The Second Greatest Commandment: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

Jesus and the Pharisees by Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678)

Was the charity of the Pharisees aligned to a love for God?

We often repeat the notion that faith without works is dead. What we talk less about is how any corresponding works must retain focus of what is primary and essential to God.

After all, the greatest commandment God gives us has nothing to do with our neighbors in and by itself.

The Pharisees once asked Jesus this: “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus answered with this: “‘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.’”

Let’s take a moment to focus on the second part of Jesus’ answer: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Many see this is as just another spin on the Golden Rule, and thus we take Jesus’ answer too lightly — as a mere Sunday-school refrain, as a memory verse, or as a recycled proverb that is far too obvious to require any additional thought.

Others, however, take pains to misconstrue it.

These distortions take a variety of forms, a sample of which includes the following:

  1. We should love our neighbors instead of ourselves.
  2. We should love our neighbors more (or less) than ourselves.
  3. We should love ourselves first and then we will know how to love our neighbors properly.

But Jesus isn’t telling us any of these things. He’s simply telling us to love our neighbors in the same way we love ourselves. He isn’t provoking an argument about whether or how much as much as he is indicating that self-love is a core component of who we are. It is a basic an element of the created world.

And indeed it is. Our self-love and pursuit of happiness is natural. We are all born with a survival instinct to find food and build shelters for ourselves and our families. But as with all things that are “natural,” pursuing our interests does not necessarily make us holy in the eyes of God. Such pursuits can make us happy or wealthy or popular, but the extent to which they can be good can only be measured by the extent to which we align our love to God.

Which is why all of this comes back to the first commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

You can’t have one without the other.

The primary question, then, is, “Do you love God first?”

The answer to this question will define all the rest, because all of your pursuits are in vain if they aren’t aligned to the love of God. Whether you are starting your own business or giving to the poor, you have to ask yourself: “What is at the heart of this endeavor?”

Therefore, Jesus is telling us to align our self-love to God, and the outcome of that should define the way we love our neighbors.

As John Piper says in his commentary of the verse, “Make your self-seeking the measure of your self-giving…If you are energetic in pursuing your own happiness, be energetic in pursuing the happiness of your neighbor.”

It’s not about loving our neighbors more or less than ourselves. It’s about aligning our interests to God’s and bearing the fruit of that relationship in our lives.

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