In the previous blog (January 2014, “The Greatest Command, Part One), we established two things concerning Jesus’ answer to the question of which command is the greatest of all the commandments. First, we established that Jesus gives us one answer to this question (not two or three); the command to love God is the single greatest command. Second, we found that loving God necessarily means loving people. And as we mentioned before, Jesus had even more to offer on this subject, as He actually said that loving God means loving people as ourselves. We will now turn our attention to this segment of His answer.
The meaning of “love your neighbor as yourself” appears at first to be simple and self evident. Namely, to “love your neighbor as yourself” seems to mean that you love your neighbor with the same measure of love that you have for yourself. That is, it is the amount of the love that is the same; as much as you love yourself, you should love your neighbor by that same amount. But as we have seen before, first impressions – even the most simple and self evident ones – are not entirely correct and may in fact be entirely off the mark. That is certainly the case here.
The command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is quoted by Jesus directly from the Torah. Specifically, it is from the book of Leviticus, the nineteenth chapter, the eighteenth verse. And as with all other quotations from the Torah, Jesus’ listeners would have understood this verse and interpreted its meaning from within its context. Therefore, to capture Jesus’ meaning it would be wise for us to consider its context as well. Reading just a few verses later in the same chapter of Leviticus we find the following: “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
Do you see it? God instructs the Israelites to “love him (the alien) as yourself.” This is the same phrase that was used just a few verses earlier. But God does not instruct the Israelites to love the alien living with them with the same amount of love. That is not the idea at all. He instructs them to love the alien as themselves because…are you ready? The alien is no different than they are.
See, the Israelites were once aliens in a foreign land, too. But God in His grace redeemed the Israelites and gave them a land of their own. So wouldn’t it be a bit contemptuous for the Israelites to treat with disdain the very people who happen to be in the same place in life that they themselves once were? That is God’s point, and He makes it more than once: “Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)
So to an Israelite listening to Jesus, loving his neighbor as himself did not mean that the emotional response is the same. No, it meant that the people involved are the same. Your neighbor, whomever he may be, is just like you. And you are just like him.
So here’s the point: I know that I am loving people when I can look at them and see myself. Their habits look just like my habits. Their sins look just like my sins. Their struggles, their fears, their doubts; they all look just like my own. Whatever a person’s situation in life might be, I understand that it could have very well become my situation, too, and so who am I to consider them with any less regard than I do myself? Therefore, I am simply left to love others as myself; to regard others as favorably as I do myself and to extend mercy and compassion to others because, really, who am I kidding? I am desperately in need of these very same things.
This is, after all, how Jesus loved other people…zealots, tax-collectors, prostitutes, strangers, prisoners, the homeless…He looked at them and he saw Himself. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them….‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 9:36, Matthew 25:40). If this is how our Messiah walks amongst the crowds, if this is how He loves His Father and His neighbors, should we strive for anything less?