Have you ever wondered what Jesus meant when he commanded his followers to “love your neighbor as yourself”? I have.
Several questions come to mind:
- What does “love” mean?
- Who is my “neighbor”?
- What does love my neighbor “as myself” mean?
I hope to answer those questions and more in a series of articles addressing this commandment.
Let’s start with some context. An expert of the law tested Jesus with a question. Let’s look at Matthew chapter 22.
Matthew 22:36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
What is the greatest commandment? That is a great question. It seems that the person asking the question had some questionable motives for asking it, but I am thankful that he did so we can here the answer. How does Jesus reply? He replies with an answer that most people have heard many times before – love God, love people. That is simple. Right?
What if there is more to Jesus reply than meets the eye? What if Jesus was using references to the Old Testament in his answer that is deep with meaning.
In the first part of his reply, He is quoting from Deuteronomy Chapter 6.
Deut. 6:4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
This verse is part of the Shema (Hebrew for the first word “Listen”) – a Jewish prayer that was recited at least twice each day by Jesus and all Jewish people.
Yep, Jesus was Jewish. He wasn’t American. He wasn’t caucasian. He was middle-eastern.
Here is a forensic depiction of a 33 year old Jewish man from Jesus’ time period.
Is that how you picture Jesus? Yeah, me neither.
I want Jesus to look like me. Most cultures tend to make Jesus look like people of their culture.
By looking deep into Jesus’ Jewish roots, we will discover a love that is truly amazing.
Which takes us back to the Shema – the Jewish prayer.
The Shema is the first Scripture taught to Jewish children.
Parts of the Shema are written on a small scroll and then is placed in a box and attached on the doorframe. As someone entered and exited the house they would touch the box, reminding them of the Shema, reminding them of God.
So the first part of the commandment meant something to the people that heard it. The love is rooted in the Hebraic tradition.
It would have immediately brought to mind something they did everyday. It was part of their way of doing things. It was the central part of their Torah – the first 5 books of the Old Testament. Torah means way, or way of life. The Shema was central to their way of life.
How about the second part – the love your neighbor part? Believe it or not, that part is a reference to the Old Testament as well. Check out Leviticus Chapter 19.
Lev. 19:18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
So that part of the commandment is also a reference back to the Old Testament.
Hmmm. So Jesus used verses that his audience was familiar with.
So what does the command “love your neighbor as yourself” mean? We will explore that more in the next part of this series.
The one thing we can see so far is that this commandment is deep roots in the Jewish faith and tradition.
From here we have to wrestle with what was the Hebraic understanding of love means in “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself”.
Look for the next post in the series next week.
Why is it important to understand the Jewish traditions?