In the Torah, the Lord called the Jewish people to love their neighbors as themselves, expressed most clearly in Leviticus 19:18: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.”
In the New Testament, Jesus reiterated that this was the second greatest of all the commandments, superseded only by the commandment to love the Lord Himself with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Jesus actually said that, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40)
Who Exactly is Our Neighbor?
But who, exactly, is our neighbor?
This was a question raised to Jesus by a Jewish Torah expert who, the text tells us, wanted to justify himself (Luke 10:25-29). But what, exactly, did he mean? How does the question of, “Who is my neighbor?” potentially justify our behavior?
This is an age-old question in Jewish law, as the rabbis wanted to understand the meaning of “your neighbor” in Leviticus 19. Does it mean fellow-Jews only? Does it mean Gentiles too? Does it even apply to one’s enemies? And how would this apply in Israel today?
It’s one thing to love my Jewish neighbor as myself. It’s another thing to love my Palestinian neighbor as myself, let alone a Palestinian terrorist. What does the Torah require?
Going back to New Testament times, commentator Joel Green notes:
As a consequence of Hellenistic imperialism and Roman occupation, it could not be generally assumed in the first century of the Common Era that those dwelling among the people of Israel qualified as ‘neighbors.’ Different attitudes toward these foreign intrusions developed into a fractured social context in which boundaries distinguished not only between Jew and Gentile but also between Jewish factions. How far should love reach? (New International Commentary on the New Testament)
Not surprisingly, based on a plain reading of Leviticus 19:18, Jewish legal scholars have generally defined “your neighbor” as a fellow Jew, although all people (aside from mortal enemies) should be treated with kindness. But it is only a fellow Israelite who should be loved “as yourself.”
Jesus Challenges With Parable of Good Samaritan
Jesus challenged this mentality and responded to the Torah expert in His famous parable of the Good Samaritan.
In this parable, a despised outsider, viewed by the Jewish community as a half-breed, is the one who shows compassion to a Jewish man who was beaten and robbed. In contrast, two fellow Jews, both of whom we could call “clergy” today, passed by their brother, not wanting to get their hands dirty.
After sharing this parable, Jesus asked the legal expert, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”
The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37)
The Lord here turns the question upside down, telling this student of the Torah, “Don’t worry about who your neighbor is. Go and be a neighbor. Go and love the unlovely. Go and do what is right, treating others the way you would want to be treated.”
And that’s exactly what Jesus is saying to us today. Go and be a neighbor, outside of your comfort zone, outside of your personal tastes and interests, outside of “your own people.”
But it is not only Jesus who taught this.
Treat the Stranger as a Native
This is written later in Leviticus 19, the very same chapter in which “love your neighbor as yourself” is found: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
We are to love “the others” as ourselves too!
The Divine Command
Today, as America is deeply divided on many different lines, it is all too easy to limit our love to those who believe and think and vote and live the way we do. (The truth be told, we fail badly here too.)
The challenge — no, the divine command — is to love the “other” people as we love ourselves. That means our Democratic or Republican neighbor. Or our gay or transgender neighbor. Or our Muslim or atheist neighbor. Or our MAGA or leftist neighbor. Or our Baptist or Pentecostal neighbor.
To do so, we must have God’s heart. We must see others as He sees them: as people created in His image for a divine purpose, but fallen, lost, and in need of redemption.
As for God seeing their sins, be assured that He sees all of our sins. That alone should produce some deep humility in each of us.
Yet, despite seeing our sin and filth, He still loves us and offers us forgiveness and new life. How can we, the objects of His mercy, do any less?
That’s why we, at all times, in the midst of our most passionate spiritual and political and cultural disagreements, must genuinely love those we differ with, truly desiring their wellbeing and really wanting them to know the Lord for themselves.
As for our elitist, selective love, Jesus said:
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32–36)
In our natural strength, it is impossible, but with God’s grace and empowerment, it can be done.
Let us, then, have backbones of steel when it comes to doing what is right. But let us also have hearts of compassion, and let us love our neighbors as ourselves.
That’s the Jesus way of changing the world.
Dr. Michael Brown (www.askdrbrown.org) is the host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program. His latest book is The Political Seduction of the Church: How Millions Of American Christians Have Confused Politics with the Gospel. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.