One of the teachers of the law . . . asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ And the second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher, the man replied. You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

. . . Jesus . . . said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:28-34)

“Heads up,” Jesus is saying here. “I’m going to boil all of life down to the essentials. The most crucial thing – the thing everything else hangs on – is to get your priorities straight and keep them that way. Your first priority is loving God with everything that’s in you. That means your heart belongs to Him first, and your whole personality reflects that love. It means you give first priority to understanding Him and His will, and eagerly desire to be in everyday relationship with Him. It means giving your strength to God first, and depending on Him to provide what you need for the rest.”

How easily I can turn this commandment on its head! Instead of focusing on God first and foremost, I can consign Him to an afterthought. Instead of nurturing an understanding of who He is, who I am in Christ, how to relate to Him and ultimately understand His will for me, I can spend my time trying to understand myself and others, what will make me happy and fulfilled, and how I might reach my goals. Instead of giving Him all my strength, I can just give Him whatever is left over after I do everything else. I can love my neighbors as long as I like them, and they don’t make what I consider unreasonable demands.

I can equate offerings of time, money and effort with devotion to God, but these can’t take the place of putting Him first in my heart, mind and strength. I can do things for God – good things that I choose – without really knowing Him or His will. I can work hard for the poor and disadvantaged, but unless I do it out of genuine love for God and in response to His leading, I’m not where He wants me to be: If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor 13:3)  “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt 6:33)

Putting God first, and understanding that every part of our lives and decision-making should flow out of intimate relationship with Him, is probably more challenging today than ever before. There are so many more immediate distractions that clamor for our attention, so many more ways to push God into the background. Our society no longer supports church attendance; the number of commitments on Sunday morning are in direct competition with it. There is no day set aside for God; every day is about more consumption, more profit, and more of doing our own thing. Prayer is referred to in a vague and generic sense, but Christian prayer is outlawed in the public institutions where it was once valued.

Society has changed; the need to put God first hasn’t. As He recedes farther into the background of our everyday lives, so does His peace, His strength, and our sense of purpose and direction. Without priority on my relationship with Him, relationships with others are less than they could be, because I’m less than I could be. In this kind of cultural climate, I’m more likely to be trying to keep up with the Joneses than loving them as myself.

For me, these words of Jesus are a very necessary heads up – not just for today, but for every day. Father, please help me to keep my head up, looking to You first, last and always.