It’s confusing yet strangely gratifying all at the same time. We live in a culture that is moving further and further from the exclusive claims of Christianity yet almost equally—and inconsistently—holds select passages in the Bible in high regard. They hold forth as though they cling tighter to the red letter words of Jesus than those who claim to be Christians. Of course, it’s true that many who call themselves believers fail to live in a way that reflects how we are suppose to live, but these failures are not indicative of a bankrupt theology but rather our need for a perfect Savior. Perhaps this is why Scripture, in various ways, implores us to guard our testimony as unbelievers struggle to separate the message from the messenger. In contrast, while the work of many social justice advocates may encompass a zealous neighbor-love approach, it often neglects a gospel-centered focus and lacks any risk.
In the book of Matthew, we read the account of Jesus being asked by a lawyer which of the commandments was the greatest. Jesus’ response included not one, but two. The first, he said, was to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind and the second was like the first, that we ought to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 22:37-40).
Why did he respond to the request for one commandment with two? And why did he say that the second was like the first? I think a key to understanding the answer to these questions is by considering what is required to fulfill both commands. What we should first acknowledge is that we cannot, on our own power or with complete consistency, keep any command; hence our need for a Savior. Secondly, as we seek to obey God’s commands, only in a spirit of humility and Christ-like love can this be achieved. A love grounded in idolatry and human reason will always fall short of what he has commanded.
We also need to understand the second command in relation to the first. Jesus did say that loving God was “the great and first commandment.” Is it possible to fulfill the second commandment without fulfilling the first? Some happen to think so. I beg to differ. Loving God with all of our heart, all of our soul, and all of our mind speaks to the depth of our devotion, that with our whole self we are to love God. But “the Lord your God” speaks volumes about the object of our affection. No false god will suffice, we must be attentive to the one true God of the Bible. Knowing God, therefore, means knowing the story of sin and redemption, and as a result we are called to love our neighbor as a necessary and logical outworking of our love for God.
Without a commitment to the one true God, neighbor-love is little more than a trendy slogan, yet it works out well for those seeking to co-op aspects of Christianity for their pluralistic agenda. But how love works out in the real word without a foundation in Christ is apparent—to those who know Christ. I am a mom to three boys, two of which are old enough to date. Many times we have discussed what it means to love someone else and for them to love in return. My bottom line with them is this: if you can’t love God more than your girlfriend, or if she can’t love God more than you, then you can’t love each other the way you need to be loved. Without knowing God and loving God, our foundation for love is based on a relativistic worldview. There is no confidence because there is no objective source from which love it derives its meaning. Love certainly is more than a trendy slogan, young attraction or grown-up philanthropy. It needs to be known in its ultimate sense.
I recently received one of my regular Sojourners e-newsletters, this one called “My Muslim ‘Father.’” Not surprisingly, it strongly promoted the theme of neighbor-love, this time through a story shared by one of Jim Wallis’ staff writers, Leslie Abell. She wrote of time she spent in Cairo, Egypt where she developed and nurtured relationships with Muslims, including a familial relationship with a man named Hassan, the owner of a small shop. While she spoke of how they shared an attitude of hospitality, no mention is made of whether she shared the gospel with this friend. In a spirit of generosity, I do not claim to know what Sojourners means when they refer to Muslims as our “sisters and brother” as is seen stated repeatedly in their materials, but if Sojourners official position is that the good news is an unnecessary component of neighbor-love, then that would help to explain what its been so easily detached from the first and great commandment of God-love. But I don’t need to single out Sojourners on this matter, plenty of evangelicals who have leaped onto the neighbor-love social justice bandwagon do so in view of only the second half of this passage. Of course, Scripture does teach that unbelievers will know we are Christians by our love, but in the name of love have we made Christ obscure?
As the holidays begin to encroach on us, suffocating us with marketing ploys and overly-subtle greetings of ‘happy holidays’ from store cashiers, we can take joy in knowing that meaning of neighbor-love finds its significance in the Incarnation. Jesus came in the flesh in obedience to the will of the Father, an act which embodies not only neighbor love, but first the love for his Father, a significant relational aspect within the Trinity.
who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, (Philippians 2:6-9 ESV)
We can look to the Godhead for understanding of neighbor-love if we can keep in mind that it is not something we do on our own, but the work God prepared for us before the foundations of the earth and for the sake of the Kingdom, not for our own godless goals of earthy love and peace.