"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”; greatest because God is the greatest, first because this law was in our hearts from the first moment of creation.
“The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself”, which is to say that these two commandments do not pull us in two directions. When we love God, how could we fail to love his creation? Can you love a friend and hate their children? Can you love an artist and hate his art? Can you love your spouse and hate their reflection? Yet we are the children of God; we are the work of his hands; we are made in the image of God. We cannot love God completely, with all our heart, soul, and mind, unless we love those whom he loves, and he loves everyone.
Moreover, our ability to love is tested by other people because they are clearly other. We either love the God who is or we love some God whom we have created in our own minds. If I do not love the people who are not me, then I do not love the God who is not me. I can be fooled by thinking that my imaginary god is the real God, but not so with the people I see face to face.
Anyone can love the image of God they have made in their own mind. We create this idol and make him exactly how we think he ought to be. We do not make this idol out of silver or gold, but out of our imagination. This imaginary god does not challenge us in any way. Indeed, our own personal god probably tells us that we have been right all along and condemns anyone we disagree with.
This is how Satan suggested we live: completely independently, no need for other people and no need for God. We will make our own imaginary friends and our own imaginary god. We can love ourselves above all, and ourselves like ourselves. Satan tempted Eve by telling her she could be like God, which was a lie, but also a strange temptation. Why did we want to be like God, independent of the true God? How nice would it be now to go back to that garden and have God take care of us!
Every one of us has enthroned in our minds an idol of God to some extent. We should tear it down. When we are worshipping an idol of God, we say things like, “The God I believe in would never…” or “I cannot believe in a God who….” In reality, God is who he is, not who we want him to be, so, like the Thessalonians, we need to turn “from idols to serve the living and true God.”
It is true that God is not any of the idols. He is not my idol, but he also is not your idol. So perhaps, we are merely reacting against someone else’s imaginary god, which is fine, but we must be ready for the idea that the living and true God does not agree with everything we think. We should always be ready to destroy our own ideas about God when confronted by the truth.
What truth is that? Consider what Jesus says: “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” In other words, God has never said anything except that we should love. Everything he ever said was a way of saying “love”. Nice, huh? Well, at least until we read the law and the prophets:
And Samuel said to Saul, "The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the LORD. “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”
That means love, right? It is a prophet, and Samuel is one of the greatest prophets of Israel. This is not some obscure text of the Old Testament, and similar things can be found with Moses and Joshua and David and Elijah and Elisha. If we imagine that Samuel the prophet was lying or that it was recorded incorrectly in Scripture, then what can we trust in the Old Testament? Is the Bible only true to the extent that we agree with it?
Even our first reading today, all about caring for the widows and the orphans and the immigrants and the poor, contains the threat: “If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.” Sort of “love your neighbor or else.”
What are we to say? If our image of God has no room for God as he has been revealed to us, then we are just inventing a god in our own minds, an idol made according to our specifications. Go out into the world and pick and choose among the religions created by wise men. Even the wisest, with the best gods or goddesses, will just be a creation of the human mind.
Our religion claims something more. We claim that, first to the Jews and then to the world, God has revealed himself, first through prophets and then in his Son, Jesus Christ. It is an extraordinary claim, and the question is not whether we like this image of God, not whether he fits us like a shoe we are trying on, but whether this extraordinary claim is true. If it isn’t, what is the point in believing it? If it is, what is the point in believing something else?
As for me, I trust what Jesus says: everything in the law and the prophets can be summarized in these two commandments: love God and love your neighbor. If I hear God say some of the things to me that I can read in the Old Testament, like about killing people, I will have myself committed to a mental health facility, but I can trust, without understanding, that God knows, and has always known, what he is doing and that God loves, and has always loved, each one of us.
I like the fact that I do not understand everything about God, that way I know that I did not invent him. My God is real, and he knows more than I do and sees more than I do. I did not create him; he created me, and I love him with all my heart, all my soul, and all my mind, and I love my neighbor as myself, or at least I want to.