Breakfast Club: Summum bonum
Summum bonumThe ancient philosophical question – What is the summum bonum of life? – is the most important question every person must answer. Summum bonum is an expression used in philosophy to describe the ultimate importance, the singular and ultimate end which human beings out to pursue. The summum bonum is generally thought of as being an end in itself, and at the same time containing all other goods.
How we answer the question of what is our “chief good” has significant results in the most basic and primal elements of our life; in our attitudes and actions; in our loves and hatreds; in our choices and decisions.
The Christian Summum bonum
The Bible relentlessly sets forth Jesus Christ as the Greatest and Chief Good for every human soul. For example, in the New Testament book of Hebrews, the author reasons that God spoke to the people of God through the prophets in many times and in various ways but in this last days he has spoken by his Son, who is appointed heir of all things and through whom he made the universe (1:1-3). He points out that Jesus is greater than the angels (1:1-14) and greater than Moses, the giver of the law (3:1-6). He says that the Sabbath-Rest promised to Joshua and God’s people wandering in the wilderness is fulfilled in our spiritual rest in the work of Jesus Christ (4:1-13). He shows how Jesus is the Great High Priest and that all of the other priests were types and symbols of his greater priesthood (4:14-5:10). He explains that Jesus Christ is the High Priest of the “true” tabernacle, greater than the human tabernacle (8:1-2), the mediator of a “new covenant” (8:6-13), and that his blood alone is able to cleanse the conscience of his people so that they might serve God (9:11-27). He states that through Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice his people are cleansed and made perfect (10:1-18) and that Christ’s great salvation makes it possible for us to come directly into the presence of the Holy God (10:19-22). Christians therefore are called to live by faith, just as the Old Testament saints lived by faith (11). Finally, in Hebrews 12, the author says that Jesus is the author and perfecter of their faith, and that we should “fix our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith.”
Why Jesus? Why not…?
At this point it is fair to ask: why should Jesus by my “Chief and Greatest Good” and not some other good? Why not some other religious leader or some other god? Why shouldn’t I make my virtue or my happiness or my spouse or my family or my vocation or my service-to-humanity my greatest good? Why choose Jesus Christ as my “Chief and Greatest Good.”
My answer to this – and this is an answer that comes out of two decades of pastoral ministry, of countless hours of counseling, of waiting besides the beds of men and women who are dying – is because only Jesus is a faithful savior beyond all other hopes and possibilities and salvations and failures. Let me explain what I mean.
Boundaries, Failures and the end of human salvation and possibilities
The things we tend to look to as our chief good – a person, a religion, a path of virtue or happiness, a love, a vocation, a family, an ideology – at the end of the day have boundaries or fail to be able to rescue us. For example, if you look to a religion as your chief and great good, you may run into a boundary of your own inability to keep the tenets of the religion, to walk the path of its virtues. Or you may be faced with your powerlessness and finiteness when a person you love is ripped from your heart by death. Or your health, and with it your happiness, is dealt a blow by the news you have cancer and suddenly you realize that life is out of your control. At some point, all of the things we tend to look to as our “Greatest Good” are not able to deliver us from the depth of our shame and guilt, from our finiteness and powerlessness in the face of death, and to provide our need for unconditional love and acceptance from one that fully knows us and still loves us.
Jesus Christ: the Faithful Savior
Jesus Christ is not a religious leader showing you a path to walk on, but a Faithful Savior who, by his incarnation, life, death on the cross, and resurrection, is able to rescue you – when you have come to the boundaries of human powerlessness and the failures of all your other “goods”, when all other salvations and human possibilities have run out. Let me share one example I witnessed. There is a member of my congregation who had had a severe heart event, his heart was slowly failing him, and he was waiting to receive a donor heart. He and his wife felt completely powerless as they waited for a heart transplant. But even during this time of human powerlessness, they continually found rest and hope in Jesus Christ. And I had the privilege to be with them on the day he went into surgery. He entered into surgery with a visible sense of peace, joy, hope and trust. Why? It was not because he was so pleased with his past life (there was much he wished he could change) or because he knew that the surgery would be successful (though it was); it was because he knew he was a beloved Son of God, saved by the grace of Christ, that all of his guilt and shame had been cleansed by the blood of Christ, that Christ had defeated death and that whether he lived or died, he lived for Christ.
When you make Christ your summum bonom, from Him flows grace, acceptance, joy, hope, virtue, rest, purpose, thankfulness even in midst of human powerlessness, boundaries, and failures and even in the face of death itself.