Why did Jesus say we should love our neighbors as ourselves? Did He say it first? Why does He keep saying it? Who is my neighbor? Didn’t Jesus answer that question too? Oh, and why did Jesus include the “as yourself” part?
What Does It Mean to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself?
Wouldn’t it be easier to just believe in Jesus, take care of my family, go to church, work hard, and sometimes do that half-smile-wave thing to my neighbor? Aren’t there exceptions for people who drive me crazy?
These questions matter, and we’re about to do our best to work them out here. But there’s something you should know first. The truth, ideas, and perspectives in this article won’t really do much for you until they show up in your everyday life. You can call it biblical, brain science, or both, but these ideas alone will not transform you until they become love lived out in your world. Like when Jesus moved into our neighborhood and became all of God’s Word for us to see in one human life.
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish. John 1:14 MSG
Who Was First to Say ‘Love Your Neighbor’?
Maybe you’ve heard it called the Golden Rule, and you thought your childhood friend’s mom down the street invented it. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, Georgie.” Or wait, it was definitely a grade school teacher, or Confucius—or maybe Jesus? Well, yes. They said it, but they were also repeating something that has permeated nearly all of recorded history. When Jesus spoke His version, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” He was purposefully citing a phrase recorded centuries prior as Jewish law in Leviticus 19:9-18.
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Leviticus 19:18 NIV
This verse serves as the spine for a long list of laws about how to treat not just the people who live next door, but also immigrants, the poor, the wealthy, and even animals and seeds. Why does God care how we treat people and the world around us? Why do we find this concept all throughout history? Why did Jesus repeat it?
Again, these are questions you will need to live out, but there’s a hint at the end of Leviticus 19:18—that statement “I am the Lord.” Ani Yahweh is ancient Hebrew for “I am the one true God.” This is like God signing the bottom of a letter as a stamp of approval on a long list of instructions for how to be humans together—and it’s also a way of saying that this others-centered way of living culminates in who God is. God is love. That’s a truth about God already apparent in Leviticus, and ultimately revealed in Jesus.
Why Did Jesus Tell Us to Love Our Neighbors as Ourselves?
The author of John invites readers to consider that no one, not even the writers of the law, had fully seen God until Jesus. Jesus came to show us what God is like and how we can be like Him: how we can love God with our full selves and love our neighbors as ourselves. John makes a clear connection between the laws that record God’s nature, like those in Leviticus 19, and the life that reveals Him fully in Jesus.
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. John 1:17-18 NIV
Jesus is our perfect picture of what God is like, because He is God in human form. So of course He repeats what God has been saying all throughout history.
A life full of love for others comes from the very essence of who God is. It’s one of the ingredients God used when He created the world, when He imagined you long before you were in your mother’s womb. No wonder neighbor love keeps showing up in His story. No wonder you want to know more about it. God is love, and He moved into our neighborhood as Jesus to show us how to become love.
So, why exactly did Jesus tell us to love our neighbor as ourselves?
Is it mainly about us, or Him, or others? Is it to partner with Him as coworkers in restoring the world? To help people with practical needs? Was He just trying to improve our relationships? Was it because He knew that by loving people others rejected, that we would find and accept Him? Yes. All of this and more.
Jesus, who often communicated through story, chose to be very clear when He selected just two out of hundreds of laws to name as the most important. He knew they would play an integral role in us becoming love, becoming fully human, knowing God, becoming filled with the Spirit of Christ, accepting His work in us, and living a full, eternal life.
One of the teachers of religious law was standing there listening to the debate. He realized that Jesus had answered well, so he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31 NLT
Jesus told us to love God with every part of our being and love our neighbors as ourselves because these are the two most important truths God ever gave us for how to live.
Is Loving God More Important Than Loving Your Neighbor?
You ask great questions. In the last verse of the Scripture above, Mark 12:31, Jesus called the commands to love God and love your neighbor equally important. And in Matthew’s account of this exchange, Jesus said the first is “the greatest” and the second “is like” the first. The Greek word Jesus used for “is like” is omoios, which means “similar, resembling, or of equal rank.” Those who had been paying attention to Jesus’ stories would have noticed something right away when Jesus said the second commandment omoios the first. Jesus had been telling story after story that started with this word. Jesus would say that the kingdom of God …
… is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field.
… is like a treasure hidden in a field.
… is like a merchant in search of fine pearls.
… is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.
Matthew 22 starts with one of these “is like” word pictures: the parable of the wedding banquet. Through this story Jesus suggests that God is inviting outsiders in, and that the “insiders”—the religious elite—aren’t as “in” as they think. The rest of the chapter is full of real-life religious insiders spreading rumors about Jesus, all culminating with one religious leader trying to trap Jesus by forcing him to pick which commandment is the greatest.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Matthew 22:36 NIV
… “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40 NIV
One command is like the other. One is the picture or parable of the other. Loving God with your full self omoios loving your neighbor as yourself. The Kingdom of God is like loving your neighbor as yourself.
This isn’t just me reading too much into the Greek. Jesus reaffirms that loving neighbors is a way of loving God in Matthew 25:31-46 when in another one of His parables He says,
“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:40 NIV
Then Jesus takes it to a whole new level. He goes on to tell about others in the story who did not live out this outsiders-in kind of neighbor love.
“ ‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ ” Matthew 25:42-45 NIV
Remember, Jesus is all of God’s love, law, and words moving into our neighborhood to show us what God and love are like. As Jesus followers, we’re invited to live like Jesus did, in our neighborhoods.
Who Is My Neighbor?
We can begin to pick up some answers to this question in the Scriptures we’ve been reading all the way from Leviticus to Matthew and John. And like the others, this is one of those questions that’s best lived out.
Who do you live around? Who do you see regularly where you work, shop, drive, or eat? Who is impacted by the way you live, purchase, vote, volunteer, and pray? Who makes your clothes, repairs your streets, or mows your yard? Who sits across from you, or with you? Who do you look up to? Who do you look down on? Who works in the prisons in your city? Who lives in them? Who is thirsty, hungry, or in need?
The Good Samaritan
Did the Golden Rule mom down the street ever tell you to be a Good Samaritan? This common phrase comes from another Jesus story. An expert in the law (this person knew Leviticus better than anyone) asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life. So Jesus dishes it back and asks the expert what the law says. The expert cites the two greatest commands. So far, so good. Jesus replies,
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” Luke 10:28 NIV
But the expert isn’t done. He, like us, asks, “Who is my neighbor?” At this point Jesus starts telling the story of the Good Samaritan. In short, the story begins with someone like the expert traveling a route the expert would have likely traveled. The traveler gets robbed, beat up, and left for dead. A priest passes by without helping, likely because the law would not have allowed him to touch the bloody man. Another devout follower of the faith passes by without interacting, perhaps for similar reasons. And finally, a hated outsider—a Samaritan—stops and treats the man’s wounds with his own medicine, shares his transportation, pays for his lodging, and secures his ongoing care. Finally, the Samaritan tells the caretaker that he will be back to cover any additional costs incurred by the wounded man.
Then Jesus asks the expert,
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Luke 10:36 NIV
Who do you pick as the neighbor? Our neighbor is not always someone who needs us. More often we need our neighbors. They help us both to give and to receive God’s love—to become our true selves as we follow both of the greatest commands and live out God’s love. In fact, the neighbors whom we need the most are often the easiest to reject. Jesus referred to these neighbors as strangers and prisoners in Matthew 25. In Luke 10 it’s a Samaritan, hated for his race. Who is the neighbor whom your way of life rejects? The expert in the law realized who’d been the neighbor in the story, and it wasn’t the two who held tightly to their way. He answered Jesus, but couldn’t quite get himself to say the word “Samaritan.”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus often invites us to live inside stories that challenge our biases, defy our comforts, and draw us into relationships with people rejected by culture and religion. He was doing exactly that by sharing this story with the legal expert. Who is Jesus inviting you to love and be loved by? What are your areas of expertise that Jesus may want to challenge? Who is your neighbor? Will you read the following words from Jesus, and imagine He’s speaking to you? Because He is.
… Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:37 NIV
When It’s Hard to Love Your Neighbor
The two greatest commands include three kinds of love: love for God, love for neighbors, and love for yourself. Love God with your full self, and love your neighbor as yourself. It’s hard to love your neighbor as yourself if you hate (or dislike) some part of yourself. In other words, to love your neighbor as yourself, you’ll have to learn to love your neighbor and yourself.
Most of our difficulty with loving others is rooted in some kind of inability to love ourselves as God does. Our lack of love for self might come from mistakes we’ve made, mistakes others have made, or fear of similar mistakes. But in the end, a lack of loving ourselves indicates an inability to fully understand God’s love. If we realize that God loves us as He loves Jesus, as He loves Himself, as He loves our neighbors, then we can love God and love our neighbors as ourselves too. Here it is in the Bible:
… God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first. 1 John 4:16-19 NLT
God loves us perfectly so that we can live as His children, without fear of rejection, the way Jesus lives, with the same kind of love for our neighbors. We don’t have to reject or dislike ourselves for our own inability to be perfect, or the ways we’re tempted to judge and reject our neighbors for their imperfections. Instead, we can accept God’s perfect love as we invite outsiders in, move toward people who are held captive, and receive from people rejected by culture.
These are helpful truths, but learning to love yourself will be a lifelong pursuit. It’s part of following Jesus for your whole eternal life.
So, How Do I Love My Neighbor? Here Are Five Ideas.
The story of the good Samaritan that we just read is actually a great example not only of who your neighbor is but also of how to love your neighbor. Here are a few quick tips for getting to know and love your neighbors.
- Love people where you are, where they are. Get to know the people on your street, in your apartment complex, from the other side of town, and from totally different life experiences.
- Ask for something. One of the best ways to love someone is to need someone. Ask your neighbors if you can borrow some flour, a lawn mower, or a minute of their time to help you with something.
- Share a meal. This is not figurative. Eat and share meals with people, especially in your home.
- Love while you live. You can love your neighbor while you shop, eat, and pray. Research how certain purchases might impact forced labor or poor working conditions. Learn how raising certain foods impacts the climate and how that’s changing food supplies around the world. Pray that God will reveal new ways you can love your neighbors.
- Listen. If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime … unless that man has a fish allergy. Loving others is fueled by listening to others. Not only will you learn about what they need, but you’ll also learn more about God and yourself as you listen.