This Sunday we will hear a well-known phrase, originally spoken in the book of Leviticus. The words are fairly familiar to us; “Love your neighbour as yourself.” This call to love our neighbours is so important that Jesus himself takes up this verse when asked about ‘the greatest commandment’. Loving our neighbour as ourselves seems to sum up quite nicely how we as Christians are to live in this world. Love your neighbour as yourself. It has quite a nice ring to it. Maybe we should print it on a t-shirt.
Whenever something gets reduced to an easy soundbyte or slogan, we always run into a danger of missing the deeper point. After all, have you ever asked yourself ‘where does the as yourself fit in? This is an interesting part of the love-command of God. The love that we live out to others is to be reflective of the love emanating from deep within. Love cannot simply be dry action, done simply to tick a box or fulfil a requirement. Love has to explode from within us. It has to be so ingrained in the very core of our lives that we cannot help but have love shown to our neighbours.
I have always found it curious that there have been attempts to see the love of self as a prerequisite for the love of neighbour. The argument is put forward that unless someone is able to love themselves, they are incapable of loving another person. This argument suggests that this command from Leviticus, and the reiteration of it by Jesus, is therefore a two part command; love yourself THEN love your neighbour. The former is what allows for the latter.
But this is not what scripture says. Leviticus 19 simply holds forward the command to love your neighbour, finishing the verse with the words ‘I am the Lord.’ There is no further explanation given, and none needed. The command to love ones’ neighbour is a command to participate in the love of God to that neighbour. Once one realises that the love of God is extended toward the neighbour, the call is simple: participate in that love.
Similarly, this is what Jesus is getting at when he rehearses this phrase in Matthew 22. Jesus puts forward the need for the community of faith to participate in the love of God. The greatest commandment to govern the life of all the faithful is the call to love. Yet there is one difference between Leviticus and Matthew. Unlike Leviticus, Jesus does place a prerequisite on this command. The command to love one’s neighbour is built upon one’s love for God. Love of self never enters into this mix.
It is an individualistic and self-focused world that has made our love for ourselves a criteria for loving our Lord and our neighbours. Scripture, however, says no such thing. When Scripture says ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ it is not stating that self-love unlocks our love for others. Rather, what scripture is saying is that we are called to live out the love of God that we have received ourselves. We are to love our neighbours in the same way that we are loved by God. This isn’t a call to love ourselves (as good of a message as that is), this is a call to remember that we are loved. We are loved by God, passionately, unreservedly, graciously and eternally.
It is the love of God, received in Jesus, that creates in us the capacity to love others. As we recognise that we are loved by God, regardless of our ups and downs, we also recognise that we stand alongside everyone else. Our neighbours are loved by God just as forcefully as we are. If God loves our neighbour, or our enemy, just as much as God loves me, do we have the right to withhold such a love? Love of neighbour, then, is not about a wilful action brought about by our own will or decision; it is but a response to the intoxicating love of God that has begun to permeate our lives.
Sometimes people suggest that it is difficult to love others when we do not love ourselves. This may be true. But is the solution to this predicament a withdrawing from the demands of love? When we find it difficult to love our neighbour, or worse yet our enemy, we can’t start with the love of self, for this does nothing to make us more loving. All this does is move our attention away from our neighbour (and God) and places our focus securely upon ourselves. But Jesus is always calling us to lay aside the self in order to particiapte in the reality of his Kingdom. Instead of placing our gaze on the inner stuff of our lives, we are called to raise our eyes heavenward and flood our vision of life with the love of God.
The prerequisite of love is never our own efforts or feelings; we start with the divine love expressed to us. We love the Lord with all our heart, our souls, our mind and our strength as the necessary response to the love that first came to us. It is the love of God, and the love of God alone, that transforms our lives and allows us to love our neighbours in the same manner that we are loved.