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Love (Hate) Your Neighbor
As you love (hate) yourself.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)
This one short verse from the Old Testament is, I believe, vital to understanding the entire basis for the Christian faith. If Christians are going to say, along with Jesus, that God loved the world so much that they sent Jesus to die for humanity’s sin, there must be an acknowledgment that love is at the center of the whole thing.
Granted, Christian theology of the Bible would emphasize the New Testament more than the Old. So the early Jesus followers saw to it that this little piece of wisdom was not lost or made to seem inferior to some other, new idea. They tell of an exchange between Jesus and teachers of the Law where they ask him what piece of the law is the greatest. He tells them,
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.
This is where many Christians stop in their reading of the passage. The preacher will wax philosophical and talk about the importance of being kind or some other vague notion of what love is, likely moving to Paul’s little poem about love in Corinthians, allowing the Bible to define what it means when it speaks of love. Rarely, though, will he have the hard discussion about what that all looks like in a practical sense.
It is very similar to what the teacher of the law does when Jesus tells him that those two commandments are the greatest.
You see, according to the little story, Jesus is asked, “Of all the Commandments, which is the most important?”
You see, Jesus’ entire ministry centered around telling people to do something often different from the established norms. Interacting with the outcasts of society. Touching sick people.
His whole message was about what people were doing and whether or not it was in alignment with what they were being taught that God wanted.
His question was intended to trap Jesus into saying that something was more important than strict obedience to commandment one. But Jesus does not play the game. In fact, he puts the law teacher in a spot by claiming that the most important commandment is actually two commandments. And he ties them together astonishingly. Jesus says that loving other people is like loving God.
The law teacher shows us his intent with his response to Jesus.
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
The irony is, this law teacher was part of a system that emphasized the sacrifices and burnt offerings and strict adherence to the law over loving others. That is why Jesus ends the discussion by saying, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
How we say things matters.
How we express ourselves is every bit as important as the specific words that we are saying. I think this is sort of what Derek Webb is getting at in this little soundbite (above) that he posted to his Instagram the other day.
Back when they were first coining the law and putting it to writing, I believe they might have had a different picture of what sin is than we do today. If you look at what is condemned in the Bible, the majority of it centers around actions. Things that people do are deemed sinful rather than humans as a species being sinful.
So when the Bible condemns something like homosexuality, it is condemning an act rather than a state of being.
Here is the problem, though, particularly when speaking of homosexuality. We have come, over time, to understand that this is something that people are born with. It is not a disorder or a defect, but rather just the way someone is wired. It is built in and cannot be changed.
Hence the failure of so-called “conversion therapy”.
So, when the pastor stands in front of his congregation and condemns homosexuality, aside from being a potential misinterpretation of what the Bible was originally condemning, he is inadvertently condemning a person. He is saying that God hates them. And since Christians are supposed to hate sin, and their sin is actually who they are, they are inadvertently being taught to hate themselves.
I do not think that the majority of Christians aim to teach this message. I believe there are some who have this as part of their agenda, but it is by no means all.
Then along comes Jesus reiterating the Old Testament commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. The problem is, for years, someone has had it beaten into them that they are supposed to hate themselves.
Or at least this is the message they have been hearing.
So these people hate themselves. They hate who they are. And they are being told to love others in the way they love themselves. It simply does not make any sense. It feels like you are being asked to do the impossible.
Given our understanding of homosexuality, and other things that we have deemed sinful over the ages, we need to be careful how we talk about sin. Our language about sin needs to adjust and adapt to new information.
But we tend to do a poor job at adaptation when it comes to ideas. We get stuck. We know what we mean, but it so often comes out wrong.
We need to be cautious with our words. May we learn to be careful with how we speak.
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