Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The First Commandment Shall Be Last


 
When Jesus said, "The last shall be first and the first shall be last," I highly doubt He meant that the first and Greatest Commandment should be the last thing on our list of things to do.

If you run a successful business, you are probably centered on a mission. You evaluate everything you do in light of that mission. Knowing human nature, you have to be reminded of it time and again, to make sure it stays front and center.

You might distill that mission into a motto and share it on bumper stickers, placards hanging on doors and anywhere else eye-worthy.

Great businesses keep their eyes on the ball.

This is part five in a series exploring the centrality to Christian faith of what we have traditionally called the Greatest Commandment (links to the others are at the bottom of this post).

Jesus told us in all four Gospels: We are to love God and neighbor abundantly. Jesus gave many commands throughout the Gospels, but this one is called the "Greatest" for a reason--Jesus actually said this was primary.

Being loving is not just a collection of isolated actions. Love is not just something we tack onto our other actions. Rather, Jesus tells us that Love is the essential infrastructure on which all the other rules and parameters hang, as we explored in the previous post. We ought to put it first and then re-order everything else in light of it.

If what we do isn't loving God and neighbor, we should seriously question why we are doing it at all.  We should immediately give some serious thought to what else we should be doing instead.

Before we do anything and everything, the question that should be forever on our lips from the moment we wake till we bed down to sleep at night is: Are we loving God and loving neighbor in what we do? 

We should be researching, compiling lists, best practices. It should be out front and open.

There should be study groups at every church on how to love God and love one another. I've been to a lot of churches and I have yet to see a "Greatest Commandment Ministry Group."
 
In response to that, I find myself asking: What part of "Greatest" and "Commandment" are we not understanding?

A "commandment" is what is sounds like--a command. 

And "greatest" is also pretty self-explanatory. I'm really not sure where the confusion is here.

I don't mean to be snarky, but this is really extraordinarily simple. This is one of the reasons why Jesus said that children will get it but adults may not--why the poor will get it but the rich won't. There is nothing intellectually difficult about the Greatest Commandment. It is the centerpiece around which all else should be built, it is the structure on which the Law should hang and it should be our primary focus as disciples and as church communities. It is the sign of our Cristian identity.

Unfortunately, religion--for all its benefits--can often train people to doubt their own childlike wisdom and common sense. It becomes a way to dumb us down rather than open us up to the Mystery.

What makes The Greatest Commandment difficult is our enormous resistance to its message. It is enormously simple. It is also enormously difficult. It takes spiritual maturity to even entertain it. It requires us having tremendous trust in God and letting go of all of our attachments. It is so strong it is like looking at the sun--we can only catch a glimpse and then our bodily reflexes immediately jolt us away.

No sooner do we hear the Commandment than we immediately find all sorts of exceptions and exemptions. We seize every opportunity to push this commandment away, keep it at arm's length, minimize it or just put it off for a rainy day. We hear it but it vibes with a massive cognitive dissonance contrary to the ways of this world, so we reflexively dismiss it--Jesus couldn't possibly have meant that, right? It's so different, it's just--out of this world.

***

You could easily say you're tired of me complaining.

You could call me out on this.

I've been rambling now for several blog posts about how much of Christianity seems to ignore--or at the very least minimize--the Greatest Commandment to love God and one another, something Jesus explicitly told us to do in all four Gospels.

You could say--and rightfully so--that love is indeed preached in the churches in all that we say and do.

It IS like looking at the sun in that we don't look at it directly, but it does illuminate everything we do.

You could say that all we do flows out of love: Our worship is a love for God. Our social justice and charity efforts come out of desire to love our neighbor. You would be hard pressed to find any positive movement for mercy and justice that did not showcase the church right in the middle of it, oftentimes starting the whole movement.

Love is everywhere in the churches, you could say.

We may not have a "Greatest Commandment" ministry group, but we do have a food pantry, a hospital visitation ministry, a social justice club and a worship committee.

It might seem trite to have a church group devoted to sewing robes for the choir--but we show love for God through worship and those robes are part of that expression. When we ask ourselves, what does love look like? The answer may be: Arthritic hands delicately tending to worn holes in altar robes or a person on their hands and knees removing wax from long-burning candles on the carpet.

Jesus tells us what to do but like a good leader He does not tell us how to do it (this is a paraphrase of General George S. Patton, who seems like a very awkward person to compare with Jesus, but I must give credit for the quote where it's due).

It's up to us to work it out, sweat it out, to paraphrase someone else (this time, it's Fr. Daniel Berrigan from Ten Commandments for the Long Haul (that's better, I'm must more comfortable with the person I'm quoting here)).

But I also know from experience that those people leading those movements for social change are often the minority. They are often mocked, ridiculed and marginalized by their own church communities. Likewise, those old men and women who stay late to clean the church are often left by themselves as the rest of the congregation hurries out the door towards Sunday picnics.

Yet, when the roll call is announced, we all-too-often want to claim those marginalized people as representing us, too. We all take pride in a clean church and in the acts of service done in our name by others.

We can read about the wondrous life of St. Francis and be convinced of his saintliness. But when Francis of Assisi knocks on the door, beckoning us to follow his example of intentional poverty and service, we refuse to open. When Martin Luther King, Jr., calls us to follow his path of nonviolent social change ,we stall.

Yet, I bet if God were to hold the church accountable for following His Commandment, we would be the first to claim that the church clean-up crew, St. Francis and MLK Jr were one of us! We'd pull them right out of the margins and push them to the front of the crowd and say, "You see! They belong with us, too!"

That is the scandal--the fact that the people who love abundantly are used as a cover for the rest of us.

There probably is some truth that these saintly people are instruments in the redemption of their respective communities--redemption and reconciliation are not exclusively individual affairs (Colossians 1:20), but that should not be an excuse for the rest of us to sit idly by.

You see, there are many places to run from the totally life-changing call of this Commandment. We have no shortage of places to wiggle out of it, deny, divert attention or claim that we are following the Commandment when we are not really heeding it much at all. This blog series is, after all, a look at all little (and not so little) ways we push the Commandment off to the side.

The way we handle saints is much like the way we treat the Greatest Commandment--which should not come as a surprise, as they are the closest living embodiments to that Commandment. We enshrine them and push them away in one brilliant, clever move.


Dorothy Day figured this out. She is famous for saying: "Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily."

We either ignore the saints or we celebrate them. Both are devious ways of avoiding the task of actually being like them. Once someone has been made into a saint, we subtly put them into a category of "superhuman" and just keep them at arm's length. It's like the more we honor them the less we have to be like them!

Dorothy Day tried hard to avoid that. She's a person like me and you. What she did is something we could all do. As much as she loved the litany of saints, she knew the risks that come with that designation.

I wish I could remember who said this, and if I ever figure out how to properly attribute it, I will gladly do so. It was a great quote that went something like: Everybody loves St. Francis, but nobody wants to be St. Francis!

We love this belief stuff.

We aren't so fond of this action stuff.

Love is there. But it's not front and center like Jesus told us it should be. That is the scandal.

And yes, love does factor into why we do what we do. Why we have social justice committees is to love our neighbor. Why we have beautiful worship services is because we love God. But when God Himself gives us the Commandment to follow, how often have we made that the #1 priority?

We don't flat out deny Jesus' Commandment--we just mention it and then quietly push it off to the side to focus on something else.

We entertain the Greatest Commandment and nurture gentle embers. But why isn't it preached front and center? Why isn't it preached as essential? Why isn't it preached as fundamental? It's like we kept the words of Scripture, but we have removed all its teeth.

The Greatest Commandment comes off like something we do on the side--and that's how we have ignored it. It's hiding in plain sight. We keep it--sure. We do a few good things in the name of love, of course. We honor many saints throughout history, hoping that their witness, by association, somehow gives credit and credibility to us.

If we had just tossed out the Commandment, it would have been a pretty obvious affront to Jesus. So we keep it, and we just sort of . . . ignore it. And we all benefit from ignoring it. We talk about it just enough to act like we have checked it off our list. But Jesus wants our enthusiastic "all in."

We put The Greatest Commandment in its golden cage: Right in the middle and completely neutralized, ignored and immobilized, like the poor elephant in the living room.

***


This is part 5 in the series, "What Makes a Christian?" Each part stands on its own.
Part 1: The Elephant in the Living Room
Part 2: Like Looking at the Sun
Part 3: John 3:16 vs the Greatest Commandment
Part 4: The Law Hangs in the Balance of Love
Part 5: The First Commandment Shall Be Last

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