..And Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

How can I please God? What does He require of me? I’ve been exploring the most basic answer to this question by looking at Jesus’ answer to the related question, “What is the greatest of all the commandments?” (See Matthew 22: 34-40) Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy (6:5) as He gave His two-part answer– Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and Love your neighbor as yourself! He went on to say that ALL of the commandments and laws hang on these two concepts.

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So today, I want to look closer at the last of these– Love your neighbor as yourself. In another gospel, we see that Jesus is challenged to clarify, “Who is my neighbor?” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2010%3A25-37&version=NIV When we want to justify ourselves, or narrow the letter of the law, we often stall obedience by seeking to “clarify” God’s commands. Jesus’ words are broad, but perfectly clear– Love your neighbor as yourself–love the next person you meet; the person closest to you, as if they were YOU.

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This doesn’t give us room to reject anyone or exclude anyone from our love, compassion, or respect as a child of God. Nor does it give us the right to live someone else’s life, or take away their God-given free will to think and act for themselves. I have been guilty of both offenses, and I don’t think I am alone.

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Two of the great mistakes we make in failing to “love our neighbor” come through fear and pride. In the story of the “Good Samaritan,” we see two examples of a priest and a Levite, who fail to show love to their fellow Jew. They act in fear– fear of being the next victim, perhaps, but also fear of being inconvenienced or pulled away from their plans and purposes, and fear of being “defiled.” How many times do I let fear keep me from reaching out? How often do I fear that people, even God, will think less of me for associating with those who need help? Yet Jesus was known for interacting with sinners, lepers, and other outcasts. How can I act differently, and please God more than His own son?

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The other great mistake I have made is to “love” out of pride. Sometimes, I think I have more wisdom, or more material wealth, or greater skills, and that it is my right to “help” my neighbor in my own way and at my own convenience. I think I know how they should live, what they should do, and what they need– more than they do; sometimes even more than God knows! But I cannot love where I am not willing to be humble. This is true with God, and it is equally true with others.

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That doesn’t mean that I love others best when I let them take advantage to my harm or to their own harm. And it doesn’t mean that I must agree with them completely or deny what I know to be right. But it means that I must value their well-being and worth in God’s eyes as equal to (and often greater) than my own. It makes me feel good to “fix” someone else by fixing their circumstances, or demanding that they accept my help, but their greater need may be to take control of their own circumstances and attitudes. My need to be “right” or “righteous” or “charitable” needs to take a back seat to whatever their greater need may be. I need to listen more than I speak; wait when I would rather act (or vice versa); to take direction rather than give it; and to give advice rather than orders.

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The Apostle Paul spoke at length about love:

13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13: 1-7 NIV (via biblegateway.com)
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I can “care” about others; I can be generous; I can be knowledgeable; I can volunteer, and make sacrifices; I can “feel” deeply, and empathize with others– and still NOT love them. Conversely, I can disagree with them about a number of things, including their life choices, political views, and spending habits, and still love them as Christ loves them. I can love those who like me, or ignore me; those who hate me, as well as those who love me back. But I cannot do this in pride or in my own emotions and thoughts. This kind of love can only be sustained by the source of true Love– God Himself.

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This is why it is so important to learn from Jesus’ example. His perfect Love casts out fear and pride, and allows us to see others (and ourselves!) in the proper perspective.

Heart, Soul, and Mind..

Jesus was asked many trick questions by people who wanted to discredit him during His ministry. One such query involved all the many commands of the law. “Which is the greatest?” With so many commandments, laws, rituals, and traditions, it would be difficult to pick just one. Which is more evil– lying, stealing, murder, idolatry?

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But Jesus didn’t skip a beat. 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 9Matthew 22:37 NIV) Jesus was actually quoting from Deuteronomy (Deut. 6:5), when God was giving instructions to the people of Israel before they entered the Promised Land. Of course, Jesus, as part of the Triune Godhead, was actually present for these instructions– in fact, as the WORD of God, He may have been the very one speaking the same words hundreds of years before!

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The first three of the Ten Commandments all involve this concept. “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me”–don’t give your soul (your very essence) to someone or something else ahead of Yahweh. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”–don’t give your heart to worship anyone or anything that is created; instead, worship your Creator. “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain”–don’t use your mind to devalue and defame the Sovereign Lord.

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God is Sovereign. He is Supreme. And He IS Love– it is not just something He chooses to do. Love is part of God’s essence, and it cannot live and thrive without Him.

But this brings up two questions: If God IS Love and He created us, why must he “command” us to love Him? This is one of the great arguments people try to use to deny God’s Sovereignty, His Goodness, even His existence. A Good, Wise, Sovereign, All-powerful God should not need to command love and worship from His creatures, should He? And, if He “commands” love and obedience, how can we truly love Him? We can fear Him, obey Him, be ruled by Him, but none of that sounds like Love.

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In theory, such questions seem daunting. But we have dozens of real-life examples of how such commands work. Every nation (and principality, and even every household) has rules and laws directing us how to behave and demanding respect for certain values. “Don’t sass your parents.” “Don’t deface or defile sacred spaces.” “Don’t litter!” We find it distinctly unsettling when we see children treating their parents with disrespect, malice, even abuse. Or when we hear of people whose hatred leads them to burn places of worship, or defile gravestones in a cemetery, or commit treasonous acts that lead to the slaughter of hundreds of innocent neighbors or fellow-countrymen. The planet groans under the strain of people who dump their trash in rivers or streets, or wantonly start wildfires or kill helpless animals.

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God does not “command” our love out of weakness. He could DEMAND abject obedience–overrule our will; punish without delay or hope of mercy; force us to act as robots or machines–but He desires us to Love Him freely. His command is for OUR good–when we choose to seek Him, follow Him, Love Him in ever greater measure, we grow to be more like Him–Loving Him teaches us what Love is really all about!

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The Law itself, the “command,” is NOT what pleases God or makes us Love Him. God’s purpose is not that we become ritualistic, legalistic, or weak-willed. He wants us to be joyful and live abundant and productive lives. But left to our own devices and our own “wisdom,” we will not achieve any of this. In fact, even with the law and commandments, we will still fall short. God’s love is such that He gave us an impossible command– love Him with our entire heart, soul, and mind– and then, He provided the only Way to make it possible.

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It IS possible to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. It doesn’t require that we become hermits or ascetics, wasting away in a cave or mountaintop, starving ourselves and crying out day and night. It does require that we recognize that He is God, and we are not. It requires that we accept His mercy for the times we have strayed. It requires that we seek His counsel, and His correction.

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We need to love Him with our heart–draw near to Him in worship and thanksgiving.

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We need to love Him with our soul–trust Him to direct our lives, now and in the future.

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And we need to love Him with our mind–learn to listen to His words, and to meditate on them; to think more about the things of God, and less about the things of trivial and temporary import.

He Hath Shewed Thee…

Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God…

Micah 6:6-8 (KJV)

“What does God want from me?!” Ask a dozen people this question, and you will very likely get a dozen different (and even conflicting) answers!

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Abject obedience? Memorizing a creed or list of rules? Sacrifice? Humiliation or self-abasement? Blind faith? Constant repentance and confession? A crusader’s militancy? Your answer reflects your relationship with and belief in God and His character.

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But instead of asking a dozen people, you can ask God Himself! The prophet Micah does this, and receives a simple but startling answer– God requires three things: to do justly (or practice justice), to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Him. Jesus also gives us a simple answer in the book of Matthew. When asked by a lawyer, “Master, which is the greatest commandment?,” Jesus replies, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all they soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandment hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40 KJV) In giving this answer, Jesus was referring to writings He had dictated hundreds of years before to Moses (Deuteronomy 6:5, and Leviticus 19:18 respectively).

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God is very clear– there is no single and measurable act we can do, no oath we can take, no quest we can complete, and no gift we can give that will, in itself, please Him. There is no magical number of times we must confess, or sacrifices we must make, or rites we must go through to be acceptable. But, as simple as the answers appear, it is impossible for us to meet the requirements on our own. We do not love God with all our heart, soul, and mind– we do not walk humbly with Him; nor do we do what is just, or love mercy toward our neighbors– we do not love others as ourselves.

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Even though Micah wrote before Jesus came to earth, he proclaims that God “hath shewed” us how to please Him. His commands teach us His priorities and His character–God values life (Thou shalt not kill); He values family (Honor thy Father and Mother/ Thou shalt not commit adultery); He loves truth (Thou shalt not bear false witness) and Holiness (Thou shalt not have any other gods before Me/Thou shalt not make graven images/Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain). God loves those who trust and rest in His provision (Thou shalt not steal/ Thou shalt not covet/Remember the Sabbath). He is pleased to provide good things; He is a God of Love.

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Jesus came to “fulfill” the law– to demonstrate both who God is, and how He wants to help us live life to the fullest. He also came to prove that the law, while good, is not a means to an end for us to please God.

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I have a heart to explore this further over the next few days. I pray that what God has laid on my heart will draw me closer to Him, and that sharing it might help others to do the same.

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