Every day day you are faced with choices. Think of all the choices you made just today.
As a result of the myriad of options before us, and hopefully to choose wisely, we commit ourselves to the task of prioritizing. So, what is prioritizing? What is a priority? The word originates in the late fourteenth century from a medieval Latin word prioritatem which meant the “condition of being prior.” The word “prior” itself is a Latin adjective indicating precedence or rank. It came to be understood as meaning that which is “before." It also could be understood as that which comes next. As such, the next ranking monk in the monastery to the Abbot is still called the Prior.
A priority then became the word to describe that which we placed before something else, due to its perceived importance. The issue before you has rank and precedence over another issue. We then say it becomes our “top priority” (which of course is rather redundant… given that top and priority essentially mean the same thing!) Not only that, but intriguingly, the original word in Latin was only in singular. They did not have a plural form. Apparently, there would have only been one thing that was thought worthy enough to be given precedence.
It’s not until the chaos and complexities of modern-day English do we pluralize the word and now we have to prioritize multiple tasks. We now have “priorities” (plural). In our faced-paced world, where chronos ticks off the minutes, you have to make choices immediately. You have to be able to discern the trivial from the substantial (and not allow one to threaten the other). We cannot allow what matters most to supersede that which matters least. We must realize that not everything that is competing for our attention is of equal value and importance.
This is what Paul meant in Eph.5:15-16 “see then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, for the days are evil.”
So here is a working definition of priority: “The fact or condition of being regarded or treated as more important.” A priority means that something is more important than something else. That leads us, then, to create a list and rank things in terms of their perceived importance. And that list is most obviously in sequence. And for Christians that usually means something like this: 1. God 2. Family 3. Work 4. Church 5. Ministry 6. Self
Upon analysis, we need to ask some important questions.
What does it mean to have God in first place? Does it mean...
Give him the first of your time (but would that be quantity or quality?)
Think of Him first when you wake up?
Always think of God first before you think of someone next?
What demonstrates this – prayer, bible reading, church attendance?
What about putting your Family next? Does it encourage them to know that they are in second place? And how exactly is this done? How do you prioritize between wife, kids, extended family, in-laws? How much time should you give to family…less than God…more than work? And then is it “quality” time (kairos)… if it can’t be quantity time?
Then comes Work and or Church, and work is certainly not third or fourth in terms of time spent on the job! So, again, how do we understand this? Most spend more time at work than they give to God, family and church combined! What about stay-at-home parents… isn’t that work? And that’s 24/7! What does it mean to make Church a priority? And what determines that you are doing it - attendance, giving, serving?
And then finally there is Self. Where do I come in? When do we take care of ourselves? Isn’t it biblical that we are “last”? Do I even have any time leftover for myself? Then again, I’m sleeping 8 hours a day, eating 2-3 hours a day, so I am certainly devoting significant time to self..
The whole point is this - when we analyze life by the list, we realize how impractical and illogical it is. And why? Because a sequential list followed literally means that you must pay attention to one thing at the neglect of the other.
Does it bring glory to God if you pay attention to Him but neglect your family? Consider this real-life story concerning Bob Pierce. Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, spent 10 months of every year away from his wife and children. When you read his daughter’s book. She has no recollection of her father when she was a child. Bob Pierce to this day is a god in Asian culture. But what about at home and his family? He ended up with his life shattered, family fractured, divorced from his wife and his eldest daughter committing suicide! Do you think for one minute that that is the price God expected Bob Pierce to pay by putting God first on his list?
Does it edify your children to know that they will always and only be in third place on your priority list? Tell your wife you love her with all your heart but she will always be in second place… see how that works for you!
So, what’s the alternative? We need to recreate a Biblical paradigm. Years ago, I was heavily impacted by J. Grant Howard's book, Balancing Life's Demands. In this important book, Dr. Howard challenged the church to cast off the typical and traditional way we order our priorities and to understand a more biblical approach.
There are a number of passages in Scripture that address the ordering of our lives, but none is more important than this one - Matthew 22:34-40. This passage is the Bible’s premier priority passage. It offers the most powerful paradigm for the ordering of our lives.
This text is loaded with theological truths and practical repercussions that need to be carefully & accurately interpreted, and then applied!
Let me remind you that Biblical Hermeneutics is the science of accurately interpreting a text. Essentially it involves three key steps: observation, interpretation and application. So, let’s make some necessary observations from Matthew 22.
In vs.36 the lawyer asks Jesus to give him the one great commandment. In vs.37 Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 “you shall love the lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and then says in vs.38, “this is the first and great commandment.” But He doesn’t end with that. In vs.39 Jesus adds, “and the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And then concludes in vs.40 “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”
So, our first observation is to note that the pharisee asked for one commandment and got two! And Jesus even listed them as “first” and “second” and said that the second was “like” the first. This observation now leads us to an Interpretation which is first developed by asking the question - How is “first” and “second” to be understood?
"FIRST" is the adjective protos, which means "above all else," "foremost," or "prominent" (as in chief, a position of honor, principal). And, "SECOND" is the adjective deuteros, meaning “second” and can also mean “again.” But it does not seem like the reference to “second” means second in importance, for these two commandments are not being ranked, only listed.
The key to interpreting them is the word “LIKE” (“…the second is like the first…”). This is the adjective homoios, which means “resembling, the same as, similar in appearance or character, of equal rank.” Now we must ask - In what ways is the second commandment like the first? The answer can be listed as such:
IT is “great” vs.38
IT is “first” (foremost) vs.38
IT involves “love” vs.37, 39
IT involves “self” (you) vs.37, 39
Furthermore, notice that both are in the O.T. vs.40 (Deut. 6:5 / Lev. 19:18), and both focus on someone beyond self (God & Neighbor).
So, “LIKE” links the two commandments together as being of equal and related importance. (Someone described the two as being like two hinges on a door!)
What, then, does Matthew 22:34-40 teach us about priorities?
We have two.
They are of equal importance.
And…they are not necessarily in sequence.
Jesus is not outlining sequential priorities. He is establishing basic, biblical responsibilities. As Christians, we have two priorities, and they are of equal importance, and they are not necessarily in sequential order!
It is NOT "God THEN Neighbor" - IT IS "God AND Neighbor"
I am to love God AND my neighbor. I am to do them both, do them both now, and do them both all the time!
BUT, then, I'm not done. I am to love myself as well. (“Love your neighbor as yourself.")
In this Biblical paradigm, Is "self" last? NO! It is not ,"God THEN neighbor THEN self" - it is "God AND neighbor AND self"
The Great Commandment, while in two parts, is yet one Commandment!
The great commandment’s two parts cover three essential entities – God, Neighbor, Self – and any reference to either of those three parts individually is a reference to and an affirmation of all three collectively! We MUST get this! This is crucial to our hermeneutical process. This is critical to our interpretation. As such, therefore, we must have Scriptural support and proof. Consider these important passages:
For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:14 (Wait… no mention of loving God)
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2
Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Romans 13:8-9 (NO mention of Deuteronomy 6:5 at all)
And then there is one more proof THAT THE TWO ARE CONSIDERED ONE:
“Which is the first commandment of all?” Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. ’This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31
In terms of basic grammar, do you notice anything strange about that last sentence?
Nouns, verbs and pronouns should agree in gender and number. If noun is singular, the verb will be singular, and the antecedent pronouns will also agree in gender and number.
Look closely at the last sentence in Mark 12:31:
The noun “commandment” — is singular (even though two are listed!)
And the verb is singular as we would expect - “There IS no other…”
But look at the pronoun… it should read “There is no greater commandment greater than THIS (ONE).” BUT is says “these.” That is a plural form!
IF there are two commandments being ranked first and second, and they are separate commands, then the text must read “There are no other commandments greater than these.” But IF the two commandments are equal and thought of as One Commandment, then the proof is in the unique structure (which is in the Greek text) “There is (singular) no other Commandment (singular) greater than These (plural).”
“There is no other commandment (singular) more important than these two (plural).” Mark 12:31 (GNT) It cannot be any clearer than that! This is a startling revelation, and here's why...
God is not saying put me first and everyone else second (neighbors and yourself). The spiritual reality is that God is big enough, great enough, secure enough, loving enough to say… put me first, AND put your wife first, AND your husband first, AND put your children first, AND put your neighbor first, AND even put yourself first.
What? Make ourselves a priority? Really? Yes, that’s what Matthew 22 says! It is the situations of life that will determine who gets what time and when. It is the situations of life that will determine the distinction between the Chronos clock and the Kairos opportunities.
Matthew 22 affirms the reality that we will live our lives situationally and not sequentially. The only way this paradigm gets messed up is when you DON’T love the LORD with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength. Because then, if you don’t, loving your neighbor is futile and loving yourself is foolish!
The Bible says Love God. There is nothing greater you can do. And His Word also says, at the same time, love your neighbor, and while you’re at it, don’t forget to take care of yourself… You… stay healthy, stay happy, stay holy.
God… You… and your neighbor. These three. And the only one who is in question is…You! You are the one who is in question. There is no question that God loves you. There is no question that God loves your neighbor. What God wants to know is do you love Him? And do you love your neighbor? What God wants to know is do you love others for Him, because what God wants to do is love others through you!
Now we can understand when Jesus restores Peter in John 21, He asks him a simple question, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter answers, “Yes, I love you.” Jesus’ follow-up response is significant. Does He say… “That’s good Peter, I was beginning to wonder…”
NO! Notice what Jesus says to Peter, notice what Peter is told to do, that will validate the fact that he loves Jesus… The Lord says to him, “Feed my sheep” (i.e. serve people, nurture others…love your neighbor)
Just as compelling is the Apostle John’s statement in First John 4:20-21
If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both. (The Message)
So let's summarize:
The conventional, corporate model of priority-keeping is not suitable for the Christian. "Life by the List" is not practical and it is not even biblical.
With the myriad of options before us and the challenge to make the right choices confronting us every day, we see the need to prioritize those demands on our life. We have to balance them somehow. But “Life by the List” is not the way to do it.
J. Grant Howard is spot on:
A list of priorities doesn’t make sense. it can’t be intelligently explained. it can’t be easily understood. it can’t be logically lived out. no matter how you define and describe your particular approach, if it is a sequential approach, it is loaded with contradictions, complexities, confusion, and chaos.
Life by the list means life in sequence, and we almost never live our lives that way. We do not live our lives sequentially, we live our lives situationally. We should not sequence our priorities, but rather situationalize them.
There is an alternative to prioritizing our life with 1st/2nd/3rd/4th sequential ordering. There is an alternative to God being First on your list, and that is God being at the Center of your life. I realize that challenging “God first” seems so unbiblical, but we have to understand that the Bible calls for something that is even better, which is - God at the Center! In some respects that might be saying the same thing as God first. But dynamically, it really is a whole new orientation, and one that is more biblical. The next installment in this series will explain why. For now, I close with something J. Grant Howard suggested:
“When God is at the center of your life, any situation can potentially involve God… unless you insist on isolating him in first place!”
copyright © Joe LoMusio 2019