Only one thing is most important

The question of my heart and mind has always
been: “What did Jesus say was most important?” That
question guides my interpretation of scripture. And in my
reading of church history and doctrine, that has been the
central question – if not always the only question – of the

As Christians we take the name of Christ, of Jesus,
saying in effect that the way of Jesus is our way, that the
words and life of Jesus guide us in all our decisions.
What, then, is most important according to Jesus?
Is there one thing, above all else, by which we make moral
decisions and value judgments in this life? I am convinced
the clear answer is “yes.”

The most important thing is love. Nothing is more
important than the love of God and of one another.
That’s what I learned growing up in church.

Matthew’s gospel tells the story this way. An
expert in the Jewish law, with its more than 600 commandments and a multitude of interpretations, came to
Jesus and asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” I can see Jesus answering
without hesitation because he lived his whole life this way :
“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.” [Matthew 22:34-40]

I preached the same message 51 years ago that I
preach today. If we love God and each other, we fulfill the
other desires of God as well. All other laws and commandments
of religion, if they come from God’s will, are
summed up in this one thing. After extensive reading,
study, preaching, teaching, and testing it in life and in the
church for three decades, I am convinced more than ever
that this is true, that this is the central message of Jesus.

Jesus is not the only one who said it, however. He was quoting
Moses, according to the tradition, from Deuteronomy 6 and
Leviticus 19. The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Rome:
[All the commandments] are summed up in this one rule:
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm
to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the
law. [Romans 13:9-10]

In 1 John, we read these challenging words to the
church: Whoever does not love does not know God,
because God is love….If we love one another, God
lives in us and his love is made complete in us….God
is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in
him….Anyone who does not love his brother, whom
he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.
[See 1 John 4:7-21]

Love as the all-encompassing moral value is the
word of Jesus to us, the Word of God. This is the message
of the New Testament, and I believe of the whole Bible.
All things are determined by our willingness to love God
and to love people. Our moral choices, our cultural and
religious values, our individual decisions – all are to be
formed by this one supreme rule: To love God and one

From Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church
pp. 25-28.

He really said that?

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says:

“Give to everyone who asks of you, and if anyone
takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back….
If you do good to those who are good to you, what
credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’
expecting to be repaid in full.”

And then the clincher:
“Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to
them without expecting to get anything back.”
And why would we do this seemingly impossible
thing? Because God “is kind to the ungrateful and
wicked.” [See Luke 6:27-36]

God is good to all people, not just those who love God.
The kindness, mercy, forgiveness,
and love of God go out to everyone regardless of
their moral character or level of faith. And we are called to
live the same way.

Jesus directly contradicts a major theme of the
Hebrew scriptures
, saying that God does not seek revenge
on “ungrateful and wicked” people. God does not
withhold good gifts from people because they are not
people of faith. God is kind, loving, and generous to all.

(See pages 24-25 in Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church.)

What Did Jesus Say?

            Jesus never spoke directly about abortion and homosexuality. He did say a great deal about life and love. He taught repeatedly about care for the poor, the danger of wealth, the abuse of religion, and the way of com-passion and mercy for the weak, the rejected, and the enemy.

So what does Jesus say and what would Jesus do? This question has always been the heart and soul of the Christian church. What Jesus said and did is our authority, the gospels are our primary source, and the Spirit of Jesus is our continuing guide in life.

Some people will object by saying that all scripture is our authority. I believe that as well. But the scriptures do not speak with a single voice about behavior and attitudes, about what is moral, about what is right and wrong.

Jesus goes beyond what the Hebrew scriptures said, and that was “the Bible” of Jesus’ day. At times Jesus even contradicted them in what we have called the Sermon on the Mount. Quoting from the Hebrew scriptures (the Christian Old Testament), Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said….” And then adds, “But I say to you….” [See Matthew 5]

In every example, Jesus moved beyond the traditional interpretation of the scriptures. He saw that the people had focused on outward forms of behavior and made that focus the most important thing while ignoring inward attitudes of heart and mind which Jesus said were more important.

People knew that murder was wrong, but Jesus said not to be so angry that we would curse someone. He told us to go and be reconciled with someone we have offended before we go to worship God.

Jesus goes beyond outward rules of behavior (do not murder) to deal with relational concerns. What we say and how we say it are also important. God cares whether we have offended someone, and if we need to be reconciled with another person, at least as much as God cares about our worship.

People knew that adultery was wrong, but Jesus said not even to look with lust on another person. [He said a woman because he mostly spoke to men; but it applies to all, even though men commonly wrestle more with it than women.]

Jesus honored the covenant of marriage with strong words for people who commit adultery, but he went beyond what scripture said to emphasize emotional and mental faithfulness as well. When a man looks at women with lust, he wants to dominate and use them for his own satisfaction. That happens within marriage as well. Faithfulness to another person grows out of love for that person and cannot be contained only within legal and physical boundaries of marriage.

People knew that breaking an oath was wrong, but Jesus said not to take an oath, not to swear, at all. Rather, simply be honest in all that we say.

Traditional interpretation of scripture has most often stayed in a narrow valley of understanding, focused on the outward limitations (do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not swear). Jesus takes us by the hand to lead us out onto a broad plain of understanding God’s intentions by turning our attention to what is inside of us, our attitudes, motives, unspoken desires. God desires simple, honest relationships of love for one another.

People had been told to limit their revenge, to take only an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But Jesus said not to take revenge at all. Do not respond in kind to someone who is treating you violently or unjustly.

Scripture allowed limited revenge for injustice and violence done toward us – eye for eye and tooth for tooth. Many Jewish people of Jesus’ day felt justified by the scripture to pray for revenge against their enemies, to seek it on their behalf, even to take it into their own hands.  Unfortunately, the same interpretation of scripture leads many Christians today in the same direction.

Jesus said the scriptures were wrong. God’s desire is for peaceful response, although directly confronting the abuser. Nonviolent resistance involves engaging “the enemy,” the unjust or violent perpetrator. Peacebuilders today often call it “the third way.” Rather than running away or passively accepting the abuse or injustice, and rather than fighting back with similar violence and injustice, we find a third way of loving our enemy in open challenge to their dominance and authority.

People had been told to love their neighbor, but were given permission to hate their enemies. Yet Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Follow the example of God, he added, who sends rain on all people, both evil and good at the same time. Go beyond loving only those who love us, for even the most despised of people will do that.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus goes even further. “Give to everyone who asks of you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back…. If you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full.” And then the clincher: “Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.”

And why would we do this seemingly impossible thing? Because God “is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” [See Luke 6:27-36] God is good to all people, not just those who love God. The kindness, mercy, for-giveness, and love of God go out to everyone regardless of their moral character or level of faith. And we are called to live the same way.

Jesus directly contradicts a major theme of the Hebrew scriptures, saying that God does not seek revenge on “ungrateful and wicked” people. God does not withhold good gifts from people because they are not people of faith. God is kind, loving, and generous to all. The implications of Jesus’ teaching form the foundation of what this book claims as core moral values for Christians.

I grew up in churches and in a home where the Sermon on the Mount and all of Jesus’ teachings were foundational for life. When I began to preach in my early 20s, I read the scripture and interpreted it according to what Jesus said and did. When I read passages, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, which made me wonder about the moral values of the people in the story, I would ask, “What did Jesus teach? What did Jesus do?”

From Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church, pp.20ff

10 Life Practices

Joy and I developed this list of life practices about 15 years ago. They have been the core of our work ever since.

Live from the center of our authentic self through  personal and spiritual practices including prayer, meditation, and reading scriptures.s

Learn who we are as unique individuals in relationship with others, examining our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Listen with compassion and generosity, cultivating awareness of what it might be like to be the other person.

Engage others with confidence and respect.

Emotional maturity
Speak and act appropriately in all situations, being aware of our feelings and choosing helpful responses.

Develop an ability to see the interdependence of all things and to live with an attitude of cooperation, seeking mutual benefit in what we do.

Learn to listen and tell our stories so we develop a shared narrative that enables us to transform our world.

Speak out of our own values and perspectives, offering alternative ways of seeing the world.

Creative imagination
Expand our ability to see the world from different perspectives, creating new perspectives for old problems.

Nonviolent engagement
Choose the way of love rather than fear, responding to threats with creative confidence in the future.

Language changes what we see

Language makes a difference in what we “see” – how we imagine things to be. We don’t think in words; we think in images. “Think of an elephant,” George Lakoff says, and you see an elephant. Use any word, and you don’t see the word, you see the image that the word provokes.

In the current conversation about policing in our communities and whether to “defund the police,” the word itself brings to our minds different images depending on our experience with police officers. If it has been good, it’s a positive word. If it has been a cause of fear, it is a negative word.

Calling them “officers,” for instance, reinforces the idea of hierarchy and domination. Police officers enforce the law. Force and domination are all too often what police bring to their job. And when a person’s experience with force and domination has always caused fear – built up through 400 years of slavery and Jim Crow and white supremacy for Black people – why would anyone expect them to feel positively? Words evoke images. Our imagination needs to be changed by changing the words and language.

What language can we use in place of police officers? Our answers will differ, depending in part on how we view “the police.” We can substitute words like public safety officers or community service personnel, but unless we change the reality of “the police” using force and domination, the language doesn’t change anything.

Many people who advocate for defunding the police are looking to a totally different model for creating safe communities. A safety response team with social workers and people trained in dealing with trauma and mental health concerns, for instance, would be much better than “police officers” responding to many community situations. What do we want people to “see” – to imagine – when we speak of people charged with public safety and community service? Changing the reality, as well as the language, is necessary to make this happen.

Creating a safe place

Here is a short version for use in any context of what I posted yesterday:

A Safe Place Covenant

(Short Version)

Examine: We will ask, “Does this contribute to love?” before we do anything.

Engage: We will act with respect, compassion, and generosity toward every person.

Listen: We will look for what is good in others, listening to their whole story.

Speak: We will speak only for ourselves, except to speak up for someone who is hurt.

Act: We will make people feel safe when they are with us.

Used by permission. © 2006 by Jimmy Reader. Original © 2004 by Jimmy Reader from Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church.

A Safe Place Covenant

Believing that love is the ultimate moral value because Jesus calls us to love God and one another above all else, we agree to ask ourselves and each other one core question: “Does this contribute to love?”

We agree to measure our thoughts, feelings, words, and actions by this one question, with the help of God’s Spirit. As much as possible, we will not speak or act until we have reviewed ourselves in this way. And if the group challenges our words or actions by this question, we will allow them to help us examine again what we said or did.

We agree that the practices of compassion, grace, and generosity are primary evidence of love, and we commit ourselves to engage each other in conversation and relationship by following these practices to the best of our understanding.

We agree to seek to live together in love by being faithful to these guidelines for our attitudes and behaviors:

  • Honor each person as one created in the image of God and loved by God.
  • Ask God’s blessing for each person and for ourselves as we seek to see and hear as God does.
  • Listen prayerfully, attentively, and without judgment to each person, being generous in our interpretation of what we hear and assuming a good motivation for what was said.
  • Speak for ourselves and not for others, using “I” rather than “You” as we tell our stories.
  • Ask for more clarification to ensure better understanding before responding, especially when what was said seems unclear or inappropriate.
  • Give each person appropriate time to finish his/her story or thought before anyone responds.
  • Agree to one exception – when something that is said feels hurtful or harmful, others in the group may interrupt to say, “Ouch! That hurts; that didn’t feel good…,” and may ask the person to say it a different way or to ask for clarification of what was said.
  • Invite full disclosure of a person’s story, feelings, and ideas, granting complete confidentiality – that nothing said will be repeated in another place without that person’s permission.
  • Allow for silence after each sharing of a story.
  • Grant permission for anyone to ask for a time of silence and/or prayer, suspending the flow of conversation temporarily.
  • Agree as a group to act with loving responsibility to provide emotional safety if any member of the group feels distressed or anyone becomes verbally or physically threatening or abusive.

Used by permission. © 2004 by Jimmy Reader. From Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church.

Basic Moral Values

The moral values I hold and the choices I make still come out of the core of
what I learned as a child growing up in church and in a Christian home.

I learned early in life simple lessons like these:
• Be kind to others.
• Be patient.
• Respect everyone.
• Forgive people who hurt you.
• Stand up to bullies without fighting.
• Be honest without hurting people.
• Let other people be who they are.
• Be faithful to your friends.
• Love God and other people.

These simple values form the concrete foundation
for the life God calls me to live out in the church, as well
as in the world. I am convinced that God calls the whole
church to live by them as well. As I experience the church
today, I see a large crack in the foundation.

Read my book Moral Values by clicking here.

Our neighbor is the one lying in the road

Sometimes violence comes from the lust for power or wealth. But for most of us, I think it comes more often from fear and anger and the acceptance of violence, believing the lie that violence resolves anything. All it does is lead to more violence.

So the way through these violent times is the way of love – of courage and compassion – of learning what to do with our fear and anger (which may be appropriate and certainly understandable – there is a reason, if not an excuse).

We can no longer justify ourselves by explaining away that our neighbor is anyone other than the one lying on the road, desperately in need of help. Nothing else matters. – Race, gender identity, religion, disability, economic status…nothing! All that matters is that we move beyond our fear and show love to all.

Personal Responsibility

Many people, especially those with traditional (conservative) views about religion and politics talk a lot about personal responsibility. How individuals need to take more responsibility for themselves and their actions and choices. Mostly, from a conservative view, this is said in the context of either poverty or sexuality. Think “getting a job” instead of “living off the system.” Or think women who face difficult choices because of unwanted (sometimes forced) pregnancies.

I agree that personal responsibility is an important value, but I have a somewhat different list to offer:

  • For men who get women pregnant – take responsibility for your actions.
  • For people who get rich by taking advantage of employees – take responsibility for them.
  • For all in public office who lie to their constitutents – take responsibility for the people who elected you.
  • For white people who benefit from simply being white – take responsibility for what happpens to people of color.
  • For the nation who spends more than any other nation on war – take responsibility for peace and spending our money on what will lead to peace rather than war.
  • For a nation with great wealth – take responsibility for people in nations without great wealth.

People have said that when we point one finger at someone else, four fingers are pointed back at us. Jesus said to take the log out of our own eyes before we seek to remove the speck from someone else’s eyes. This post is not a call to judgment against other people, but a call to examine ourselves. We all are part of something larger. No one can take responsibility only for oneself without accepting responsibility for other people as well.