In living in God’s kingdom here and how, we seek to follow the Second Great Commandment: love your neighbor as yourself.
We can think of “neighbor” broadly to include all persons we contact in our daily lives: family, friends, social acquaintances, persons living nearby, school and work associates, church members, persons we meet in commerce and other activities, strangers who cross our paths.
Beyond these are persons in need who we don’t know personally but who are our neighbors in the broadest sense. For them we can show mercy and work for justice, topics considered on other pages.
As we seek to love our neighbor, we need to pay attention to the second phrase in the Second Great Commandment: “as yourself.” This isn’t a matter of selfishness but rather is a necessity. It is difficult to love another person if you yourself lack self-respect.
If you’re put down at home, school, or elsewhere, rejected by others, stigmatized because of race, ethnicity or other factors, you are challenged to overcome these negative influences and develop a sense of your own true value. It may help to realize the truth found in the First Letter of John: “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). As Jesus taught, each of us is a child of God with inherent worth. No matter who we are or what we do God loves us. No one can take this away from us.
Characteristics of Love
For guidance we can consider expressions of love that the Apostle Paul offered to the faction-ridden church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a):
- Love is patient. Love is kind.
- It isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude.
- It doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable,
- it doesn’t keep a record of complaints,
- it isn’t happy with injustice but is happy with the truth.
- Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.
- Love never fails.
Let’s examine some of these traits.
We pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Although we lack full sociological reports of what it’s like there we can imagine that as a minimum people in heaven are nice and friendly to one another, that kindness prevails.
Kindness can occur in many ways. Common courtesies within a family. Holding a door open for somebody. Thanking a waitress or store clerk for good service. Running errands for the elderly couple next door. When arriving at the same time as another person at the salad bar or supermarket checkout, allowing the other person to go first. When driving an automobile, slowing down to let another vehicle merge in front of you. The list is endless.
Kindness has a social dimension. For instance, children and teenagers can be friendly with classmates who are different and unpopular, who are bullied. Christian youth groups can invite such persons to become a part of their group. Adults in the workplace cafeteria or retirement community dining hall can invite loners to join them for the meal.
Beyond basic kindness, love requires patience in many circumstances.
Patience is a lifelong need in the romantic relationship of couples during dating, courtship, marriage or domestic partnership, staying together for decades, and especially in old age when one or both begin to lose mental and physical capability.
Patience is essential in rearing children. Parents offer love to their children at birth, and children respond with their own expressions of love. As children’s individualism develops, parents want to give them leeway but also set boundaries. Early on a contest of wills develops. Offering discipline in a loving manner is required. The challenge grows as children enter adolescence and begin to strike out on their own.
If it’s any consolation to parents, Jesus himself (fully human) at age twelve challenged his parents by sneaking off at the temple in Jerusalem to talk with the learned teachers. When they found him, his mother scolded him with words numerous parents have used, “Child, why have you treated us like this?” (Luke 2:48).
Patience is necessary in many other situations: teachers with students, employers with employees and vice versa, within peer groups trying to get along, diners with waiters, sales clerks with customers, drivers with one another on a busy highway, phone callers on hold. The list goes on and on. Even when annoyed you can show your patience as a way to love your neighbor.
Finally patience lays the groundwork for reconciliation and forgiveness.
To be truly patient requires us to contain our anger. It’s a challenge as old as humankind, the primordial example being Cain who in anger killed his brother. Being an ancient condition, the Bible offers abundant advice for dealing with anger.
Being a persistent challenge, anger management requires us to examine sources. One cause of anger is not having our own way, not being able to impose our will on others. This happens with parents trying to discipline children “for their own good”. In lovers’ quarrels. Political disagreements. In other personal relationships.
Anger arises from frustration: mechanical devices that won’t work, poor service in commercial establishments, dealing with consumer complaint offices, encountering rigid bureaucracies.
Anger occurs in response to mistreatment: getting cut off in traffic, unfair discipline at school, unjust treatment at work. As we get angry, these persons become our enemy who Jesus teaches us to love. It’s difficult, but we must always remember that love is patient and kind.
Jealousy and envy can impede a loving relationship with others. So can arrogance and rudeness.
Jealousy is often a factor in sibling rivalry. This was shown in three well-known cases in the Bible: Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16), Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:27-34), and Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37:1-36).
A common feature of these stories is the partiality displayed by the Lord and the fathers for the favored one, for Abel, Esau, and Joseph. For our day a better way is for parents to practice fairness toward all their children and avoid favoritism.
The same idea applies at school, at work, and in other settings. Don’t have teacher’s pets, favored employees, persons with preferential treatment. Thus, we can add “love is fairness” to Paul’s list, applicable to both bestowing rewards and exercising discipline.
The favored person also has responsibility by avoiding displays of self-importance (love doesn’t brag) and by exercising humility in relationships with those who are less favored (love isn’t arrogant). At the same time the less favored individual can overcome jealousy by refusing to keep a record of complaints to dwell on and by showing extraordinary love and forgiveness. Such is the complexity of loving our neighbor.
In loving our neighbor we can learn much from Jesus’ acceptance of everyone he met as a person who deserves respect and fair treatment, as discussed in the page on accepting others. Jesus saw their potential as children of God. And so can we with the people we meet.
Acceptance can come more easily if we avoid being judgmental. It we are to truly love our neighbor, we need to heed Jesus’ admonition in the Sermon on the Mount:
Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal will be dealt to you (Matthew 7:1-2).
This is a great challenge for those of us brought up to be judgmental. Like the Pharisees we have strict standards of personal conduct, often expressed in the negative: don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t use drugs, don’t have premarital sex, don’t gamble, don’t steal, don’t swear, don’t tell dirty jokes. Not that these standards are wrong but rather we are prone to judge persons who do these things and act as their moral superior.
A better way is to accept everyone as a child of God, no matter what they do or what they believe. Realizing our own shortcomings, we can walk away, so to speak, as did the legal experts and Pharisees who challenged Jesus with the woman caught in adultery. Jesus told her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore” (John 8:11). It was a case of hate evil, but love the evildoer.
Acting in this manner sets the stage for forgiveness, a topic consider on another page.
Above all love should be durable as it puts up with all things and hopes for all things.
Jesus applied this idea of enduring love in his story of the Prodigal Son. It’s about the younger son who took his inheritance, went off, and wasted his wealth through extravagant living. In his despair he returned home, apologized, and asked his father to take him on as a hired servant. Instead the father clothed him in the best robe and held a feast in his honor. When the elder brother complained that he had never had such a celebration, the father told him, “we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found” (Luke 15:11-32).
This is how we can approach family members and others around us as we live in God’s kingdom on earth. They may do things worse that prodigal son’s behavior or engage in misconduct that’s not as bad, but we love them for their inherent worth. Our love endures no matter what they do, always with hope for improvement.
God’s relationship to humankind provides a model for enduring love. The Old Testament reveals God’s steadfast love for the Hebrew people. No matter what they did, God continued to show his love and concern for them. As a psalm exclaims:
For the word of the Lord is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord (Psalm 33:4-5 NRSV).
Paul carried this idea into Christianity when he wrote that
nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created (Romans 8:38-39).
And so as we live in God’s kingdom on earth, we should allow nothing to separate us from the love we have for our family, friends, and everybody else. That’s what it means to love our neighbor.