Love (All) Your Neighbors

A Surprising Test of True Faith

Two men went up into the temple to worship. These men, however, unlike the two in Jesus’s parable (Luke 18:9–14), looked and sounded the same. Both lifted their hands in praise. Both sat silent beneath God’s word. Both bowed their heads in confession. And yet, only one of the men went down to his house justified. Only one was right with God.

Some may find this scenario troubling. If we cannot discern a person’s spiritual sincerity by his worship, then how can we discern it? If raised hands and attentive ears and a bent head can mask a hard heart, then where does true love for God appear?

The main answer comes in Jesus’s response to a certain lawyer. “Teacher,” the man asks, “which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36). And Jesus, instead of responding with a single commandment, gives two:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37–39)

“Love God” is the first and greatest commandment, the crown of God’s good law. But such love never stands alone, Jesus says — nor is it chiefly known by outward acts of worship. Rather, love for God appears (or not) in how a person treats his neighbors. So, if you want to see someone’s spiritual sincerity more clearly, don’t mainly watch him in church. Watch him with his children. Watch him at work. Watch him in traffic. Watch him when offended. For you will know him by his neighbor-love.

Jesus’s Most-Quoted Verse

While the first and greatest commandment appears in the Shema — perhaps the most prominent Old Testament passage (Deuteronomy 6:5) — “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” may seem all but buried beneath the laws and ceremonies of Leviticus. But not to Jesus. Leviticus 19:18 became his most-quoted verse — and the most-quoted verse in the entire New Testament.

Why did Jesus repeatedly return to a passage we often rush through in Bible reading? For at least two reasons. First, Leviticus 19:18 summarizes, in remarkably compact form, the heart of God’s law as it relates to our relationships. As Paul would later write, “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments . . . are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Romans 13:8–9). Leviticus 19:18 is like the brief surfacing of an underground river that runs through the whole Old Testament, giving life to every law.

Yet Jesus returned to Leviticus 19:18 for another reason as well: perhaps more than anything else, neighbor-love reveals the sincerity of our religion. John Calvin notes how the first table of the Ten Commandments (relating to the love of God) “was usually either in the intention of the heart, or in ceremonies.” But, Calvin continues, “the intention of the heart did not show itself, and the hypocrites continually busied themselves with ceremonies.” Which is one reason why God gave the second table of the law (relating to love of neighbor), for “the works of love are such that through them we witness real righteousness” (Institutes, 2.8.52).

Here, in everyday interactions with family, friends, strangers, and enemies, the hidden heart appears. Hence, in the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus illustrates true spirituality not by religious ceremony (in which the priest and the Levite excelled) but by practical mercy (Luke 10:30–37). Without such mercy, the most scrupulous religious observance becomes the white paint on a coffin (Matthew 23:27). As Jesus said in another repeated quotation, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; 12:7; quoting Hosea 6:6). Better to lend a hand on the side of the road than to arrive at the temple on time.

The spiritually dead can perform many religious ceremonies. They can gather with God’s people, pray long and often, memorize God’s laws, and tithe with precision. But they cannot love their neighbor as God requires.

Broader Neighbor, Deeper Love

At this point, however, we might ask, “Yes, neighbor-love reveals our spiritual sincerity, but can’t neighbor-love itself be feigned?” Indeed it can. Many Jews of Jesus’s day imagined they were obeying Leviticus 19:18 when they were actually obeying a command of their own making — a diminished and domesticated command more friendly to the flesh.

“Anyone can love lovely neighbors. But loving the hostile and the needy is a mark of Christlike grace.”

And so may we. The nineteenth-century preacher John Broadus notes how, precisely when we think we are loving our neighbors as ourselves, we may actually “be loving only [ourselves] — a kind of expanded selfishness” (quoted in Matthew, 160). Jesus often went to war with such “expanded selfishness.” He will not allow us to shrink neighbor-love to the level of unregenerate powers. Then and now, loving our neighbor as ourselves calls for something far beyond ourselves.

So, to stab us awake and send us running to God for mercy and help, Jesus not only tells us to love our neighbor, but he also reclaims the true meanings of neighbor and love.

Who Is My Neighbor?

When confronted with such a staggering command as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” one of our first natural impulses is to narrow the meaning of neighbor to those who are easy to love.

The first time our Lord quotes Leviticus 19:18, he also quotes a popular addition to the command: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’” (Matthew 5:43). Scour the Old Testament as we may, we will not land upon a command to hate our enemies (and we will find, to the contrary, commands such as Exodus 23:4–5). So, against the natural impulse to exclude enemies from the company of our neighbors, Jesus says, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).

Alongside enemies, the needy can easily be denied neighbor status, especially if those needy ones have no near relation to us. So, when a lawyer, “desiring to justify himself,” asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus has him picture a half-dead, stranded man, the kind of needy person who threatens to upend our schedule and empty our wallet (Luke 10:29–30). You may not know him; he may have no claim on you besides being a fellow human. But if you are near to him and able to help, then this needy one is your neighbor.

To assess the depth of our neighbor-love, then, we can ask who receives our regular care and attention. For whom do we pray (Matthew 5:44)? To whom do we “do good” (Luke 6:27)? And whom do we go out of our way to greet (Matthew 5:47)? Does the list include any enemies — those who offend us, provoke us, try us, wrong us, or simply ignore us? And does the list include any needy — the kind of people who disrupt your day and “cannot repay you” (Luke 14:14)?

If not, then our list of neighbors needs to grow. “For if you love those who love you,” Jesus asks us, “what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:46). Anyone can love lovely neighbors. But loving the hostile and the needy is a mark of Christlike grace.

What Is Love?

Perhaps the lawyer’s question (“Who is my neighbor?”) is not our own. Perhaps we know neighbor spreads over our fellow humans whole, impartial as the sky. But what of love? Here as well, Jesus will not let us narrow the definition to something doable apart from him.

One of the most profound descriptions of true neighbor-love appears in what we know as the Golden Rule:

Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

“This is the Law and the Prophets” bears a striking resemblance to Matthew 22:40, where Jesus says that “all the Law and the Prophets” depend on the two great commandments — suggesting that the Golden Rule offers the gold standard for neighbor-love. And what a standard it offers.

Here we find an active, practical love, a love that goes beyond well-wishing to well-doing. Here we find an imaginative love that gives time and thought to what would truly benefit another. Here we find a self-denying love that serves others regardless of how they have served us. And here we find a broad, capacious love, one whose limits extend to “whatever you wish.” “Love your neighbor” pushes us further outward than we often go, bidding us to put our neighbors at the forefront of our consciousness rather than treating them as the background characters to the play starring me.

So, along with asking whom we love, we might ask how we love. Does our love regularly inconvenience us? Does it flow from a heart warm with desire for another’s welfare in Christ? Does it take shape in concrete action rather than remaining in the mouth or imagination? And for the task-oriented among us: Do our to-do lists include the varied needs of others, and not only our own?

He Neighbored Among Us

When Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, then, he tells us to love all our neighbors — including enemies and the needy. And he tells us to really love them — applying to them the measure of our self-love. Such love, however imperfect (and imperfect it will be till heaven), infallibly marks those who truly love God.

Yet if the first commandment becomes visible through the second, the second becomes possible only through the first. Jesus commands a deeper love than our fallen hearts can offer. He commands a love that comes from God — indeed, a love that comes from the very God who became our neighbor. Jesus, to show us this righteousness and to be for us this righteousness, came and neighbored among us.

In him, we see flawless neighbor-love unfold amid a demanding life. Here is one who loved the enemy and the outsider, who healed centurions’ sons and sought Samaritan sinners. Here is one who loved others as himself, allowing endless needs and persistent pleas to interrupt his days and infringe on his rest. Here is one who loved his neighbor even when that neighbor held a hammer and nails to his skin.

More than that, here is one who loved us — needier than a half-dead man on the roadside, more hostile than any enemy we’ve known. Only love such as his can bend our hearts away from religious formalism to obey the first commandment. And only love such as his can fill our hearts enough to obey the second. Loving our neighbors as ourselves flows from being loved by Jesus, deeply and daily.

“Let every Christian take up the duty of Christian love with tenfold seriousness,” the Scottish pastor Maurice Roberts once wrote. And let him do it by beholding Jesus with tenfold attention, devotion, and love.