We are all familiar with the Great Commandment. Even if we don’t know it by name, we likely remember how on one occasion Jesus taught His listeners,
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor
as thyself” (Luke 10:27). This is a core teaching of the Bible, hence the aforementioned label.
Jesus’ instruction was in response to a question from a lawyer. The lawyer asked a follow-up question, “And who is my neighbor?” (v. 29). Though the lawyer was challenging Jesus in this situation, this question is one we can ask ourselves. Who is my neighbor?
Etymologically the word neighbor means “one who lives nearby.” In other words, we can think of neighbors as those we come in contact with in our daily lives. Are they, then, the ones the Bible instructs us to love? In studying God’s Word, we can learn that neighbor in fact means all humans (e.g. Matt. 5:43–48). In His sermon, Christ teaches that we have no basis for differentiating between those whom we should love and those for whom we feel an opposite emotion, because God Himself does not differentiate (v. 45).
All people, therefore, created and redeemed by God, are equally precious and worthy of our love. Each has the same dignity, though some have violated their own or another person’s dignity by their actions. Those we perceive as our enemies and even our persecutors are our neighbors. If we think of our kin, our friends, our townspeople, all the people we have ever met, or people we read about in the newspaper, our leaders, all foreigners…how is it possible to love all these people?
We find it is easy to draw boundaries between us and others, between “my kind of people” and “other kind of people.” We may rank some higher or more worthy and others lower than ourselves. Nonetheless, we must remember that God, who created all humankind, doesn’t do that. So why should we?
In all times there have been those who have been tempted to discriminate against others based on religion or race or language or culture, to name just a few characteristics that may separate groups of humans. The Bible tells for example, how Jews did not associate with Samaritans (cf. John 4).
Discrimination can stem from fear of otherness, fear of differences between us and others. We may react to others or treat them based on historical happenings and conflicts. We may be tempted to treat an individual as a bearer of perceived characteristics of an entire group of people, rather than treating that individual as…an individual. In the midst of these thoughts, we should pause and ask ourselves: would I like to be judged based on my origins or ethnicity? Would I want others to stereotype me? Would it feel right if my integrity – even my faith – were called into question because of my nationality? Can I truly put myself into others’ shoes and feel what they feel?
It is good for us also to remember the eighth commandment. In fact, the Great Commandment referred to above is connected to those commandments that Moses received in Old Testament times. Commandments four through ten all deal with how we love our neighbors. The eighth commandment reminds us to avoid even in our speech saying negative, offensive words against an individual or group of people. Luther instructs in his explanation of this commandment to: “apologize for [our neighbor], think and speak well of him and put the best construction on all he does.”
The Bible affirms that every human is equally important and valuable before God. Everyone is to be treated with dignity, respect and, above all, love. Jesus teaches the Golden Rule, “as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31). It is not our place or our right to demean God’s creation work. When we question or deny others’ right to exist among us, it is not right, and it, in fact, is a sin. It is good for us to remember that mistreating our neighbor is a sin against God. One who loves God also loves his neighbor (cf. 1 John 4:20).
In all times, including in the days we live, it may be challenging to love all our neighbors. This challenge arises from the sinful portion, the original sin that we all carry. In and of ourselves we cannot love God with all our hearts, much less our neighbors. Having received God’s grace through faith, we experience love for our heavenly Father, love for our neighbor and love for ourselves.
We can also recall that Christ is the Savior of all humankind. He is even the Savior of those who haven’t yet found living faith and salvation in Him. Yet today, Christ with heavenly love calls people to Him, heals and carries and cares for them in His congregation.
The love of Christ works in our hearts too, yielding fruits of the spirit, of which one is charity. God-given grace – in the life-saving gospel – can fix love that has been broken. The Apostle writes, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5).
As a fruit of the Holy Spirit we are given peace (Gal. 5:22); let us be peacemakers among our fellow humans. Faith empowers us to serve our community and to reach out to those in need. There is no better gift we can offer than that which we have freely received: the gospel of the forgiveness of sins. When we desire to love and serve our neighbors, God will bless our endeavors.