And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, trying him: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
And he said unto him, “‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.’ This is the great and first commandment. And a second like unto it is this, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ On these two commandments the whole law hangeth, and the prophets'” (Matthew 22:35-40).
What is the “big picture”? That is a question that many ask– details may be well and good, but what is the greater idea involved? Many may ask this question in regards to spiritual matters– what is the “big picture” when it comes to how we should be serving God? What are the great commands that we should follow?
We recognize that the lawyer in Matthew 22:35 does not ask his question in sincerity– he is seeking a way to trap Jesus. Jesus provides the answer without being trapped; one must fully love God (Deuteronomy 6:5), and one must love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18). Everything else depends on these two commands.
Jesus’ selection is compelling; He does not quote from the Ten Commandments, as perhaps people would expect Him to do. Instead, Jesus selects two statements made in various parts of the Law that truly summarize the rest of the commands.
Much could be said regarding the command to love God with one’s whole being, and perhaps we will find an opportunity to do so at another time. The command to love your neighbor as yourself proves to be quite a challenge. On the surface, the statement is quite simple and easily understood; nevertheless, to truly love one’s neighbor as oneself is no easy thing at all.
We first must recognize that the idea of loving your neighbor as yourself encompasses many specific exhortations and prohibitions. As it is written:
Owe no man anything, save to love one another: for he that loveth his neighbor hath fulfilled the law. For this, “Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not covet”, and if there be any other commandment, it is summed up in this word, namely, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: love therefore is the fulfilment of the law (Romans 13:8-10).
We can see why Jesus would use this verse in Leviticus and not something from the Ten Commandments or some such thing: many of the commandments are summed up in the idea of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. As Paul establishes, loving your neighbor means to seek the best interest of your neighbor (Romans 13:10, 1 Corinthians 13). If you love your neighbor as you love yourself, you will not injure him or his interests, and you will avoid all kinds of sin.
Yet loving one’s neighbor involves far more than just not sinning against him. Just as we would appreciate assistance, mercy, compassion, kindness, and the like in times of need, so we ought to provide assistance and show mercy, compassion, and kindness to our neighbors in their need (Luke 6:36)! Love requires us to assist the one loved just as much as not sinning against them!
The force of the charge to “love one’s neighbor as oneself” was acutely understood by those in Israel. We read how a lawyer tested Jesus in Luke 10:25-37 by asking the same question. In this encounter, Jesus asks the lawyer how he understands the Law, and he comes to the same conclusion that Jesus does in Matthew 22: love God and one’s neighbor. Nevertheless, the lawyer sought to justify himself– “who is my neighbor?”, he asks. Jesus’ response– the story of the Good Samaritan– clearly exposes the obvious yet challenging reality: everyone is our neighbor. It was not sufficient for the Jews to just love their fellow Jews; it is not enough for us just to love the ones closest to us. We must love all of our neighbors as ourselves.
We can see that there is great value in understanding the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” in terms of a summation of the Law, but we should not forget that this statement does not exist in isolation. We can learn much by considering the context in which God first uttered this command in Leviticus 19:18:
“Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people; but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:18).
God does not make this statement in an attempt to summarize the Law– He makes this statement so that Israel can see that they ought not seek vengeance or hold grudges against their fellow people! The only way to cure such feelings is to love your neighbor as yourself. Paul indicates that no one ever hated themselves (Ephesians 5:29)– therefore, we should not hate any of our fellow man.
A desire to retaliate against wrongs suffered, whether real or perceived, is a natural inclination. Under the old covenant, God made provision for retaliation to occur: the lex talionis, “eye for an eye” legislation (Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:17-22). This legislation was given to limit retaliation so that the vengeance taken would not exceed the original wrong suffered.
Nevertheless, Jesus expected those who would follow Him to take a higher path. In Matthew 5:38-48, He challenges people to suffer wrongs without retaliation, and to love one’s enemies, not hate them. A similar expectation is provided in Luke 6:27-36. Paul exhorts the Roman brethren to the same type of conduct in Romans 12:19-21, concluding by saying:
Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).
Love your neighbor as yourself: a command that seems so simple and yet is often quite difficult to practice fully. It means that we must not sin against but rather do good to everyone with whom we come into contact. They may like us, be indifferent to us, or even hate us; the charge is the same. They may have helped us, done nothing for us, or even hurt us; the charge is the same. We must respond to all people with love, mercy, and kindness– there is no room for vengeance there! After all, would we not appreciate to have the same courtesy shown to us? Let us, therefore, show it to others, and love our neighbors as ourselves!