One of the scribes came near and heard [the Sadducees and Jesus] disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31, NRSV)
Jesus here is referencing the Shema, an extremely important passage in the Jewish faith, found in Deuteronomy 4:6-9. This theme runs throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures: love is the key. It is the most important focus. It is out of love that all the rules and laws spring, and following the rules without love is to miss the mark. 1 Corinthians 13, sometimes referred to as “the love chapter” talks about what love is, and it begins with: If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
I think it’s important to notice that in the Shema, and in Jesus’ words, the message is to Love your neighbor as yourself. Sometimes we get so focused on the big words—love, neighbor, yourself—that we forget to look at the little words. But the little words, here, make a big difference. This verse doesn’t say to love your neighbor and yourself. It doesn’t say to love yourself as your neighbor. It says to love your neighbor as yourself. “As” is a very important word. What does it mean to love our neighbor as ourselves?
First, we must define what love means in this context. I join the chorus of those who are frustrated with the limitations of the word “love” in the English language. Unlike some other languages, we have one word to describe a vast array of meanings. Love here, though, is talking about the unconditional, healing and challenging love that comes from God. It is not talking about the obsession, infatuation, or hubris that sometimes come to mind when we think about what it might mean to love oneself. Rather it is to hold one’s body, mind, and soul in unconditional acceptance, respect, and trust. It is to regard oneself as sacred and of great worth.
Second, we must consider the order implied here. There is an implied order that one must love oneself before loving one’s neighbor. But this doesn’t mean that we have to learn how to love ourselves perfectly before we can even think about loving others. In fact, often it is through loving others that we find out how love-able we ourselves also are. I believe the order here implied refers to something we are born with; a natural regard for that which is best for ourselves. Traumas, such as abuse or neglect, experience of social oppression, etc. can warp this sense, pushing us either toward self-denigration or self-obsession. The healing and challenging work of the real love that comes from God gently helps us move back to the pure love for self, the healthy regard and respect for what is best for us. So the point is, we don’t have to heal from every trauma we’ve ever experienced; we don’t have to know how to love ourselves in that perfect balance between self-denigration and self-obsession before we must start thinking about what it means to love our neighbors. We must start that now. The implied order actually assumes that, despite ways we’ve been harmed, we do know deep down how to love ourselves. We’re not starting the to-do list from a blank slate (1. learn to love myself, 2. learn to love others). We already know how to do number one, no matter how much we struggle with actually doing it, and so as we strive toward more holy and healthy self-love, we also must strive toward number two, more respectful and unconditional love for our neighbors.
Third, we have to ask who the neighbor is. We’re lucky, because unlike many other questions we might like to ask Jesus, this one was actually posed to him and his answer was recorded:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
To fully understand Jesus’ answer here we must understand the political climate of the time. Samaritans were feared, loathed, despised, even in some cases hated, by the Jews. This wasn’t the relationship between Americans and Canadians. This was sort of comparable to the relationship between Iraqis and Americans who fear that everyone from the Middle East is a terrorist just waiting to fly a plane into another skyscraper. This would be like Ann Coulter being helped out by an Afghani immigrant who is on the no fly list. This would be like a 5’4″ 350lb deathfat helping Meme Roth.
The point is, think of the person you fear or hate the most. That person is your neighbor. We already know that our family and friends and literal neighbors (those who live in the same neighborhood as us) are our neighbor. But Jesus says everyone is your neighbor. No ifs, ands, or buts. We must love ourselves, and we must love every other human being, with the kind of love that comes from God.
The last thing I will say here is that loving the person doesn’t necessarily mean loving their message or their actions. I want to explore in future posts what it means to love everyone even when we don’t love their message or what they do. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” has been used in despicable ways to justify hatred toward minority groups, but what does it mean to love the oppressors, but hate the oppression? I’ll explore this soon, but in the mean time, please share your thoughts!