Your Neighbor As Yourself
The greatest difficulty in doing what matters most lies not in knowing what to do but in faithfully doing what we know we ought. Such is the case in the second greatest commandment: to love our neighbors as our selves. This command, which appears in our Scriptures for the first time in Leviticus 19, was not a new idea in Jesus’ day. Ancient religious writings from Babylon, China, Egypt, Greece and India all contained teachings about reciprocity of care and mutuality of respect among fellow humans. It is quite likely that Jesus was aware of this story from the life of Rabbi Hillel:
“On another occasion it happened that a certain non-Jew came before Shammai and said to him, “I will convert to Judaism, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai chased him away with the builder's tool that was in his hand. He came before Hillel and said to him, "Convert me." Hillel said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”
Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a [AJWS translation]
In the Gospels, every time that Jesus is asked a question about which is the greatest command or what is required to live an abundant life, the asker of the question already knows that, after love of God, love of neighbor is what maters most. Why then do they ask the question? Sometimes it is to check out Jesus’ religious credentials, to see if he studied the right texts and knows the right answers. (cf. Matt 22) Other times it is to defend the self-imposed limits of one’s love (cf. Matt 19) or justify limiting to whom one’s love is extend (cf. Luke 10). In every case, the challenge lies not with needing more information but with the need for spiritual transformation.
To become people who love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves requires the work of the Holy Spirit. To become people who extend that love to our enemies – that requires a miracle! Miracles, of course, begin with the work of God, and the miracle of our transformation into people marked by undiscriminating love begins with our being grounded in God’s love for us. From the deep knowledge that we are known and loved by God flows the extension of that love to others. The challenge for us is to accept our identity as beloved children of God and to allow knowledge of those with whom we share this world to seep into our hearts and make its claim upon our attention, affections and actions.
It is my prayer that this semester we each grow in our knowledge and love of God and our understanding of, and love for, our neighbors both near and far.