In the movie “City Slickers,” the hero/villain named Curly keeps telling Billy Crystal’s character, who is going through something of a mid-life crisis, “Remember, there’s only one thing.” Curly’s point is that there is really only one thing that matters in life. But he doesn’t say what it is.

In today’s Gospel reading, some of the religious leaders of the day ask Jesus, "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"

Jesus tells them, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."

Jesus essentially says the same thing that Curly does. There is one thing that matters most: loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. This is one of the most straightforward answers Jesus gives in the Gospels — no parable, no story, no answering a question with a question. But he adds a second “thing.” “Love your neighbor as yourself. The whole of the law and the prophets rest on these two commandments.”

Reading this makes me think of our own social, political and religious climate. We have people shouting like mad about what is most important for the country, for citizens and for people of faith. In the area of faith, what is it that is most important for Christians to believe? If you asked that today, you might get a lot of different answers. Some might say that it’s most important to be pro-life, others say fighting against gay rights ought to be our top priority.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ time confused the law with God. The guidelines that were established to help believers follow God became, for many, ends in themselves. We need to be careful not to do the same thing.

Jesus says differently. The priorities of his followers are very simple: Love God and love your neighbor. It’s not about what you believe in the sense of what is in your head, it’s a matter of how you live and what you do with your actions.

We see time and again in the Gospels that the religious leaders of Jesus’ time confused the law with God. The guidelines that were established to help believers follow God became, for many, ends in themselves, such that those who failed to rigorously observe even small details were labeled “sinners” and isolated from the community.

We need to be careful not to do the same thing. Observing the traditions and regulations of the church do not necessarily reflect the condition of our hearts, or ensure that we love our neighbors. That’s something I need to be constantly reminded of. I can go to church, go to confession, send my children to catechism, and all the while feel anger and resentment, feeding my pride instead of feeding my neighbor.

Jesus tells us that there is indeed just one thing we need to be concerned about. While it may be a relief that first century believers struggled with this as much as we do in the 21st century, we know better and we should live better. It isn’t easy, but it is more important than anything else.

Bill Peatman writes from Napa. He may be reached at [email protected]