Loving Your Neighbor, Who is Like You
Last month we talked about the first of the
two great commandments, according to Jesus, to love the Lord your God
with all of your heart, soul and strength. Jesus goes on to say that the
second one is like it - to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:35-37).
The overwhelming importance of this command is echoed in the rest of the
New Testament. Peter says "above all, love one another" (1 Peter
4:8), and in the letters of John, that "this was the teaching you
have heard from the very beginning - to love one another" (1 John
3:11). While the incredible richness of the words "love your neighbor
as yourself" is already apparent to us, hearing more about Jesus'
words in their Jewish context will deepen our understanding of this saying
and link it to other teachings of his.
The Link between Loving God and Your Neighbor
Just as the first of the two
great commandments, to love the Lord, is from the Old Testament (Deut.
6:5), the command to "love your neighbor" is from there too.
In Leviticus 19:18 it says,
You shall not take vengeance, nor bear
any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your
neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.
Even before Jesus was on the
scene, his fellow rabbis had been thinking about "what is the great
commandment of the Torah", and they answered it by linking the two
passages: "And you shall love the Lord your God with all of your
heart, and all of your soul, and all of your strength", and, "and/but you shall love your neighbor as yourself". They
had an interesting way of linking them together, called "gezerah
sheva", which is the practice of connecting verses that share
a word or phrase relatively unique to them. In this case, those verses
were linked because they share the Hebrew word "ve'ahavta",
which means, "and you shall love". This exact phrase is used
only in these two Old Testament passages, and one other time.
The rabbis suggested that since both verses start with the command to
love, that they could be understood together as if one was expanding on
the other as an explanation of how to love. So the greatest commandment
of the Law, the "klal gadol ba Torah" (great principle
of the Torah) was to love your neighbor, by which you demonstrated your
love for God. Paul and the other New Testament writers are echoing both
Jesus and other rabbinic thought when they say that, "The entire
law is summed up in a single command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"
(Gal. 5:14), or that loving your neighbor is the "royal law" (James 2:8).
Interpreting "Loving Your Neighbor As Yourself"
The commonly understood interpretation is that we should love others with
the same measure that we love ourselves, which is certainly very true!
But the rabbis also saw that the Hebrew of that verse can also be read
as, "Love your neighbor who is like yourself". While
either interpretation is valid, their emphasis was less on comparing love
of ourselves with love for others, and more on comparing other people
to ourselves, and then loving them because they are like us in our own
frailties. This actually fits the original context of Lev. 19:18 better, "You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the
sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor, as/like yourself;
I am the LORD." When we realize that we are guilty of the same
sins that others are, we see that we shouldn't bear grudges against them,
but to forgive and love them instead.
The rabbis of Jesus' day saw it as a challenge to realize that we are
to love those who do not seem worthy because we ourselves are unworthy,
and all are in need of God's mercy. All people, including ourselves, are
flawed and sinful, but we need to love them because we ourselves commit
the same sins. One rabbi said,
If you hate your neighbor whose
deeds are wicked like your own, I, the Lord, will punish you
as your judge; and if you love your neighbor whose deeds are
good like your own, I, the Lord, will be faithful to you and
have mercy on you. (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version B, chap. 26)
Another rabbi said:
Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then,
when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Should a person nourish
anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? Should a person
refuse mercy to a man like himself, yet seek pardon for his own
sins? (28:2-4) (Ben Sira, c. 180 B.C.)
While what we have always understood
as Christians about loving our neighbor as ourselves still remains true,
the rabbis' perspective highlights the fact that the time when we need
to show love most is when we need to forgive other's sins against us.
Now we can even hear the background of the verse of the Lord's Prayer
that says, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against
us". We could almost say, "Please love us even though we are
sinners, as we love other sinners like ourselves." Forgiving sins
is one of the strongest tests of love - it is easy to love someone who
has treated us rightly, but to love someone who has hurt us is far more
difficult. God must love us greatly if he keeps forgiving the sins we
commit against him!
Another thing that the rabbis would point out from the phrase "Love
your neighbor who is like you", is that all humans are made in the
image of God, and all are precious to him. When we are furious with terrorists
who fly our planes into our buildings, it is easy to imagine that such
people are animals, not even real persons. Every genocide starts with
the idea that the enemy is not fully human. But if we remember that even
the most wicked person bears the stamp of God's image on him, we still
must treat them with justice, and never forget their humanity.
Who is my neighbor?
In Luke 10, when Jesus is having a discussion with a lawyer about "loving
your neighbor", the lawyer asks him the question "And who is
my neighbor?". We assume that this is not a legitimate
question, but it actually was a very good question. In Hebrew, the word reah was used for neighbor, but it was even more commonly
used for friend. So the verse could be interpreted, "Love
your friend who is like you" or "Love your friend as yourself",
which isn't much of a challenge at all. The lawyer probably already understood
that it didn't just apply to one's friends, it applied to one's neighbors
in a broader sense. The rabbinic debate was about how far that circle
went, and he is asking Jesus just how far he thought that circle extended.
Jesus gave the lawyer a brilliant answer to how far the circle went: he
told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then asked the lawyer who
was the neighbor to the dying man, which was the despised Samaritan (Luke
10). We would expect the answer to the question "Who is my neighbor"
to be "the dying man". But Jesus asked the question in such
a way as to force the man to say that the neighbor was in fact, the Samaritan. In
Jesus' time the Samaritans and Jews despised each other as enemies,
so Jesus' implication is that we should go so far as to love even those
who are not our friends.
By telling this parable, it appears that Jesus brilliantly used rabbinic
technique to elevate third and final verse in the Old Testament verse
that contains the word "ve'ahavta" to the level of the other
two. It is Leviticus 19:34:
The stranger who resides with you shall
be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself,
for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.
The Samaritan would have been
the stranger and the alien among them, and Jesus shows that the stranger
and alien was the neighbor that the man should love! It seems that Jesus
is tying "Love your neighbor" with "love the stranger"
and even "love your enemies"! This saying was utterly unique
to Jesus, and while he built it on rabbinic thought of his time, it goes
far beyond that. It is amazing to see how our rabbi Jesus began with this
rich material and brought it to its pinnacle.
More light on the Samaritan
Jesus' teaching grows even richer if we see his parable about the Good
Samaritan in the light of a story in his scripture that was in the background.
(Remember that the entire first century Jewish culture was very biblically
literate, and rabbis frequently alluded to their scriptures to give more
depth to their stories.)
In 2 Chronicles 28:8-15, a scene takes place after Israel is divided into
the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Ahaz, the king of Judah, led the
nation into terrible idolatry, even sacrificing children to idols. Because
of this, the Lord let Judah be attacked and defeated by Israel. This is
the first time that Israel actually took prisoners of the tribes of Judah.
They were on the verge of leading 200,000 of them away as their slaves,
but a prophet chastised them, reminding them that God let them defeat
Judah as a punishment for idolatry, and they were even more guilty of
worshipping idols than their brothers. He told them that if they took
their own brothers captive, it would compound their guilt before the Lord.
So some of the leaders of the tribes repented of their sin and set the
Judeans free. It says,
Then the men who were designated by name
arose, took the captives, and they clothed all their naked ones from
the spoil; and they gave them clothes and sandals, fed them and gave
them drink, anointed them with oil, led all their feeble ones on donkeys,
and brought them to Jericho, the city of palm trees, to their brothers;
then they returned to Samaria. (2 Chron. 28:15)
We rarely read of a story of
such compassion between nations at war, where one binds the wounds of
the other and gently restores them to freedom. This was a remarkable moment
of grace between the tribes of Israel. These "good Samaritans" appear to be in the background of Jesus' character of the Samaritan in
his parable for several reasons. In the parable, Jesus mentions the town
Jericho, one of the few times he ever mentions specific places in parables.
The victim is stripped naked, like some of the Judeans were, and the Samaritan
anoints the man and puts him on a donkey and carries him to Jericho, like
was done with the Judeans. His audience easily could have brought to mind
If Jesus had this in mind, it shows us even more brilliance packed into
his parable. In this story of the ancient "good Samaritans",
the point at which they repent and decide to love their enemies was exactly
when they became aware of the truth of Leviticus 19:18 -- that their enemies
were their own brothers, and that they were sinners just like them! They
were loving their neighbors, because they realized they were alike both
in humanity and sinfulness. To the audience of Jesus' parable, they would
have remembered that the Samaritans actually did at one time do this act
of great compassion for their enemies. And that they should act like these
people (and love these people), who then were their worst enemies.
What are the implications?
It is hard to overstate the depth and brilliance of Jesus in his rabbinic
teaching. He builds on Old Testament stories and and rabbinic thought
to express an idea that was unique to him - that we should even love our
enemies. Why? Because they are human beings, made in the image of God
like ourselves, and because we are all sinners in God's sight. Just as
God loves both the just and the unjust, how much more, we who are sinners,
should love other sinners like ourselves.
This essay is based in
part on the following: "Jesus' Jewish Command to Love" by
Dr. Steven Notley at www.jerusalemperspective.com;
and talks given by Dr. Randall Buth, "What be Commandment Big of
the Law", and by Dr. Steven Notley, "Do this and Live: The
Ethics of Jesus". Both talks are available in audio cassettes
and CD setsfrom the En-Gedi Resource Center.
Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All rights reserved. This article is copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.
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