“Teacher,” the expert in the law asked, “which is the greatest commandment?” “Love the Lord, your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” Jesus replied. “This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:36-39).”
Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s a biblical exhortation so familiar and so ubiquitous, we hardly give it a second thought. But what does it mean? Is it enough to be nice to others and treat them with respect? To wave to our neighbor as we leave the house or to make a casserole for someone at church who is sick? Is this what Jesus has in mind when he exhorts the expert in the law to love his neighbor as himself?
The truth is, being nice and respecting others does get us a long way. Jesus here is quoting words found in Leviticus 19 and if we look at the original context, we notice that the command to love your neighbor as yourself is nestled among a host of other commands, many of which address how we are to treat others. These include:
With the exception of the occasional grudge, I suspect that most of us have no trouble loving our neighbor in these ways.
Still, there are other exhortations listed in Leviticus 19 which seem to deepen and broaden the the command to love our neighbor as ourselves in ways that should give us pause. While many of the laws of ancient Israel, particularly those that promote a just and orderly society, mimicked those of their neighbors, the humanitarian laws were largely unique to God’s people and set them apart from the surrounding nations. These laws not only expected the Israelites to be nice or respectful, but also to take responsibility for the human flourishing of others, to be, as God intimated to Cain in Gen. 4:9-10, their brother and sister’s keeper. Consider, for instance, these commands:
What is evident here is true of the rest of the Old Testament as well . . . that God has a special concern for the poor and the disenfranchised, those on the fringes of society. In fact, one of the metrics that the prophets used to assess the spiritual, social, economic, and political health of the community was the well-being of the poor and the foreigner. Listen to these words from Isa. 58. The people are wondering why God isn’t more pleased with their acts of piety and worship, their fasting and their sacrifices to which God responds, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isa. 58:6-7a)
In other words, what God longs for, and ultimately what God in Jesus died for, is that the world would be set right again, which, according to the Old Testament, includes organizing the world in such a way that all have access to the resources required for human flourishing. To love our neighbor as ourselves then, is to begin working toward the realization of this vision. It is to consider how disparity and injustice and division is perpetuated within our own communities and to advocate for change. It is to come alongside those who are suffering, to take up the cause of the powerless, to advocate for what is morally right.
To love our neighbor in this way seems especially significant at this particular time in American history when fear of “the other” is running high among the majority white population. The impulse to protect our privilege and wealth in the face of the perceived threat of “the other” has compromised our ability as a society to work toward what is just and what is morally consistent with the nation’s founding principle that all are created equal. As a result, deeply entrenched systematic injustices that perpetuate the marginalization of people of color and deprive them of basic rights and freedoms go unchecked. Undocumented immigrants live in fear everyday of being torn from the bosom of their family and friends (sometimes the only family they know) and sent away from what has become their home. Muslims brace themselves for the overt and covert expressions of prejudice and hostility that chip away at their spirits and diminish their well-being.
But here is where the church, the people of God, are called to be set apart from the broader culture. For our allegiance is not to privilege and to wealth. Rather, it is to Jesus, the one whose love for us took him to the cross that we may have life and life abundantly. Now Jesus calls us to follow him with the explicit commission to love, love others as ourselves. And with love, to break down walls of division and hostility. With love, to cast out fear, and to pursue the way of shalom. Like in ancient Israel, through love for the outsider, the poor, the marginalized, the sufferer, our lives become a powerful testimony to the redeeming and transforming power of the triune God. Come then, let us be about the business of being our brother and sisters’ keeper.
This article originally appeared in the Calvin Seminary Forum.