To Love One’s Neighbor
Different gospel traditions tell this story differently. In Luke’s version the scribe is trying to test Jesus. The trap is to see which commandment Jesus chooses, then ask, “But what about…?” Whichever commandment Jesus chooses will, for the scribe, be the wrong answer. As always, Jesus figures out the trap and avoids it.
While I like to see Jesus win at this game, I prefer Mark’s version. Jesus is teaching in the temple, and the scribe is attracted by the crowd. Instead of trying to trap Jesus, the scribe asks the kind of question one religious expert asked another. The resulting discussion would be interesting to both, as well as those looking on.
The expectation of the scribe—and of the audience—is that Jesus will choose one of the Ten Commandments and the debate will begin. Jesus circumvents debate by ignoring the Decalogue and choosing the commandment that is the heart of Judaism.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
Jesus could have stopped there and been correct. Our primary obligation is to love God with everything we have: our emotional selves, our spiritual selves, our mental selves, and our physical selves.
But Jesus knew that loving God is only a part of the obligation: an important part—in fact the most important part—but not all. Since we can’t see God, the only way we can prove our love is to love those around us—love them in God’s name and as God would love them. To complete his answer Jesus added: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
When I was in high school we used to say of someone we didn’t like very much, “I’ll love her for Jesus’ sake”—which meant we wouldn’t love her at all. At best we’d tolerate her, trying to pretend that we were demonstrating Jesus’ love. Down deep we knew we weren’t fulfilling the commandment; but we all know how easy it is to fool ourselves into believing we’re doing something noble when the opposite is true.
Much has been said about loving all your neighbors, and loving them as you love yourself. I want to focus on another dimension of this love.
Simone de Beauvoir said, “One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation, and compassion.” I believe friendship, indignation and compassion are part of love. You can’t love a person without being a friend. You can’t love a person without showing compassion when compassion is needed.
Perhaps the true depth of love is revealed by the level of indignation we exhibit when our neighbor has been wronged. It’s easy to say, “Gee, that’s too bad,” and let it go at that. But words are cheap, and that kind of sympathy comes easily and costs little. When our neighbor has been wronged, and we know he has been wronged, love—God’s love—demands we take up his cause. We must be indignant over injustice no matter who the victim is.
This love is difficult. To love in good times doesn’t cost much. To be a friend when friendship is easy doesn’t put us in any hardship. To show compassion with words and a pat on the shoulder doesn’t take much effort. True love, true friendship, true compassion is to stand with our neighbor, be indignant for him, and say, “That’s wrong! Make it right!”
This is loving for Jesus’ sake—loving as Jesus loved. When we love this way we, like the scribe, will hear Jesus say, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”