Has your world shrunk over the last couple of years? Mine has. I’ve lived overseas as a missionary, and through various roles and connections, I had become very used to regularly travelling overseas – although not for the past two years.
But it’s not just that. I go out less, I see fewer people, I spend less time in crowds, I have fewer people over to my house than I used to. I have tended to spend more time in touch with fewer people. All in all, my world has shrunk.
My online world has shrunk, too. I feel the impact of the algorithms on my news feeds and social media accounts. I find it easy to dismiss those I disagree with about vaccines and lockdowns and pandemic strategies as being stupid and not worth the effort it would take me to engage.
Are you like me? Has your world shrunk, too?
Well, into my shrunken world, one of the biggest and most well-known commands of the Bible strikes with a new clarity and power:
“Love your neighbour as you love yourself”
(Lev 19:18; Matt 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; James 2:8).
This is a command that is so well known that it is easy to pass over it and to fail to acknowledge how readily we excuse ourselves from obeying it. In this article I want to tease out what this command means, who our neighbours are, and what this love might look like.
What does it mean?
First, what does it mean to love your neighbour as you love yourself? How are we expected to love ourselves?
Are you the kind of person who wakes up in the morning, looks across at a mirror and says, “Hello beautiful”? Do you walk past shops just hoping to catch a glimpse of your own reflection? Do you love the sound of your own voice, laugh at your own jokes, always have the smartest comments to make, always stand out as among the most beautiful in any room?
Most of us don’t see ourselves as particularly attractive. We find it easier to list the things we don’t like about ourselves than the things we do. We are more likely to be disappointed than proud. And yet, despite our unattractiveness (even to ourselves), we still act in our own best interests. Loving yourself is not the same as feeling good about yourself; it’s keeping warm, and eating, and sleeping, and protecting yourself from injury (e.g. Eph 5:29), even if you find yourself unattractive and don’t think you deserve it.
The Bible assumes and commends that we have this kind of love for ourselves. If we or others we know don’t exhibit that love by neglecting self-care or even actively harming ourselves – that is cause for great concern and we should access help to deal with that. On the other hand, if we (or others we know) consistently think that we are the cleverest, most attractive, most deserving of love people in any room – we should also access help to deal with that delusion.
However, the Ephesians 5:29 love we have for ourselves is the kind of love we are to have for others – for our neighbours. A love that is gracious and undeserved. More pointedly, it is loving neighbours who have done nothing to deserve our love.
Who is my neighbour?
So, “who is my neighbour” that I am supposed to love in this kind of way? When asked this very question by an expert in the law, Jesus responds with the famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus shocked his audience by saying that the foreigner (the Samaritan, rather than the priest or Levite) turns out to be the one who loves in obedience to God’s command.
The connection between foreigners and neighbours to be loved in this way wasn’t something new that Jesus introduced. Back in the Law where the command was first given (Lev 19:18), a parallel command to love the foreigner living among you “as yourself” (Lev 19:33) was also given. In fact, the chapter is full of concern for the poor and the foreigner (Lev 19:10, 13, 15, 33-34).
Jesus drove the point home in the Sermon on the Mount that, for his followers, loving neighbours includes even enemies (Matt 5:43-44). We are not to confine our love like the rest of the world, who only love those who love them back or their own kind of people (Matt 5:46-47). Instead, Jesus’ followers are to love like our heavenly Father, who causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the deserving and undeserving alike.
In the rest of the New Testament this kind of love is picked up in a word most often translated as “hospitality”. Being hospitable is a qualification for Christian leaders, and an expectation of all Christian people (Rom 12:13; 1 Tim 3:2; 5:10; Tit 1:8; Heb 13:2; 1 Pet 4:9; 3 John 8). While this certainly might involve having people around to our homes for meals or to stay, it is not limited or defined by this. At its heart, what the Bible describes as hospitality is a love for the outsider, the different one, the difficult to love. And at the heart of this love is the heart of our heavenly Father and our Lord Jesus who loved us while we were his enemies (Rom 5:8-10).
In terms of obeying this command and thinking about who my neighbour is, at the front of my mind should be those I find most difficult to love.
How does it work?
What does that kind of love look like?
Well, in our churches it will mean making a concerted effort to welcome, care for and honour those who do not and perhaps cannot deserve our love. James’ example (2:1-13) teaches us that we cannot be content to show special favour or honour to the rich, the beautiful and the successful. Confining our love and honour to the easily lovable and those who are just like us is to disobey God at this point. This is why showing worldly favouritism in church is such a serious problem.
Who do we rush to greet when we arrive at church, and who do we spend time talking with afterwards? Who do we ask to share their testimonies? Whose favourite kind of food do we serve at functions? To what extent do we choose leaders based on character, and to what extent do we choose the kinds of people that the world at large would consider “worthy”?
In some of our churches we might have to work harder at honouring and loving those from different generations (whether they are older or younger), from different ethnic or cultural backgrounds, or from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Whatever the details, we cannot be content to confine our love for neighbours to those who are just like us.
Away from church, there are all kinds of people I find difficult to love. My newsfeed and social media algorithms try to keep them out of sight, but they’re never far away and they are my neighbours. Who are those people for you?
Sometimes it can be those we have had close relationships with, but who – at some point – have done wrong by us (at least according to us). The friend or relative I find hard to love is still my neighbour, and my love for them should seek what is good and right for them, even if they have done nothing to deserve this.
More often these days our neighbours include whole sections of our communities that we distance ourselves from or completely write off. Members of that other political party, supporters of that ridiculous public policy, even those who would oppose the cause of the gospel. What can be done?
Let me finish with two suggestions for a way forward. Take time to listen well to the arguments and views of those you find difficult to love. Nobody sets out to be stupid or inconsistent. Try to listen and/or read until you can work out why this view makes sense to them. The time taken to listen well is an act of great love, and the insight you gain will help you to better love the other person.
If part of that love may, in the end, include trying to persuade them of a better way, at least you will be engaging with them as they are and not in the easily dismissible version of them that you began with.
Seek to love people and not categories of people. I want to love all Muslims, but I am starting with Mohammed my motorbike mechanic. I am working to get to know him as a person and to look for opportunities to love him. I have friends and relatives who are atheist, gay, lesbian, transexual – even Manly supporters – but in each case I seek to love them as a person, and not the category I might so easily slip them into.
It’s not my job to change the world but I can love my neighbour as I love myself. Might it just be that loving our neighbours as ourselves will expand our otherwise shrinking worlds and ultimately be used by God to deliver that glorious transformation as he brings all things under the feet of the Lord Jesus?
The Rev Dr Simon Gillham is vice principal of Moore College.