is any way in which we in the mainline churches fail, it is probably in the area of our flaccid attention span concerning the biblical requirements of our faith: Sabbath observance, tithing, prayer, worship, study, commitment to the poor, these are all building blocks in the very most basic foundations of our faith, yet how often do we actually think about them? In a moral universe of self-orientation, everything – even faith – can become self-serving. Religion can devolve into narcissistic spirituality, a way to find peace…for me, a way to find fulfillment…for me, a way to discover meaning, happiness, prosperity…for me. The stewardship season – on which we have embarked in our church – provides an appropriate time to think on exactly whom and what we live for, and to reflect our answer to that question in our giving.

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisee’s question is less a matter of information than of formation. What is the main thing? What is it that most forms your life and mine, the mold around which we find our living and our thinking and our being shaped? It is less a matter of knowledge than of obedience and religious practice. The main thing is not so much having the correct answer as having the right direction, the correct orientation.

Clearly, Jesus was on to something: love God, love others, it’s not two commands but one, they stand together, as they must, they are inseparable. Loving the Lord our God with heart, soul, and mind reminds us that our worship, as well as our relationships, are not matters of what we get out of either. The living of our truest faith takes place “both because of and despite the needs, strengths and frailties of the people present”[3] in community with us.

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, New York: Bantam, p. 81.

[2] Deuteronomt 6:4

[3] Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Houghton Mifflin, 1993.