Love your neighbor as yourselfMatthew 22:39
Christ’s commandment to love our neighbors is repeated so often by so many that it has practically lost its poetry. Even more disheartening is that Christians from across the political spectrum have weaponized this verse, brandishing against their perceived enemies in a hailstorm of judgment.
I confess that I, too, have been guilty of this, especially over the past few years. Shaking my fist, I cry out, “These supposed-Christians are not loving their neighbors. What’s wrong with them?” While I’m no theologian, something tells me this was not Christ’s intention.
A few quiet moments at a time—driving to work, washing dishes, brushing my teeth, nursing my son—I’ve meditated on this verse. What does it look like to love our neighbor?
Here’s the thing about Christ’s commandment to love your neighbor as yourself: it’s brutal. It comes with no asterisk, no footnote, no exception. And let’s not even get into the fact that most of us don’t love ourselves well, so how on God’s green earth are we possibly going to love a stranger?
When we do try to love our neighbor, many of the Christians I know—myself included—conflate this with Christ’s assertion in Matthew 25 that we are to care for “the least of these.”
We like to think of our neighbor as those who have less than us, who need our help, who are easy for us to pity, for they pose no real threat to us or our way of life. We’ve replaced the word “neighbor” with images of wide-eyed, hungry children who need feeding. Or we think of people we see as oppressed, who need us to lean on our privilege to lift them from a pit of despair. It feels relatively safe to love these people from a distance with a bumper sticker or a Tweet.
This isn’t Christ’s commandment at all.
He says to love our neighbor, full stop.
There is no doubt surrounding how Christ felt about the powerless, the vulnerable, the oppressed. He makes his expectations exceedingly clear throughout the gospel. So it’s easy to focus on that when we think about our neighbor. It is also easier, perhaps, to love “down” on the power scale than it is to love “up.” To love someone more powerful than us or to love someone who we believe poses a threat to our ideals is uncomfortable, to put it generously.
Here, in this commandment, when Christ issues his mandate to love our neighbor, he includes no adjectives, no descriptions; he doesn’t even tell us how to love. In that omission, we have, by default, a virtually infinite inclusion of uncomfortable adjectives that come with the commandment to:
love your rich neighbor
love your entitled neighbor
love your powerful neighbor
love your racist neighbor
love your insurrectionist neighbor
love your Antifa neighbor
love your evangelical neighbor
love your loud neighbor
love your mean neighbor
love your aloof neighbor
love your neighbor
love your neighbor
love your neighbor
Suddenly, the second greatest commandment doesn’t feel so great. And it shouldn’t, because it’s impossible. At least, it’s impossible if we forget that it comes second.
What we so often leave out when we turn this verse into a self-righteous gavel of judgment is that it is the second greatest commandment.
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.”Matthew 22:37-38
I believe it’s no coincidence that Christ coupled these two commandments, nor do I believe that the order is due to a jealous God. Only when we honor the first commandment do we have even the most distant hope of living into the second. For it is in endeavoring to love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind that we learn how to love and be loved.
In our all-consuming pursuit to love God as commanded, we are able see God’s presence everywhere and in everyone—even, dare I say, in ourselves. Through loving God fully, when we look at our neighbor we no longer see a list of difficult adjectives; we just see God.
We know that we are following Christ’s greatest commandments when loving our neighbor becomes the most natural extension of a love that already fills our heart, our soul, and our mind.