Setting the bar

Most of us are familiar with the command “Love thy neighbor.” It’s the contracted form of “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” found in both Matthew 19:19, 22:39, and Leviticus 19:18. For those who are not familiar with—or inclined towards—scripture, it is still easy to understand—and appreciate—this principle in terms of the nearly universal idea of The Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you). Instinctively, we get it. Be kind. Do no harm. Don’t treat people shabbily. Go the extra mile for another.

But I was especially challenged by a passage Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on Romans as it pertains to this verse. Perhaps you will be, too:

First, we can understand it in the sense that both the neighbor and one’s own self are to be loved. But in another sense it can be understood that we are commanded to love only our neighbor, using our love for ourselves as the example. This is the better interpretation, because man with his natural sinfulness does love himself above all others, seeks his own in all matters, loves everything else for his own sake, even when he loves his neighbor or his friend, for he seeks his own in him.

Hence this is a most profound commandment, and each person must test himself according to it by means of a careful examination. For through this expression, “as yourself,” every pretense of love is excluded. Therefore he who loves his neighbor on account of his money, honor, knowledge, favor, power, or comfort, and does not love the same person if he is poor, lowly, unlearned, hostile, dependent, or unpleasant, clearly has a hypocritical love, not a love for himself, but a love for his neighbor’s goods for his own benefit….Therefore this is the hardest commandment of all.” (Luther’s Works, 475)

Each of us will be challenged by this in different ways, but for me the challenge comes in loving those who are hostile, dependent, or unpleasant—not just occasionally, but chronically. And yet that is what is being asked of us. Of me. Of you. Luther is just as clear about the other Commandments. For example, about honoring one’s mother and father he specifies, “however lowly, poor, feeble, and eccentric they may be.” (The Book of Concord,401)

In other words, there are no outs. No justifications for our own failure to love except our own failure to love. Which is not just about feeding the poor or saving the world— acts which also reward us with the great feeling of doing good—but about how we walk in ordinary, seemingly uninspired circumstances.

So the next time we find ourselves surrounded by grumblebears and whiners and gossips and shrews and naysayers—terms that apply to any one of us on any given day—let’s consider that we are being given the opportunity to grow in love. And pray for the grace to take it.

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