Love your neighbor as yourself?

Updated on 10/21/18: see note 2.

Following is a reconstruction of vocal ministry offered at Homewood Friends Meeting on June 3, 2018. Revisions have been made for clarity and for correction of minor memory lapses, and endnotes have been provided.

In the Christian scriptures, there are three versions of Jesus’ conversation about “the great commandment,” the twofold duty of love of God and neighbor. In two of those versions, the precept is declared by Jesus himself. In the other, which is Luke’s,1 it is stated not by Jesus but by an expert in the Jewish Law. Because the distillation of the Law into that commandment did not originate with Jesus, it seems to me that Luke’s version would be the more accurate one. Luke’s Jesus endorses the commandment but, at least with the second part, dramatically broadens its scope.

The commandment’s first part is from Deuteronomy. Christian scriptures render it as “love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole strength, and your whole mind.” That wording is more inclusive than that of the traditional Hebrew text, which does not specifically mention the mind. That could be because the Christian authors knew only a Greek translation that includes “mind,” but it is possible that they knew more than one version and either combined them or chose the more complete.2

However that may be, Luke’s Jesus clearly broadens the scope of the second part, a saying from Leviticus: “love your neighbor as yourself.” Luke has the lawyer ask, “but who is my neighbor?,” setting Jesus up to make a remarkable expansion of the commandment’s reach. In that section of Leviticus, “neighbor” refers to fellow Jews, “the children of your people.”3 But in response to the lawyer’s question, Jesus tells a story that expands the definition of “neighbor” in a radical way. Traveling from Jerusalem, Jesus narrates, a Jewish man is set upon by brigands, robbed and beaten, and left to die by the road. Two pious Jews, priestly types, come by at different times, but neither stops to help him. Perhaps they fear potential defilement from contact with blood or a dead body; for whatever reason, they pass by. Then a Samaritan comes along. Moved by pity, he stops, binds the man’s wounds, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care, even promising to return and cover whatever further services the innkeeper provides while the Samaritan is away on his business.

Jews and Samaritans famously despised, even hated, each other. Rights afforded to Jews by the Torah did not extend to Samaritans, who were rejected on racial and religious grounds. Over a century before the birth of Jesus, a Judean ruler had burned the Samaritans’ temple, and the city around it, to the ground. And just a few years after the birth of Jesus, Samaritans had sneaked into the temple in Jerusalem and desecrated it during Passover. The groups had a long history of enmity.

In Jesus’ story, then, we see a man going out of his way to save the life of someone whom, presumably, he despises – and who despises him and would deprive him of justice. That takes me back to what I’ve come to formulate as the first law of the spiritual life; namely, it’s not about me. “Love your neighbor as yourself” doesn’t mean that I must learn to love myself before I can love others: it recognizes that, even if I despise or hate myself, I already do love myself. When I’m hungry, I get food; when I’m thirsty, I get a drink; when I need shelter, I find it; when I’m hurt or sick, I take care of myself as best I can. Jesus asks not that we build up our self-esteem and act from that basis, but that we learn to allow the Light, the movement of the compassionate Christ-spirit within, to act through us for the benefit of its object, even when that object is someone — the other as the self — we despise.

[1] Luke 10:25-37. Cf. Matthew 22:36-40 and Mark 12:28-34.
[2] The passage, Deuteronomy 6:4-5, is the beginning of the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” According to R. W. L. Moberly’s Old Testament Theology, in Mark 12:30 “the initial term (lēvāv, heart) has received a double rendering, both ‘heart’ and ‘mind,’ perhaps to try to capture its full implications, in a context where the idiomatic sense of the heart as the seat of thought may have been less clear.” Apparently, the translation varied in versions of the Septuagint. There is also a cognate in the Septuagint’s rendering of Joshua 22:5: “But take great heed to do the commands and the law, which Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you to do; to love the Lord our God, to walk in all his ways, to keep his commands, and to cleave to him, and serve him with all your mind, and with all your soul.” All three of the Synoptic gospel books include the word “mind” (dianoia/s); Matthew, however, omits “strength” (ischuos). It seems likely that the passage was understood to express the sense of wholeness, of the full engagement of all human faculties in the love of God.
[3] Leviticus 19.

2 thoughts on “Love your neighbor as yourself?

  1. I think, “love thy neighbour as thyself,” has an even more radical meaning. I think, from the perspective of Jesus, every ‘self’ is the same self. The self is an eternally present subject of perception (and conception). It is never an object of perception. The things that appear to divide us into many separate selves are all objects of perception: including perceptions of our bodies, feelings and the contents of our minds. My actual existence as the eternal subject has to be inferred from these constantly changing perceptions, because I can never be an object of my own perception. To realize this in relation to another being is to recognize that ‘my neighbour is myself.’

    • Thanks for commenting, David. I think it’s too big a stretch to attribute Perennial Philosophy concepts to Jesus (and perhaps particularly the Jesus of the Synoptics). For one thing, that philosophy takes away the real relationality that is paramount in Jesus’ ethic. A prime example of its ethical ramifications is seen in second chapter of the Gita, when Krishna assures Arjuna that it’s OK to kill others because they’re really eternal spirit anyway. For Jesus, the other is not myself: that fundamental difference is the basis of the ethic of love.

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