Topical Scripture: Matthew 22:34-40
“Happy New Year.” Those words, or their equivalents, were first heard in ancient Babylon 4000 years ago. They were the first to celebrate the new year; their party lasted for eleven days, if you can imagine. Today New Year’s Day is the most universal of all holidays, transcending religions and cultures everywhere.
Black-eyed peas are considered good luck for the new year. I have no idea why—it cannot be the taste.
And making resolutions is as old as the holiday itself. The Babylonians invented this custom as well. Their most popular new year’s resolution was to return borrowed farm equipment. I’ve made the same resolution for this year myself.
According to an Internet survey, the five most popular resolutions are, in order, lose weight; stop smoking; improve relationships; make more money (which might improve relationships); and take up a new hobby (now that we have more money). I think we can do better with our lives in this new year, don’t you?
Last week we thought together about our life purpose. Did you pray about yours? Did you spend thirty minutes a day with your Heavenly Father, talking about this issue? If you did, you have a sense of his direction already.
Now, we need to look at the priorities by which he intends us to fulfill his purpose for our lives. The Great Commandments fulfill the Great Commission.
If you wonder how God wants you to live every day, look to Jesus’ answer to the same question. If you want to escape the urgent, the stressful, the frustrating, and experience a life filled with deep satisfaction and daily purpose, look to Jesus’ prescription for a life lived well.
Jesus’ prescription for a healthy life
Here’s the situation. This is Tuesday of Holy Week; Jesus is in Jerusalem, and the religious authorities are desperate. The crowds are wild with enthusiasm for him, and the established leadership fears riots or worse. They must do something about this Nazarene.
So the Herodians, their political faction, try to trick him with their question about paying taxes, but they fail. Next, the Sadducees, their religious authorities, try to trap him with their question about marriage in heaven, but they fail as well.
Now the Pharisees, their legal authorities, gather. They select one of their own, a brilliant scribe and expert in the Jewish Law, to challenge Jesus. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” he asks (Matthew 22:36).
Understand what he’s asking. The authorities counted 248 affirmative commandments, as many as the members of the human body; and 365 negative precepts, as many as the days of the year. The total number of their laws was 613, as many as the Hebrew letters of the Ten Commandments.
Which is most important? If he chooses one, he’ll be accused of neglecting all the rest. What would you say if a lawyer asked you, “What is the most important law in America?” If you answered with our laws against murder, someone will say that you endorse stealing; if you affirm our laws against drug abuse, someone will say that you are soft on human rights. And so on.
In essence, the lawyer is asking Jesus, how should we live? Out of all of God’s revelation to us, what commandment is the essential principle for life?
We join in asking the question. Not because we want to trick Jesus legally, but because we need to know practically. We need to simplify our lives, to find direction in times which are too hectic.
The cost of job stress in America is estimated at $200 billion annually.
Stress-related injuries on the job have tripled in recent years.
Fatigue is among the top five reasons people call their doctors. Of the top twenty prescription drugs, eleven are for treatment of high blood pressure or ulcers—stress disorders.
Everyone has this problem. Even librarians have a guide called Stress and Burnout in Library Service. Mothers of school-age children average eleven hours per week simply driving around.
What is the greatest commandment in the Law? Put in our words, what is the secret to living well?
Here’s Jesus’ famous answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (vs. 37-40).
Here is the “nail” on which everything else hangs. Here is the sine qua non, “that without which there is nothing.” Get this right, and everything else will be right; get this wrong, and nothing else can be right.
Here are the priorities of life, boiled down. Life in a nutshell, the secret to living on purpose, to living well. Let’s examine them in turn.
First, Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Note these facts.
One: this has been God’s basic principle for life since he first revealed himself to us. These words are part of the Shema, the ancient and essential creed of Judaism. This is the sentence with which every Jewish service still opens, and the first text which every Jewish child commits to memory. This is the way God has always taught us to live.
Two: “heart,” “soul,” and “mind” means that we must love God with every part of our lives, every day. The “heart” was the seat of the will for ancient Jews; the “soul” is the life principle itself, and the “mind” is the place of reasoning. In every decision we make, in every thought we think, indeed in every dimension of life itself, we are to love God. He will accept no spiritual schizophrenia, loving him on Sunday but not Monday, loving him when we’re with some people but not others, loving him when things are good but not when they are not. He wants us to love him every day, with every dimension of our lives.
Three: this is an impossible standard without his help. More of this in a moment.
Now, to the second commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus says that this is “like” the first commandment; the original Greek shows that the two are of equal importance and inseparable. They are the two wings of the same airplane, the two sides of the same coin.
Your neighbor is whoever happens to be near you right now. Whoever is at hand. Jesus says to love our neighbor, because that’s the only person we can love.
You are to love the person seated next to you “as yourself.” With the same commitment you make to yourself. We have an instinct for self-preservation; we must seek the preservation and good of that person as we do for ourselves. We tend to excuse our own mistakes—after all, we know what we meant to say, or do. We must do the same for others. We think first about how this will affect us—we must think first how this will affect our neighbor.
This is not a suggestion, but a command. Like the first, we cannot do this without the help of the Spirit of God.
This is revolutionary stuff. I’ve been living by these priorities more intentionally this week, and they’ve been extremely powerful for me. To judge every thought, every decision, every minute by the standard of loving God; to see others with the same grace and forgiveness I see myself—this is already powerful and helpful for me. And I feel that I’ve just begun.
Being like Jesus today
Here’s a simple way to picture the priorities by which we can fulfill our life purpose.
Our painted glass window over the baptistry is the most famous scene on our campus. It pictures Jesus at his baptism and in his glorified resurrected state. Dr. Howard worked with the Payne Studio in Paterson, New Jersey to design the window. And its depiction of the resurrected Christ is exactly the theology Jesus is teaching us today.
See Jesus’ two hands. One is extended in the air toward his Father in heaven, and the other down toward earth and humanity. One points to God, and the other to us. One reminds us to love God, and the other to love our neighbor.
And we are to be like Jesus. “Christians” means “little Christs.” God desires that we be “conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Romans 8:29). Here’s how: by living with both hands. With one hand toward God, and the other toward our neighbor. By making these the priorities of our lives, every single day.
Your Father wants you to live with one hand towards him always. To walk with him, to spend your day in his presence, to commune with him as spirit with Spirit. And he will bless and empower you when you do, as only he can.
And your world needs you to live with one hand toward your neighbor. People need to feel loved more than they need anything else in life. Your neighbor needs someone to care, someone to pilgrimage alongside, someone to listen. What a calling! What an honor!
I love something Rip Parker said at our Thursday morning prayer meeting. Speaking of his ministry to homeless men in Dallas, Rip said, “If one life is changed, that’s 100% better than zero.” He’s right.
Michel Quoist’s poem speaks to my heart. Remembering the time when mothers brought their children to Jesus, were pushed away by the disciples, and were in turn welcomed by our Lord, he writes:
Because, Lord,you no longer have arms to welcome the children of the earth,especially people seen as outsiders,like those who were pushed aside by the apostleswhen they crossed your path long ago.You no longer have knees for them to sit on,and eyes to look at them,words to speak to them and to make them laugh,or lips to kiss them tenderly.But the wonder is that you need us,you need me,imperfect mirror that I am,to reflect a few rays of your love.
How would you say you’re doing with God’s priorities for fulfilling his life purpose? Would your Father say that you love him with all your heart, soul, and mind—with every decision, thought, and moment? Would your neighbor say that you love him or her as yourself? Would you? Would you ask your Father to help you live as Jesus did—with one hand toward God and one toward us?
This is the only way to live life well.
In coming weeks we’ll apply these priorities to our most typical problems. For today, let’s decide that we want to—that we want to live with both hands. Perhaps this story will help.
Robert McFarlane was Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisor, a twenty-year veteran of the Marine Corps, and the architect of the Iran-Contra plan. When his plan failed, Mr. McFarlane resigned his position and later attempted suicide.
I heard him speak a few years ago at the National Prayer Breakfast. He told our group his story. He described the incredible power he had achieved, the ladder to success he had climbed. But then Bud McFarlane told us with tears in his eyes that it was nothing. He got to the top, and there was nothing there. Only after he fell off that ladder did he discover that it was leaning against the wrong wall—that life really consists of loving God and loving people. Nothing else.
Bud McFarlane told us that loving God and loving people is what matters. And that finally he can love himself.
He was right.