And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “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 neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
All other laws, Jesus says, depend on these two chief laws. In another telling of the same event (or a similar occasion) recorded in Mark 12:33 a teacher describes these two intertwined laws as more important even than sacrificial acts of worship to God. Jesus commends him for his wisdom.
Jesus introduces the second law by saying it is like the first, and the phrase “is like it” means “is equal to it”. This commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves appears 8 times in the New Testament.
Interestingly, although Jesus was asked for just one law he gave two instead. He refused to allow love for God to be divorced from love for our fellow human. His disciple John later echoed this when he wrote:
If anyone says, “I love God”, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
1 John 4:20-21
Normal people the world over would happily affirm the value of this principle. So why does God need to make it a commandment? Unfortunately, the state of the world we live in shows we don’t live by it. Indeed we can’t truly love our neighbour unless we love God first, because, as the writers of the New Testament repeatedly say, true love is defined by God- by who He is and what He has done. God shows us that love is more than romance, friendly feeling or sympathy. His love goes beyond ours (Matthew 5:46-48), so we can’t expect to meet the mark unless He helps us. And fortunately, He does; as we love God with everything He fills us with His love (Romans 5:5), so we can then start to love one another as we truly should.
So, this command demands we ask ourselves four questions:
Firstly, how can I love God more deeply, truly and wholeheartedly?
Secondly, how do I love myself? To give a few examples: I make sure I’m well fed and I get enough sleep. I put extra warm clothes on when I’m cold and I take a holiday every now and then.
Thirdly, considering all this, if I loved everyone else in the same way, what would I do for them?
And finally, who is our neighbour? Anyone who needs us? Everyone? Our nearest brother? Those near to us at any particular time?
As Jesus’ parable about a samaritan saviour explains (Luke 10:29-37), our neighbours don’t have to be like us. They don’t have to be christians or westerners, sharing our income level, skin tone, political persuasions or language. They don’t even have to deserve our love because God commands us to love as He has loved us: extravagantly, freely, irrespective of merit and with a love not just expressed in words but also shown through deeds (1 John 3:18).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.