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What the Golden Rule can teach us about rightly-ordered love

The very first principle of the moral life is that we are to do good and avoid evil. Saintly minds have argued over the centuries that so long as a person understands the meaning of this statement, it is a self-evident truth with which no reasonable person can disagree. Of course, the challenge is, what is good and what is evil? This is a question that is increasingly difficult to answer today.

Jesus explains that the very first principle by which we begin to grasp the difference between good and evil is what we have conventionally come to know as the golden rule. We know this commandment in two forms: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” or “whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them” (Mt 22:39; Mt 7:12). In either case the proper love of self is the foundation for knowing how to treat others. 

Self-Love as Self-Gift

The difficulty with the golden rule, however, is that if we do not have a proper sense of self-love, our determination of how we ought to treat others will be skewed. In other words, if self-love is self-seeking, our conscience will lead us to false judgments regarding love of neighbor. Thus, the more self-referential one becomes, the less able one can truly love their neighbor. 

For this reason, the proper love of self depends upon the love of God and our obedience to his commandments. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment” (Mt 22:37-38). The implication is that by loving God above all, a person will perceive how best to love their neighbor since self-love will be rooted in the love of God. 

Because of the importance of the Golden Rule to moral integrity, Jesus clarifies its meaning in his Last Supper discourse:  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (Jn 13:34). What Jesus models throughout his life is a form of self-love whereby he offers himself as a gift and sacrifice to humanity—to all of us—on behalf of his love for his Father. In other words, the best way to love self is to offer oneself in service to neighbor, as illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

This is what Christians mean by charity, or in Greek, Agape. Jesus tells us that true love is not so much about what we desire or find attractive, but rather about offering our self to others in affirmation of human dignity.  ⊲

Does Love Have No Limits?

Today, we often hear people speak about “unconditional love.” This is how Jesus’ teaching is interpreted. The argument basically states that God loves us “unconditionally,” no matter what. The implication here is that Jesus’s love is entirely inclusive of everyone. After, all, Jesus associated with and called the social outcasts and marginalized to be his disciples. This is true and no one can dispute this. Divine love does not discriminate on the level of human dignity. 

However, this does not mean that Jesus accepted every form of behavior or every human intention. While Jesus indeed loves every person—he died for all—to remain in his love, He commands us to follow the “narrow way,” which he explains in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7). In other words, God does not withhold his love from anyone. However, He also does not reconcile himself with sin. He commands us to be perfect as His heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48).

The greatest illustration of the point is the story of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11). Jesus did not condemn her, but he also commanded her to sin no more. Jesus called the woman into covenant fellowship with him, but at the same time, called her to leave behind her sinful ways. Jesus’s love was not legalistic or punitive, but neither was it an accommodation to sin. His love is best understood as a transformative call to conversion.

One of the biggest challenges to the Christian notion of love today is the idea that we are not to judge. Jesus clearly teaches us not to judge others, lest we ourselves be judged (Mt 7:1-3). We are also to forgive others that wrong us and be merciful (Mt 6:14-15; Lk 6:36). Somehow not judging others has come to mean that we are not allowed to make moral judgments, especially when it comes to human sexuality. It ought to be obvious, however, that we cannot forgive an offense or show mercy toward another’s faults if we are not allowed to make any moral judgments. How would we know to forgive if we do not know we have been wronged?

The proper way to understand Jesus’ teaching here is to distinguish between making a judgment about the moral character of an action and condemning others in our hearts because of their sin. Christian love must always affirm the dignity of a person, and so embrace him or her—to love our enemies for example—but Christian charity can never embrace sinful behavior as acceptable to God. It is simply false to suggest that if I make a moral judgment, I am therefore not loving the other person whose actions are morally wrong.

Today we can observe many efforts to pressure us to not merely tolerate but to accept behavior and lifestyles incompatible with Jesus’ teaching in the name of inclusivity—even among Christians who clearly relativize Jesus’ teaching, as though Christians need to get with the times. For example, the slogan “love is love” and the demand for non-discriminatory laws more inclusive of various expressions of sexuality are often defended by an appeal to inclusivity and “unconditional love.”   

The problem is that this argument fails to distinguish between the person, whom we are commanded to love, and a set of behaviors that we cannot accept because they are incompatible with Jesus’ teaching about the dignity of the human person. 

The love of neighbor is God’s command to affirm the dignity of others through a gift of self. Jesus offers himself to us from the cross, not to gloss over sin, but to call the sinner to repentance. The command to love is not a license to disregard the moral law on account of the dignity of the sinner. To the contrary, according to Jesus’ example, the love of neighbor demands that, for the sake of human dignity, we call others to conversion and help others live according to their true dignity. 

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