When Jesus is questioned about the greatest commandment, he cites two Scriptures from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, books many modern Christians treat as obsolete (Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Leviticus 19:18).
“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 foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40, NASB)This response has become known as the Great Commandment.
The original context of “love our neighbor as yourself” is a section on holy living in Leviticus which more specifically addresses duties towards one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:11-18). The unit builds from representative behaviors to the excerpt that Jesus cites, advancing specific examples before finally addressing the root cause: one’s general attitude towards her neighbor. Though commonly referenced out of context, the verse’s full force is demonstrated only when paired with its preceding verse (Leviticus 19:17).
‘You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:17-18, NASB)Together the two verses form a single unit with parallel ideologies. Positioned at its core, this admonition is the key verse in its chapter and in many ways the entire Levitical system. Legendary Rabbi Akiba (40-137) declared Leviticus 19:18 to be foundational, a “great principle in the Torah” (Genesis Rabah 24:7). The command is validated by God’s own identity, the ancient version of “Because I said so!”
Since the eighteenth century this Scripture has been viewed as the theoretical framework behind Jesus’ Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31).
The believer is instructed to love her neighbor but to comply those two terms must first be defined. Gordon J. Wenham (b. 1943) acknowledges:
Love and neighbor are as wide-ranging in their scope and meaning in Hebrew as the corresponding English terms. Jesus and Paul were not stretching the meaning of these verses in claiming that all our other duties toward our fellow men were summed up in this command (Matthew 22:39-40; Romans 13:9). “What every man’s mind ought to be towards his neighbor could not be better expressed in many pages than in this one sentence.” (Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 269)The term love in a legal setting like Leviticus carries a different connotation from its everyday use. Mary Douglas (1921-2007) defines:
In a famous passage Leviticus requires that a person should love his neighbour as himself (Leviticus 19:18, 34). And in the same chapter there is a command not to hate your brother. Abraham Malamat [1922-2010] gives a lucid explanation of what is meant by these commands, showing that on linguistic grounds the words should be translated in a much more concrete way, more as an injunction to be useful, be helpful to the neighbour, take care of them, rather than to develop a particular kind of warm feeling. In English a closer translation than ‘love’, which has now got to be a word for an emotion, would be ‘cherish’, which implies taking care, providing for a beloved object...The same view is developed by Yochanan Muffs [1932-2009]’ essay on ancient Near Eastern legal documents. Muffs found that expressions such as love and joy when used in legal contexts have nothing to do with emotion, but convey the specific legal idea of free and uncoerced willingness. (Douglas, Leviticus As Literature, 42-43)Love implies action, not merely a feeling.
The object of the believer’s love is her neighbor. The parameters of this term are broader than the word’s use in the vernacular. Jesus uses the Parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate the scope of this term (Luke 10:25-37).
Samuel E. Balentine (b. 1950) clarifies:
The word neighbor refers to a wide range of persons with whom Israel would have had relationships. The list of ethical admonitions in Leviticus 19:9-18 uses no fewer than eight words to describe the persons Israel is obligated to care for: “poor” (Leviticus 19:10), “alien” (Leviticus 19:10), “neighbor” (Leviticus 19:13), “laborer” (Leviticus 19:13), the “deaf” (Leviticus 19:14), the “blind” (Leviticus 19:14), “poor” (Leviticus 19:15), “fellow citizen” (Leviticus 19:15, 17; NRSV “neighbor/people”). The inclusiveness of this list indicates that the “neighbor” is not limited to the peer with whom one shares a certain social status. It is also the disadvantaged person shunted to the edges of society, especially those persons the community may be tempted to ignore, perhaps even abuse, for economic, political, or physical reasons. (Balentine, Leviticus (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 165)The believer is to act loving towards everyone.
Is Leviticus in your personal canon? Can love be commanded? How would you define the terms love and neighbor? What is the connection between loving others and loving God? Is there anyone excluded from Jesus’ definition of neighbor? Do you love others? How do you live out your love for others? Is self-love a prerequisite to loving another?
The command to love others is grounded in loving oneself. Reuven P. Bulka (b. 1944) writes:
A...well known principles within Judaism, “love your neighbor as yourself...” (Leviticus 19:18)...is rooted in a positive appreciation of the self. The Biblical charge, which is considered an encompassing principle in the Judaic lifestyle (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim, 9:14), equates the love that we should have of others with the love that we should have of our own selves. Evidently, an individual who is sour on the self will project accordingly in the encounters with others. (Bulka, Critical Psychological Issues: Judaic Perspectives, 56)The cliché that “hurt people hurt people” applies to the ramifications of not loving oneself.
The standard by which one is to love others is “as yourself.” James R. Beck (b. 1942) notes the prominence of this phrase:
The phrase occurs in both Leviticus 19:18 and Leviticus 19:34...In the Greek New Testament, this phrase as yourself (hos eautou) occurs seven additional times in connection with the command to love others. Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18 in its entirety to the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:19) and to the questioning lawyer (Matthew 22:39, with parallels in Mark 12:31 and Luke 10:27). As yourself also occurs in the quotations of Leviticus 19:18 that occur in Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14 and James 2:8. Clearly, God expects us to love others (neighbors and aliens) as we love ourselves. The command appears a total of nine times in Scripture, a remarkable repetition that the Spirit may have designed for the purpose of impressing these truths indelibly on our minds and hearts. (Beck, Jesus & Personality Theory: Exploring the Five-Factor Model, 198-199)This criterion has produced many questions. Erhard S. Gerstenberger (b. 1932) asks:
What...is meant by the universally familiar and often-cited sentence, “love your neighbor as yourself”? Is it supposed to strengthen a person’s own feeling of self-worth? Does it ironically accept human egoism as a given and demand utopian, unrealizable altruism? Is it trying merely to confirm the equal worth of a person’s fellow human beings and from this perspective inculcate a certain obligation to solidarity? (Gerstenberger, Leviticus: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 272)As Gerstenberger alludes, many have seen self-love as implicitly advised in Leviticus 19:18. Gary W. Demarest (b. 1926) warns:
Many contemporary expositions emphasize the loving of oneself as the first step toward loving one’s neighbor. However, this may result in a self-love that never gets to the loving of others...One of the best ways to deal with a negative self-image is to act intentionally in love toward some one else, no matter how one feels about oneself. This is surely what God is calling us to do in this verse. The literal meaning of the Hebrew does not mean that we are to love others just as we love ourselves, but, rather, we are to love others as people like ourselves: people who are hurting, scared, insecure, guilty, longing to be noticed, loved, and cared for. Far from an invitation to preoccupation with how we feel about ourselves, this is a mandate to self-giving love. It really translated into what we have come to call the Golden Rule: “Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). (Demarest, Leviticus (Mastering the Old Testament), 222)Robert L. Thomas (b. 1938) adamantly concurs, claiming that the verse appeals to an underlying assumption that we already love ourselves:
The psychological rejoinder to that straightforward meaning is that one cannot love others until loving oneself. That, however, reads an integrative motif into the verse once again. The “as yourself” phrase says that a person does love self, not that he should love self. Furthermore, the psychologist errs when saying that the inevitable self-love is “appropriate self-love, self-care, and self-appreciation.” On the contrary, it is rather a person’s natural compulsion to promote his or her own personal welfare in every facet of life. That compulsion does not have to be learned and may have to be dispensed with as a requirement of Christian discipleship (Matthew 10:37-39, 16:24-25; Mark 8:34-35; Luke 9:23-24; John 12:25). (Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old, 130)An equally viable interpretation is that “as yourself’ means that we are to love others as those who are like us. W.H. Bellinger, Jr. (b. 1949) explains:
The translation to love the neighbor as yourself, that is, as you love yourself or as if the person were you, is appropriate and fits the context of the sayings in the gospels. It would also be possible to take the preposition related to the neighbor: Love your neighbor who is like you, either like you in the narrow sense of a fellow Israelite or like you in the sense of being human just as you are. This last possibility might find some support in Leviticus 19:34 where the alien is to be loved “like you.” (Bellinger, Leviticus, Numbers (New International Biblical Commentary),105)This interpretation is seen in Martin Buber (1878-1965)’s translation of Leviticus 19:18, 34: “Be loving to your fellow man [insider and outsider], as to one who is just like you.'”
Which interpretation of “as yourself” do you prefer? Do you believe that Leviticus 19:18 promotes self-love? Is there a better universal standard for promoting love than one’s rational self interest? What is the connection between loving oneself and loving another? Do you love yourself?
“Self-love is not opposed to the love of other people. You cannot really love yourself and do yourself a favor without doing people a favor, and vise versa.” - Karl Menninger (1893-1990), American psychiatrist