The Cambridge Dictionary defines “falling by the wayside” as: If someone falls by the wayside, they fail to finish an activity, and if something falls by the wayside, people stop doing it, making it, or using it.
The agreed-upon understanding of the phrase is to express to the reader that someone was on the path to fruition or completion but for unforeseen or unperceived reasons did not finish the task at hand.
What, then, do we mean when we say when love for God and neighbor fall by the wayside?
First, what is the scripture reference for such a thought as one’s love for God and their neighbor? If you don’t mind, I would like to revisit a passage from one of the four gospels where Jesus alludes to this formerly misunderstood and poorly applied theology in his day.
“When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” – Matthew 22:37-40
Jesus is surrounded by a group of hyper-conservative religious sectarians, some of one lineage, the Sadducees, and later another, the Pharisees. Both groups sought to discredit Jesus’s ministry on earth because he went against their religiosity, their callousness toward people, their legalistic modes that weighed people down spiritually more than it pointed them toward a saving faith. These men were bent on obtaining control over the masses and becoming demigods to Jewish people. The first group attempted to catch Jesus in a lie or force him into making a statement that would make him lose his followers. Thankfully, they were masterfully rebuked and as the passage states, silenced by Jesus.
After this, the Pharisees, being more astute and perhaps erudite in their learning, wanted to push Jesus into another public relations nightmare where he would say something to affront God or the people of God.
They cornered him with a question: Which commandment in the law is the greatest?
Now, if you recall, the Hebraic world descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and from this Jacob whose name later changed to Israel, came twelve sons. Of these twelve sons, one of them was named Levi, and a descendant of this particular man was Moses. Now, we all know the story of the Egyptian would-be-prince turned to exile-then-deliverer of the Hebrews from the grips of a tyrannical Pharaoh.
Anyway, fast forward a bit, after Moses leads these hundreds of thousands of Hebrews out of Egypt, God sets them apart as his own people, forming them into a nation, at the time, without land. And here, on one of many mountain tops that surrounded that desert area they were forced to traverse to flee slavery, God delivered to his people these ten commandments.
You shall have no other gods before Me.
You shall make no idols.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Keep the Sabbath day holy.
Honor your father and your mother.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet.
The Hebrews, later known as Israelites, and later yet, known as Jews, honored these ten statements, these ten dogmas as their moral, spiritual, and civil identity and guiding rules in foreign lands. To dismiss or break one of them was to dismiss or break them all.
Therefore, in an attempt to force Jesus into committing a slip of the tongue, perhaps focusing more on one commandment rather than the other. If he stated ‘thou shalt not kill’ they would have challenged him and labeled him as adultery favoring man. Had he said ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’ they would have called him a sabbath breaker.
But Jesus being astute as he was, eternally wise and equally humble, delivered an irrefutable blow to his earthly foes:
“You shall love the Lord,” The first. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The second.
The second could not exist without the first and the first naturally leads to the second.
Jesus could have reduced the whole of the ten commandments, the hundreds of Levitical laws and Deuteronomical observances down to a single unifying law but he opted for the more wholesome and eternally more wise response: Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yours.
He honors the Law, the kings, and the prophet who preceded his earthly ministry. He honors his contemporaries, no matter their social or ethnic standing. And he honors the source of these commandments, which proceed from the eternal source of life, love, and wisdom, Himself.
Therefore, we now visit the title of today’s post.
When Love for God and Neighbor Fall By The Wayside
We must understand that if our love for God grows dim, from there, we can, and at times we have, justified all sorts of behaviors toward one another. If we do not love God with all our heart we may hate our neighbor with all our heart. If we do not serve God with the expansive nature of the mind we may just use that same mind to destroy our neighbor. If we do not serve God with all our might we may desire to serve men, as if they were gods, with all our might in the denigration of our neighbor.
And we have reached a point today where some of us claim to wholeheartedly love God but our love for our neighbor has cooled. It has, unfortunately, become callous.
We become like the Sadduccees and Pharisees of old who had the scriptures near their hearts, the Laws and Commandments memorized from childhood, the history of their people engrained in their learning, and an unquenchable desire to serve God.
But the same groups treated their disciples, servants, hired hands, and fellow Jews as second-class citizens or lesser than that.
An excerpt of how Jesus spoke of these, shortly before he was arrested and condemned to be crucified, by the same he says of these teachers:
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?”
Again, no one is surprised when these same men sought, at the threat of their own death, to falsely accuse Jesus of insurrection against the Roman empire and blasphemy against God. Both cases carried a death sentence, but seldom were they worthy of death as excruciatingly horrible as crucifixion.
But Jesus did not mince words when he saw that the people who prided themselves in loving God and all things God-related were at the same time, white-washed tombs full of bones and filth.
And we have unfortunately come to the same fork in the road as twenty-first-century believers who had received this efficacious saving faith, passed on from Jesus to his apostles, and from these to disciples, and from the same to first-century patriarchs, and from the same to bishops and presbyters, and from the same to assemblies, and from the same to an international movement that spanned from Jerusalem and reached Spain in the west, Ethiopia in the south, and China and India in the east. From there this faith stretched over the Roman empire, conquering the heart of an Emporer. We have descended from reformers and theologians, become known as people of the book, experiencing the first, second, and third awakenings, and revivals that stretched from racially integrated churches in Los Angeles, California to the dirt-back roads of Para, Belem in Brazil. Ours is the faith that pushed for women’s suffrage, the abolition of slavery, the construction of church-sponsored cemeteries, schools, orphanages, and hospitals. Ours is the faith that was monumental in the development and institution of Ivy League academic circles.
And yet, for some reason, this grandiose love for God with all our heart, mind, and soul, fell by the wayside when we were asked to challenge a few immoral social and cultural mores of our day.
In the face of injustice, we are told to dismiss the cry of the orphan, the widow, the unemployed, the bankrupt, the alien and sojourner, the homeless, the uninsured, the colored brother, and the sister who face discrimination and disadvantage at local, state, and federal levels. When challenged to promote change in a local and national scope we are silenced and dismissed.
When the time comes for us to show sympathy for victims of abuse, who were ravaged by our own leaders, ministers, gods, and kings, we are told to quiet down and remain loyal to the cause. To the leader. To the institution.
We elevate the temple, the church, the institution, the ministry, the seminary, and business above the people who are made in the likeness, in the image, a reflection, of God.
Should our voice rise up to beg for accountability then we are shunned. Disfellowshipped.
Our books are published to praise God, our conference rooms are filled to the brim so we can drool in awe when men sit to speak of God, our worship venues sell-out in minutes so that people can rush into a building to join hands and lift up their voice in worship, all for God.
But outside, there, we see the destitute, the widow, the orphan, the addict, the mentally ill, the broken, abandoned, and unfairly treated. The women, the colored, the beggar, and the lost.
These are our neighbors.
In truth, if our love for God is not visible in our love and care for our neighbor then we may have misunderstood this great faith today just as the scribes misunderstood Jesus and His laws back then.
Where is our heart today? Where is our philanthropic drive?
Perhaps it has become calloused, corroded, and crass. Tribal, self-seeking, and hostile.
The Pharisees, Sadduccees, and scribes prided themselves in their temple, their offerings, their disciple-making ventures; their tithing, their religious observances, their traditions, and the rigorous asceticism with which they ruled over their religious work.
They were willing to travel to great lengths to proselytize. Willing to part with hefty coin purses in the temple so long as there was a crowd to witness their giving.
Jesus called them actors. People playing a part that did not belong to them. Behaving unnaturally. Hypocrites, he called them.
Therefore, where are we today? Again, I ask, where is your heart today?
How is it you are treating your neighbor?
Has your love for God grown to such heights that your love for your fellow man has become of less import?
Your ministerial vision become so fine-tuned that you disregard your brother?
Your Lent, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas services become so adored that you dare not skip a year of festivities to allocate those funds to the nearest shelter?
Will you go so far as to travel to Mexico, Ethiopia, and Hong Kong to attend conferences and promote your books all the while disregarding the pain of your brother and sister here at home?
Where is your home? Is it in your national pride? Your patriotic fervor? Your national identity or naturalization?
Are you bound by these things as the Jews were by their temple and sacred practices, traditions, and festivals?
You’re bound by Christ. And in this bondage, you are to love your God with all your heart, with all your might, with all your intellect, with all your soul, with all your life, and on the same plain, you are to love your neighbor as yourself.
When our love for God falls by the wayside our love for our neighbor will do the same.
It is said, ad nauseam, that we are modern-day Pharisees and scribes, but to our shame, we don’t even follow the traditions passed down to us, nevertheless care for our neighbors.
Should this be you or your church family, there is hope.
Hope that your love for Him and those He created can be rekindled and spread worldwide.
“Has my love for God and my neighbor fallen by the wayside?”
If your answer is yes then stop what you are doing, place your life before God and ask Him to reveal where it was you allowed things to go awry.
And then with His help, repent, find solace in His grace, and guidance from His loving Holy Spirit.
He will guide in the path of righteousness, on the path of still waters… to be righted and refreshed.
And from there you will love Him and those created in His image.
You’ll move away from the wayside and back onto God’s side.