Yesterday we looked at Jesus’ answer to the question asked him by the legal expert – an ally of the Pharisees – as to which was the greatest commandment of the law. This question was asked, not in the interest of obtaining information or understanding, but in an effort to entrap Jesus. In reply to his querist, Jesus said…
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.‘” (Matthew 22:37-40).
One way of looking at this reply – which was a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:4-6 – is that the law begins with God and ends with human beings. God always must come first in all things. Any rule of life that does not begin with him is not only without value, but is damning to the soul. And any rule that does not encompass the good of our fellow man is equally detrimental to ourselves and to our world.
But what does it mean that we love our neighbor as ourselves? First we must understand who our neighbor is. A neighbor is not just someone who lives next door to us. In one incident where Jesus was dealing with the commandment to loving one’s neighbor, he was asked about who a neighbor is. His answer was in the form of a parable – the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” A neighbor is someone like the “good Samaritan” who showed mercy to the man who had fallen victim to robbers (Luke 10:25-36).
However, in the context of the commandment to love one’s neighbor, the scope of who our neighbor is seems to be broader. Certainly to love in the way of the commandment is to love more than those who do good to us. It includes anyone who is in need, whether friend or enemy. It goes even farther than that to having the best interest of others in our hearts that would lead us to do whatever we are able for their well being. To love a neighbor as one’s self is to have the same desire for his well-being that we have for our own.
This is what love is. It is, in fact, an attribute of God that marks us as possessing the same kind of attitude toward others as he possesses. This, I believe, is why the command to love our neighbors is the “second greatest” command. Love is about us only insofar as it says that our character is like that of our heavenly Father.
“Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8).
“So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (1 John 4:16).
There is a definite link between loving God and loving one’s fellow man. In fact, if one does not love his neighbor, he really does not love God. John puts it in a very straightforward manner…
“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20).
Loving God and others seems to be one of the hardest things for human beings to grasp. Jesus said that it is more important than worship.
“And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:33).
When there is a failure of love and brethren are at odds with one another it renders their worship vain and void.
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Matthew 5:23-24
These verses echo 1 John 4:20 as cited above. To go before God to honor him when we are not reconciled to a brother is to live a lie. God’s loving purpose for all humanity is to bring us all together in one family. People who love one another do not tolerate their families being torn apart with feuding and fussing, bickering and backbiting. It must not be so in the spiritual family of God and it should not be so in the family of man.
Paul emphasizes this pretense of religion without love in the classic chapter on love. He said…
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
Absent love, it is all sound without substance, motion without meaning. Religion without love is merely an empty shell. There is no life in it. One can spend one’s life “going to church” and be a shriveled soul, having done it all for naught if it has not been accompanied by love for one’s fellow man.
Love is the overlooked element in the quest for unity among believers in Christ. But without love there will never be a true and lasting unity. In the New Testament, pleas for unity stress the essentiality of love in maintaining unity.
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 5:1-3).
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:12-14).
Love “binds everything together” in that it enables and activates all the other character qualities that are so essential to any cooperative endeavor. If love is not the factor behind the exercise of patience, gentleness, humility, etc. it is all a sham. It is an exercise in human conceit, deception and pretense.
Love, then, is the thing that makes authentic disciples of Jesus. It is the one thing above all other things that marks us out as being his true followers. And this, after all, is what being a Christian is all about – being like our Lord.
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2).
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35).