To be human is not merely to exist and possess the peculiar features of humankind — the large brain, opposable thumb, power of speech, and capability of reflection on the meaning of our existence — but to be commanded to become what Another wants us to be. We are not simply made or born human but commanded to take part in our own becoming human.(1) Jesus summed up God’s commandments by pairing the two greatest: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Everything Jesus wants taught and understood about the commanded life of God’s people hangs from the pegs of these two great commandments, and any obedience not derived from love for God and love for the other person who is our neighbor is false obedience and does not serve God’s desire for human life.
God’s commands create. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” God calls into being what was not. Light, however, obeys God’s command simply by doing what light does. It shines, illumines, and travels really, really fast. Light never thinks: “I’m sick and tired of doing the same day after day, and so I’m going to strike out on my own and do what I want. I’m the fastest thing around. Why should I keep doing somebody else’s bidding? It’s my life, and I’ll do it my way.” Light lacks both intelligence and that most dangerous of God’s gifts to us which we call the will. Light does not truly obey God because light cannot choose to disobey.
God comes to us, not with power to coerce, but with vulnerable compassion.
We can disobey and defy God. But God does not want obedience for its own sake. God does not make us slaves. Jesus counts it as success when he can tell his disciples they are no longer his servants but his friends because they know his mind and share his purpose willingly. God comes to us, not with power to coerce, but with vulnerable compassion. That’s why Abraham Heschel, the great Jewish philosopher and teacher who describes human being as commanded life, warns us, “. . . when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless.”(2)