When pressed by the Pharisees and scholars of the law to clarify the greatest commandment, Jesus of course responds that it is essentially the first of the Ten Commandments: Love the Lord, your God, with all of your heart, with all of your mind, and with all of your strength (Mt 22: 34-40). But he doesn’t stop there. Although he was only asked which one commandment was the greatest, Jesus goes on to announce the second, which he says is like the first, which is to love your neighbor as yourself. Furthermore, Jesus proclaims that the entire law and the words of the prophets depend on these two commandments.
Why does Jesus’ answer go beyond the confines of the question? Why does he feel the need to elaborate? Isn’t loving God enough? Cannot the law and the prophets depend sufficiently on the first and greatest commandment?
It is a curious nuance that we often overlook, and in a way, has become a bit of a trite remark. “Love thy neighbor…” Many people don’t even know their neighbors, much less love them. My neighbors happen to be my in-laws; I’ll let you decide whether that puts me at an advantage or disadvantage in this task. The fact remains, Jesus necessarily included the commandment to love thy neighbor as yourself and stated that it, along with the love of God, are the commandments on which everything else depends.
How should we live out this commandment? What is required? Two questions must be answered first: What does it mean to love my neighbor? And who is my neighbor?
To answer the first, we will actually start with the second. Who is my neighbor? Of course, Jesus also has an answer for this in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37). At the end of the parable, Jesus asks which of the three who encountered the man beaten on the side of the road were his neighbors? The lawyer who began the conversation with Jesus replied, “The one who showed him mercy,” to which Jesus responds, “You go, and do likewise.” Here, Jesus adds the powerful quality of mercy to the commandment of loving they neighbor.
Our love of neighbor must be directed to those who need to experience the mercy of God. Many times, we find our hearts wishing for people to experience the judgment of God, depending on the types of signs we find in their lawns. Jesus, conversely, did not come to bring judgement, but mercy. Don’t worry justice warriors, judgement will still come and I’m sure his wrath will burn hot, but our hearts are better matured in desiring his mercy.
The Samaritan in the parable was a cultural enemy of the man beaten on the side of the road. By society’s standards, he should be the last person to help much less put up a significant financial gift. They are on different teams, from different parties, have different values. But the mercy of God transcends all of this. His mercy drives and initiates love of neighbor. His mercy opens doors and builds bridges.
The mercy which God commissions us to spread in loving our neighbors is not intended to end with just any need being met, but with their deepest need being met. Their deepest need and most meaningful response to their misery is a relationship and union with the Living God. Every act of mercy has this as the aim. To love our neighbor means to show mercy in a way that leads to an encounter with God. Our merciful acts should make room for the proclamation of the source of mercy, the salvation of Jesus Christ.
One of the popular magicians from the Las Vegas show “Penn and Teller,” who is an atheist, once explained in an interview that he is not offended when Christians attempt to evangelize him. The way he sees it is that if these people really believe that there is a God who is in Heaven, which is paradise, and the only way to get to this Heaven when we die is to believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and if we don’t we face eternal damnation, then someone must really have to hate another person to not try to share this news with them.
So, the final question is one we must ask ourselves: Will we love our neighbors or will we deprive them of the opportunity for lasting relationship with Jesus Christ?