THE CHRISTIAN’S SUMMUM BONUM
[While sorting through old files I ran across this short piece I wrote for The Lookout on April 10, 1988.]
Years ago a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter made a random survey, asking people about their concept of “the good life.” Here are some of their answers:
“I don’t know. I’m new in town. A lot of money, I guess. To be left alone. Maybe she’ll know; ask my wife.”
“First of all, the good life means being happy in what I’m doing. Having health for both myself and my family. And not necessarily having any economic woes.”
“Just being able to get up in the morning, face the day’s challenges, go to bed without a worry in the world.”
“I guess the good life would be doin’ somethin’ and makin’ money at it. The key to it is money.”
These people probably did not realize it, but they were giving their personal answer to the venerable philosophical question of the summum bonum, a Latin expression meaning “the highest good.” Whatever form the question takes, it is important for all of us to stop and consider how we would really answer it. What is our personal view of the “highest good,” or what do we consider to be the most important thing in the world? What are we seeking to accomplish above all else with our decisions and actions?
Most of the answers given in the Enquirer survey were quite materialistic, as the above examples show. Their view of life’s highest good is summed up in the following message printed on a fast-food place mat (I’m not kidding): “Our quarter pound 100% all beef mouthful. It starts with a whole quarter pound of thick, juicy beef. Then it’s smothered with cheese. And piled with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions and our own scrumptious sauce. Everything that makes life worth living on a golden sesame seed bun.”
How different is Jesus’ answer to the question about life’s highest good! He says in Matthew 6:33 (ESV), “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Here is our summum bonum: the kingdom of God! With every breath and thought and deed, we should be seeking to accomplish this above all else.
But what is “the kingdom of God”? For most of us the word kingdom usually means the realm over which a king reigns. Thus God’s kingdom would be the realm over which he reigns; many equate this with the church and see Jesus instructing us to put the church above everything else in our lives. But this is not really the main idea. The Biblical words for “kingdom” mean primarily the REIGN of God itself, i.e., his kingship, his lordship, his dominion, his glory. THIS is the Christian’s summum bonum; this is what we should be seeking above all else: to honor God as Lord and King of all, to glorify his name above all names. Everything we do should have this as its ultimate goal.
Jesus says to seek first God’s kingdom “and his righteousness.” In this context I believe Jesus is thinking of righteousness as obedience to God’s will. Jesus adds this because it is the main MEANS by which we bring honor and glory to God. More than anything else, in our Christian life what glorifies God more than anything else is our obedience to his will (his law commands).
We will remember that in his “Great Commission” Jesus told the apostles to go and teach all nations first of all to be baptized (Matt. 28:19). We cannot honor God in anything else until we have made this new beginning. But then we are not surprised that Jesus then told them to teach the nations “to observe all that I have commanded you” (v. 20). Observing or obeying all of God’s commands is the righteousness that honors and glorifies him.
How many of us really put God’s kingship first in our lives? How many of us on the other hand have the “golden sesame seed bun” philosophy of life? Jesus refers to this latter lifestyle as serving “Mammon” (money) rather than God (Matt. 6:24). He instructs us not to put material things first, not even to make the provision of food, shelter, and clothing our top priority (Matt. 6:25-32). He makes us this promise: if you will put God’s kingship first by being faithful to his will, “all these things will be added to you” (v. 33). This is, as Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story.” When we truly put first things first, God will provide what we need. Let’s order our lives as if we really believe this!
[Addendum: sermon outline based on these ideas: What Life Is All About: I. The GOAL – the Kingship of God. II. The MEANS – the Righteousness of God. III. The RESULT – “All These (Other) Things.”]