Love Your Neighbor As Yourself
This is part two of a three-part series. Read Part 1 here.
If Jesus is not advocating self-love in Matthew 22:35-40, what is he saying? What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? In today’s post, we’ll look at a few other passages of Scripture to answer those questions.
When he’s asked which is the greatest commandment in the law, Jesus replies with two quotations from the Old Testament. The greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind, which is from Deuteronomy 6:5, and the second, to love your neighbor as yourself, is part of a passage from Leviticus 19:9-18. If we want to understand the kind of love Jesus has in mind, looking at the verses from Leviticus could give us a framework.
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.
You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.
You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
The instructions in these verses revolve around treating your neighbor fairly, caring for the needy and vulnerable, telling the truth, and guarding relationships from hate and bitterness.
These verses describe an active love, not just the presence of warm affections. It is practical, sacrificial, and infused with moral rigor. It encompasses every aspect of life: in our work and in our words, in the field and in the courtroom, on the highway and in our hearts. In all the places and situations where we would want what’s best for ourselves, we seek what’s best for our neighbor.
These commandments come up in another conversation Jesus had about the law. When a lawyer tries to pin him down on the definition of neighbor, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37) Unlike the priest and the Levite, who go out of their way to avoid the injured man, the Samaritan goes out of his way to help. He takes on the cost and inconvenience of caring for his neighbor, meeting all of this man’s needs as if they were his own.
Paul echoes these commandments, too, when he writes to the Ephesians about marriage. “In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. Indeed, no one ever hated his own body, but he nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.” (Ephesians 5:28-29)
In this passage, the assumption is that husbands already love themselves in some sense. They’re meeting their own basic needs and taking care of their concerns on a daily basis. Paul tells them to show the same care and concern for their wives and says that doing so is loving their wives as they love themselves. (Interestingly, he flips the self-love narrative we usually hear about relationships on its head. It’s not “love yourself first if you really want to love your spouse;” it’s “love your spouse first if you really want to love yourself.”)
This kind of love is described and displayed throughout the Bible, but never more clearly than when Jesus goes to the Cross. There, like the good neighbor in Leviticus 19, he makes provision for the needy and satisfies the requirements of righteousness and justice. There, like the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, he takes on the cost and inconvenience of caring for another as though their condition were his own.
I came across a post on social media recently that said, “Perhaps we should love ourselves so fiercely that when other people see us, they know exactly how it should be done.” I like that quote, but not because it's true. I like it because it so clearly exemplifies the opposite of what Christians believe. When we want a shining example of perfect love, we don’t roll up our sleeves and set it ourselves. We look at Jesus.
Actually, it’s even more profound than that. Jesus is not just an example of what it means to love. He is love. It is him. And because God is love, we look at Him, not ourselves, to define love and show us all of its expressions, nuances, and boundaries.
In the final installment in this series, we’ll look at God’s love and think about how it (rather than self-love) is the source of right relationship with him and with others.