One of the more intimidating things about reading the Bible is there are (or seem to be) a lot of commands about how we ought to live. It can feel overwhelming thinking of what God might expect of you. The ways in which we can sin are numerous. The beautiful thing about the Bible, however, is that since it is God’s word, he knows the inclusion of his standard for us (perfection) would need simplification, and this is where Jesus comes in.
In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Jesus takes what was - especially at this time in history - a very confusing religious system and simplifies it for us into two commands:
1) Love God
2) Love your neighbor as yourself.
For the next two weeks, we are going to be looking at what this means, but in reverse order.
So, what does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself?
First, by “neighbor,” Jesus didn’t merely mean the people who live next to you. Instead, Jesus meant everyone, including those whom you find the least appealing (Luke 10:25-37). So, we know Jesus is calling us to love everyone as much as we love ourselves, no matter who they are. Of course, we may have to love them in different ways (you aren’t called to stay in a friendship/relationship with someone who is abusive), but the command still stands: love everyone.
So, how do we do that?
It’s easy to say, harder to understand, and even harder to practice. But, it is possible.
To understand what Jesus meant by love your neighbor as yourself, we can look at a text from a book of law in the Old Testament: Leviticus.
In Leviticus 19:9-18, God gave his people specific instructions on how they could love people. Some of the ways he calls them to love others are a bit time-period-specific, so we will update some of the examples for clarity's sake. Let’s get started.
9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.
Here, God tells his people to leave the outer portion of their fields unpicked so that those who need it may take it. Most of us don’t have that opportunity (most of us aren’t farmers) so, let’s update it. If this example was given to us today, it might read a little like, “leave a portion of what is yours for those who need it more.” Or, even more specific, it might read, “set aside some of your money for those who need it. When someone crosses your path, you can bless them with what is yours. Essentially, this part calls us to be generous with what is ours.
11 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another.
Now, God tells his people not to steal, deal falsely, or lie to one another. Not much needs to be updated here. Don’t steal - no matter the circumstances - because when you take something that isn’t yours and wasn’t offered to you, you’re hurting someone else, thus not loving your neighbor. Don’t deal falsely, (or don’t deceive people) and don’t lie, because in order to deceive or lie, you must do it to someone, thus not loving them.
12 You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.
Next, he tells us to not swear by his name falsely. How does this have anything to do with loving our neighbor? We can rephrase this today (or add some clarifying language) to “When you break a promise, agreement, deal, commitment, etc., and you are a Christian, you might make the name of God think to other people.” This, of course, is not loving your neighbor.
13a “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him.
Don’t oppress, don’t rob.
13b The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning.
When you say you’re going to pay someone (or, even generally speaking, do something for someone) do it.
14 You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
If you are unsympathetic toward or take advantage of someone with a disability, then you’re not loving your neighbor.
15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.
Treat all people with equal dignity, regardless of the situation. Most of us aren’t going to be called to provide a witness against someone in court, but that doesn’t mean we don’t pass judgment on a quite frequent basis. Our generosity and love should extend to all people, regardless of their financial status.
16a You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people,
Don’t spend your time talking negatively about people. It never helps, and it will always hurt - even if it’s only hurting you at the time.
16b and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
Do not cause harm to another person.
17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.
Be aware of your feelings toward people. If you are harboring some bitterness toward someone, the best thing to do is talk to them. Doing this can help you prevent sin.
18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
Finally, don’t exact revenge on someone, and don’t hold a grudge.
This what it looks like to love your neighbor, according to God, and we can do all of these things!
Here’s what we can do this week: we can pick a way to love our neighbors each day and practice it. Then, we can write about our experiences in a sort-of “Love my neighbor” journal. At the end of each day, write about which actions you took, how it went, and how it made you feel. If you don’t currently have a journal, and are interested in a journaling app, I would highly recommend the “Day One” app.
So, that’s our step this week. For each day, pick a way listed in the text from Leviticus, and do it! Then, create and write a “Love my neighbor” journal.
What are you going to do?