On the face of it, this question a scribe asks Jesus seems silly: “Which commandment is the first of all?” All the commandments are important; is one more so than another? But if you’ve devoted your life to God’s law, and keeping the commandments is the measure of pleasing God, maybe knowing you can keep the most important ensures your fidelity to the rest. Or something.
And the fact is, not everyone would give the same answer that Jesus did. Many would say, “Oh, the most important is ‘thou shalt not kill,’” or “Thou shalt not steal.” Certainly the preoccupation with sexual sin among many American Christians would move “thou shalt not commit adultery” into the top spot. But Jesus says the Number One commandment has to do not with how we regard other people, but how we regard God. “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’”
This is the Shema Yisrael, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is one.” This is how we are to live a life of righteousness and holiness, not by focusing on our behavior, but by making God our focus, acknowledging who God is, and loving God with our whole selves.
How easy it is to take our focus off of God and let the life around us, this world and its people, consume our attention. As soon as we do that, we start to focus on behavior, not devotion. When we make God our focus and cultivate our love for God, godly behavior flows from us. When we start with moral behavior, we become more distant from God, trying to please God or walking away from what we feel are impossible demands.
To focus on God, on loving God, puts us in a place of Grace. To focus on moral behavior puts us in the space of Law. That is not a life-giving place to dwell, as Paul articulated so powerfully in Galatians and Romans.
What spiritual practices might we put into place to help us cultivate a God-focused life? Certainly a pattern of daily prayer, or frequent stops throughout the day to return our gaze God-ward is one strategy. Another is to become mindful when we’re in the grip of a negative emotion – anxiety or anger, despair or envy. Chances are our focus has become consumed by something or someone not-God. Awareness of our emotional state can remind us to pray about the issue troubling us and invite God’s grace to cover it, and us.
One day we will live fully in the presence of God, of love beyond our comprehension. All will be love. We prepare ourselves for that day by cultivating our awareness of God’s presence here and now, and learning to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.