Love your neighbor

Landscape with the Good Samaritan, Rembrandt, 1638
Landscape with the Good Samaritan, Rembrandt, 1638

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all they soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Mt. 22:37-40.

This text is often used as a justification for telling people they should love themselves. Now, I don’t think anyone can deny that every human being naturally loves himself/herself. It is a corollary of the universal quest for happiness. The French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal noted that even those who commit suicide do so because they are seeking happiness for themselves. In other words, you simply can’t avoid loving yourself. Everyone does, even when they act in ways that are ultimately not good for themselves.

Therefore, when I hear someone say that a person’s problem is that they don’t love themselves, I have to wonder what planet they are living on. The problem is not a lack of self-love. Rather, if there is sin involved, the problem is a lack of God love. This is why the first commandment (in importance) is to love God. Sin is selfishness – not the product of a lack of self-love but the problem of too much self-love and the absence of love to God.

Nevertheless, neither should we say that self-love is, as such, immoral or sinful. Too much self-love is sinful, and that is what our Lord is getting at here. But note what he does not say. There is simply no command in verse 39 to love yourself. It is assumed here, not commanded. Rather, the command is to love your neighbor as yourself.

You see, our Lord understood that our problem is not failing to love ourselves. Our problems is (1) failing to love God as we ought, and (2) failing to love our neighbor as we ought. We love ourselves and forget about God and our neighbor. So Jesus in verse 39 is telling us to take the love that we naturally have for ourselves and extend that toward our neighbor. Now remember our Lord’s definition of “neighbor.” It is not the guy living next to you, although he would be included. Rather, according to the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, your neighbor is anyone God has put in your way to help (Lk. 10:29-37).

It is important that we read these two commandments together. Love to God does not lead one to isolate himself or herself from the pain of others. If we love God we will inevitably love others. This is another connection that the apostle John makes in his first epistle. He writes, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also” (1 Jn. 4:20-21). You simply cannot claim to love God when you refuse to love your brother.

It’s easy to see why this is so. If we truly believe and relish in the fact that God in Christ has saved us from our sin at such a great cost to himself, then how can we not want to extend this same love to others? It is a common enough observation that lovers imitate each other. In the same way, those who love Jesus Christ will imitate his love for them by showing it to others. I think this is behind Paul’s words in Ephesians: “And be ye kind to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you. Be ye therefore followers [imitators] of God, as dear children; and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour” (Eph. 4:32-5:2).

On the other hand, love to God is the only way that the believer can truly love his/her neighbor as they ought. For loving one’s neighbor, especially if we are like our Lord, can be very difficult business. God is perfect, but no one else is! We are encouraged to “not be weary in well-doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Gal. 6:9). The reason there is such an encouragement is because it is very easy to become weary in well doing.

How does loving God keep us going? Well, someone who is loving God with all their heart and soul and mind is someone who is keeping their eyes on God. It is someone who will be on their knees in prayer, getting help and strength and grace to go on. It is someone who will be in his word, hearing his promises and believing them, even when all their circumstances say the opposite. It is someone who is banking their hopes, not on difficult people who may very well let them down, but on God who will never forsake those who trust in him. These are the people for whom God is working all things for good: to those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).

And so “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (40). This was our Lord’s way of saying that all the commandments in the Scriptures can be summed up in these two commandments. Now he was not saying that if you only know these two commandments, you can forget about everything else. But a proper implication is that you simply cannot live out God’s will for your life unless you love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. May God deliver us from false hopes and loves so that we love him as we ought to love for our joy and his glory.

By: Jeremiah Bass