The second part of Jesus’ response to a teacher of the law who had asked him which commandments were most important, was this:
‘The second is this: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’Mark 12. 31
This was not new teaching. There are many references which relate to how the Jews should treat their neighbours, particularly in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In fact, in Leviticus 19.18 we find the identical words: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD.”
The revolutionary aspect of this teaching was not that we should love our neighbours, treating them with respect, honesty and supporting them through difficult circumstances. This was already an accepted part of the Jewish way of life. What was challenging was his definition of who our neighbour is. When another expert in the law tested Jesus on this very point, we read that:
…he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”Luke 10.29
From childhood, most of us have been familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan which Jesus then recounts. At the end of the story, he asks this question back to the man:
Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”Luke 10. 36, 37
The story is a reminder for those of us who are busy in Christian service that we can miss out on supporting the person who is in desperate need, who we glimpse as we pass by whilst undertaking “important” business. Or, perhaps we fear the consequences of putting ourselves out, for our own safety or reputation, making rational excuses to ourselves for the need for self-protection. But it is the nature of the person in the story who did take action which was quite radical and controversial. I have already, in a previous reflection, observed that the Samaritans were a despised people, racially close to the Jews, but having distinctive religious practices with a rival temple. At the time of the gospels, they were generally treated with contempt.
Jesus’ key message was that all people are our neighbours, and we should even treat our enemies with love:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be the children of your Father in heaven.Matt. 5. 43-45
This should affect our view of how “aliens”, “migrants” and “refugees” should be treated, particularly those who have suffered through no fault of their own. Perhaps more difficult, is to avoid the human desire for revenge and getting our own back on others who have caused us harm and loss. This can be in the rough and tumble of ordinary human relationships, but it can also relate to politics and world issues. In my view, the world lurched into far greater danger when, after the tragedy of 9/11, the immediate response was to expose and retaliate against the group held to be responsible, rather than seeking to achieve justice through non-violent means.
The other aspect of this teaching is that we should “love….as yourself”. Most of us have a problem with our own self-image. Some of us view ourselves more highly than we should – for those it is not difficult to imagine loving others in the same way, but we are often unwilling to do so! However, many of us do not have such a positive opinion of ourselves, in fact we struggle to love ourselves, let alone anyone else. For all of us, the challenge is to view ourselves in the way that God views us, as St Paul says:
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.Rom. 12.3
Yes, we are deficient in many ways and have made many mistakes for which we find it difficult to forgive ourselves, but, praise God, we have been fully forgiven by Jesus and have been adopted into God’s family. We can hold our heads up high as we reflect on God’s grace which is changing us more and more into his likeness!