All You Need Is Love, Love Is All You Need
By the time we get to Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Bible, as we’ve received it, a lot has happened. God has made an eternal promise to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis). God has gotten the Children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt (Exodus). A clan of priests and practices has been established to guide Israel in their lives of worship (Leviticus).
And a census of the formerly enslaved people has been conducted (Numbers). With all that in the rearview mirror, it is perhaps not surprising that the book of Deuteronomy (the name means “the Second Law” or maybe more correctly “The-Law-All-Over-Again”) starts like an episode halfway through a television series, with a recap. The opening four chapters see Moses telling everyone the story of their escape from Egypt and their 40 years in the wilderness in great detail. This record of God‘s interaction with the people of God‘s choosing is of critical importance. Also of great importance, it seems, is a complete recounting in the next chapter of the whole list of the Ten Commandments as given by God at Mount Sinai – though here the mountain is known by the name “Horeb.” This is how God’s people are to live their lives.
But then in chapter six, we get something completely new. Moses offers a summary of the whole list. As a summary, it is brilliant in both its expansiveness and its conciseness. First, Moses calls Israel to recognize both the unity and uniqueness of the God who completed their rescue. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one.” Then comes the summary of the law for living that God has provided: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Perhaps as you read this and want to fill in the second line as Jesus quotes it, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This last bit comes from the earlier book of Leviticus. The summary is concise. “Love the Lord your God.” covers the first three commandments: Have no other Gods. Do not misappropriate God’s name, and do no work on the Sabbath. And if you add the bit from Leviticus about the neighbor as Jesus does, you’ve got all of the commandments about our relationships with others. The summary reduces 21 verses or 478 words in one English translation down to just 29 words in two easily-memorizable phrases.
However, the summary is expansive in that it rephrases all of these ten commandments with their specific contexts and details in terms of one un-fully-realizable wonder, “love.” How will we ever get to the bottom of that?
Certainly, this love of God for which the commandments call has its root in the initiative of divine love. I think that’s why Moses spends four chapters recalling God’s rescue and his long-suffering commitment to Israel’s well-being. Their love for God can be understood as a way of describing their gratitude for their rescue, but it will go further than that – especially when we join Jesus in his addition of the neighbor.
The 13th-century theologian Johannes Eckhart is said to have complained that some people love God the way they love their cow – for its milk. Real love, he said, is “without a why.” It has no reason beyond itself. It wells up out of itself, bubbling up and spilling over, producing a kind of profound serenity. Building on this insight and the work of Jacques Derrida, the American philosopher John Caputo – in an effort to explain the possibilities of religion to a time like ours when many people believe that they have moved beyond religion – writes of the fathomless depths of love as something that is only ever arriving and never fully realized. It is a perpetual longing that can never be resolved because to resolve it in possession is to ruin it. We must realize that we can never have a full possessing access to God or our neighbor Caputo writes,
“So to love the other on this model requires always to respect that distance, which means that love is not the desire to have the other for oneself or to get something back from the other in return, but the unconditional affirmation of the other… That distance, Derrida says, “is not an obstacle but the condition of love.”1
“The name of God—and God is love—is the paradigmatic name (that is to say, the pattern that reveals the way the whole thing works) of what we love, of what we desire with a desire beyond desire, and beyond that it is the name of what desires us and demands everything of us.”2
Perhaps rather than merely calling the Israelites to be grateful for what God has given them, Moses is awakening them to the reality that real life lies before them. That they have been initiated into a hope of life in the land of promise that exceeds their expectations and which will always lie ahead of them. That they will never fully realize all that God has done for them or accomplish all that is possible is not a description of frustration, but an invitation to wonder.
We might find this reality at work in our relationships with others when we find ourselves treasuring them for who they are in themselves and not because of what they might give us. The experience of parental love for a child sometimes approaches this for a few precious moments. Caputo calls this kind of love “the unconditional affirmation of the other.”3
May it be so among us.
– Pr. Jim
Oct. 4, 2023
1 Caputo, John D. “Love Among the Deconstructibles: A Response to Gregg Lambert.” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 5, no. 2 (April 2004). https://www.jcrt.org/archives/05.2/caputo.pdf. p.41.
2 Caputo p.43.
3 Caputo p.41.
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