Scholars often describe the teachings of Jesus as “revolutionary” for His time period. But, the two greatest commandments that Jesus gave were not unfamiliar to the religious leaders. In Luke 10:26 Jesus asks an expert of the law for his interpretation of the law. The scholar responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). The first commandment comes from Deuteronomy 6:4, and the second from Leviticus 19:18. Though the religious leaders knew the two greatest commandments, they failed to recognize who their neighbor was. Some people today think like the Pharisees 2,000 years ago; they believe that their neighbor is only their spiritual equal (their brother or sister in the local church).
In Luke 10, after the religious scholar correctly answers Jesus, he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (v. 29b) Unfortunately, this man asked this question trying to justify himself. One can assume that he expected Jesus to say that his fellow Jew was his neighbor. We can further assume that the man did in fact treat his fellow Jew well; perhaps even as well as himself. Although Jesus knew that he wanted to justify himself through his question, Jesus uses the opportunity to explain to him who his neighbor really was. He does this through the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus reveals to him that it was the Samaritan (typically seen as an enemy of the Jews) who was the real neighbor to the man who fell victim to the thieves; for it was the Samaritan, not the Jewish priest or Levite, who bandaged the victim’s wounds and paid for his medical costs.
According to the Strong’s Dictionary, the Hebrew understanding of the word “neighbor” was “any member of the Hebrew nation and commonwealth.” But the same word used in the New Testament refers to any man regardless “of nation or religion with whom we live or whom we [may] meet.” The two definitions are very different from one another. We as Christians can fall into the same prejudiced thinking as the Pharisees if we are not careful. It is very easy to treat non-Christians as lesser people because of their sinful lifestyles. However, God has called us to be a good neighbor to all. In James 2:8-9 we read, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
Furthermore, Jesus even calls us to love our “enemies.” In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells His listeners: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45a). In the fallen world that we live in, it can be difficult to love others, especially those who have wronged us or are currently treating us poorly. Nonetheless, we are to love others as we love ourselves.
Love does not mean acceptance of every person’s lifestyle, though that is what today’s society would argue. At times, we as Christians are labeled as unloving and judgmental because we refuse to accept lifestyles that are contrary to the will of God for man. Scripture clearly illustrates that God indeed loves every soul, but He does not love every lifestyle. God does not want us to condone sin, but He calls us to love the soul within every sinner. If we look at sinners as merely broken vessels that are no longer of any use to society or God, we will not have a burden or love for their souls. But if we see them as clay that can be molded into beautiful and useful vessels by the hands of God, we see the spiritual potential contained within every person. Learning to love the souls of people will automatically affect the way we deal with people and situations.
Also, the original Hebrew word used for “love” in “love your neighbor” is the same word used in “love the Lord your God.” Both refer to an agapé love: an unconditional, sacrificial love. Jesus desires that we love our neighbor unconditionally, and that we put the needs of others before our own. This is the kind of love mentioned in Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates His love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
God wants our love for our neighbor to be selfless as well. We can do this by placing the needs of others before our own. Giving preference to others could be as simple as giving our seat on the bus to someone who needs it more, or volunteering our time to visit the sick or elderly. If our lives are focused on putting others first, we won’t have time to complain about others or to talk negatively about them. Imagine how our relationships with others would improve if we would put their needs before our own.
Jesus commanded His followers, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31b). Before we can put this into practice, we are forced to reflect on who our neighbor is. God’s Word is clear, our neighbor is every person, whether Christian, atheist, friend or foe. Jesus demonstrated how our love for our neighbor should be: impartial, unconditional, and self-sacrificing. This kind of love for our neighbor will surely impact our interactions with people and our effectiveness in God’s Kingdom.