The Two Great Commandments were the foundation of Jesus’ ministry. Accordingly he offered extensive teachings on how to love other people, neighbor and enemy alike.
Jesus’ most famous teaching on how to relate to other people is known as the Golden Rule: “you should treat people in the same way that you want others to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). This comes from the Sermon on the Mount as recorded by Matthew.
Jesus thus presented the ethic of reciprocity in a positive manner. Others before him had offered the same idea but in the negative. For example, Confucius said: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” The Buddha stated: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”
But Jesus raised the demand. In Luke’s Sermon on the Plain after Jesus told listeners “Treat people the same way you want them to treat you,” he added:
If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full (Luke 6:31-34).
In a parallel passage in Matthew Jesus indicated:
If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:46-47)
What more did Jesus expect? In Luke the continuation is:
Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:35).
Love Your Enemies
In Matthew Jesus expresses the same idea in this way:
You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who harass you (Matthew 5:43-44a).
Why should we do that? we might ask. Jesus answers:
So that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).
In Luke Jesus’ explanation is:
You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate (Luke 6:35b-36).
In Matthew Jesus indicates:
Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete (Matthew 5:48).
We give fuller consideration to loving our enemies on another page.
As part of loving our enemies, Jesus tells us to forgive them. That’s the message of the Lord’s Prayer in which we say,
Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us (Matthew 6:12).
After Jesus taught his disciples this prayer, he instructed them:
If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins (Matthew 6:14-15).
Jesus had a lot more to say about forgiveness, as we’ll consider on another page.
As an expression of love mercy was a major part of Jesus’ early ministry as he healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, and drove out demons.
A legal expert, after discussing the Two Great Commandments with Jesus, asked him: “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus responded with the story of the Samaritan on the road to Jericho who rescued a man beaten near death by thieves. Previously a priest and a Levite (a religious official) had passed by without helping him. The Samaritan bandaged the man’s wounds, took him to an inn, and paid for his care.
Jesus asked, “Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves.” The legal expert replied, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:25-37).
In his allegory of the Last Judgment Jesus offered several examples of mercy. Those who inherit the kingdom, he said, are the ones who:
- feed the hungry,
- give drink to the thirsty,
- welcome strangers (read “immigrants”),
- give clothes to the naked,
- care for the sick,
- visit prisoners.
Such acts of mercy are provided to the “least of these brothers and sisters” (Mathew 25:31-46).
On another page we’ll consider other ways to show mercy.
Jesus also spoke about working for justice as another way to love your neighbor.
This is a connection made by the prophet Micah when he indicated:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8 New International Version).
With his synagogue education Jesus likely knew this passage even though the Gospels contain no reference to it. Clearly Jesus had a commitment to justice, as shown in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth when he identified himself with a teaching from the prophet Isaiah.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:16-21).
The “year of the Lord’s favor” refers to the ancient Hebrew jubilee year, an occurrence for redistribution of wealth every fifty years (Leviticus 25).
And so, doing justice is part of living in God’s kingdom on earth as an extension of loving your neighbor. We’ll discuss justice in greater detail on another page.
Is It Possible?
Let’s admit it. These are great challenges for us: to love neighbor and enemy, forgive, show mercy, and strive for justice. Are we who are ordinary people, self-centered, far from saintly, who get annoyed by family and friends, who are antagonistic to adversaries, who sometimes hate enemies, are we really capable of these high demands?
Are we willing to accept our rivals, our adversaries, our arch-enemies as children of God like ourselves? Can we perceive them as persons of sacred worth? Can we love them and offer forgiveness?
Can we have compassion for persons in need, even when we may consider them unworthy? Can we work for justice even though this may challenge the existing political and economic order? Are we able to do all of these things as part of our way of life in God’s kingdom on earth?
Across the ages Jesus tells us to respond, “Yes, Lord. We are able.”
To do so we need to learn from Jesus how to offer acceptance to everyone for their inherent worth, a topic we explore on another page.