How to Love Our Neighbors (part 2): By Keeping the Law

One of the great sites of Jerusalem is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Archaeologists have confidence that this sprawling church is located near the spot of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus likely was buried and therefore emerged from the tomb either within or near the church’s expansive walls. If any site in Jerusalem deserves the label “holy,” this is it. The stairs and corridors swarm and groan with people, but a visit can be disheartening, as one scholar aptly wrote:

One expects the central shrine of Christendom to stand out in majestic isolation, but anonymous buildings cling to it like barnacles. One looks for numinous light, but it is dark and cramped. One hopes for peace, but the ear is assailed by a cacophony of warring chants. One desires holiness, only to encounter a jealous possessiveness: the six groups of occupants – Latin Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrians, Copts, Ethiopians – watch one another suspiciously for any infringement of rights. The frailty of humanity is nowhere more apparent than here; it epitomizes the human condition. The empty who come to be filled will leave desolate; but those who permit the church to question them may begin to understand why hundreds of thousands thought it worthwhile to risk death or slavery in order to pray here.[1]

     It is indeed tragic that a site of Christian worship that draws countless visitors from the entire planet should exhibit such envy, cold hearts, and lack of love. The problem arose slowly and there is no easy fix for it, but surely the starting point must be a return to love. And God’s law helps us here

Love teaches believers how to love one another

     We know that God’s law requires obedience and spells out our duties, but it is also true that the law teaches believers how to love. Paul says “love is the fulfilling of the law” and a little reflection shows the truth of it. We love our spouse by staying faithful in body and in mind. Adulterers typically justify their actions by rehearsing their spouse’s failings. Many also frame adultery as the natural result of the end of old love and the beginning of new love. But one need only watch the effects of adultery to see that adultery is an act of self-indulgence, not an act of love.

     “Murder” is an act of hate. This does not mean all killing is sinful or hateful. Since Augustine, Just War Theory has asserted that a soldier, in a defensive war, acts in love for his people and can even fight with inward love toward a military foe. Indeed, it is loving to aggressors to resist them, to keep them in their boundaries, to keep them from committing many heinous sins and from entering a life of war. Positively, we love our neighbors by doing what we can to preserve their life and safety.

     To steal someone’s property is to care nothing for them. We love our neighbors economically by preserving their property, especially through fair dealings.

     “You shall not covet” teaches us how to love neighbors who have abilities or privileges that we do lack. The law teaches us how to marvel correctly. Let us be content with what is ours, trust God to give us what we need, and give thanks for the gifts of others. In this way, admiration does not decay into jealousy or envy. Immanuel Kant said envy is a wretched vice because it hurts everyone. It both torments the subject who envies, and it would destroy the happiness of the one who is envied. The covetous resent God for not giving them more, they resent themselves for not achieving more, and they resent their neighbors for having more. Moreover we culpably fail to see that much of what we covet might be within reach, whether with ease (getting a nice pen) or with difficulty (mastery of the saxophone).

     When Paul says “any other commandment” we think of false witness, since Paul omitted it. Luther’s Larger Catechism summarized the way the law, including the ninth commandment, promotes love of neighbors: “Besides our own body, our wife or husband, and our temporal property, we have one more treasure which is indispensable to us, namely, our honor and good name. For it is intolerable to live among men in public disgrace and contempt.

Love your neighbor

     “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” sums up every social command (13:9). Notice that in form (in Greek as well as English) “You shall love” is a future indicative. We must and we shall love our neighbors.

     Scholars debate the words “as yourself.” But most agree that Jesus and Paul do not command self-love, they assume it and urge that we make our constant, attentive self-care the standard we extend to others. They rightly observe that Jesus and Paul gave two commands, but if self-love is an imperative, we would have three, love of God, neighbor, and self. The Bible addresses us as we are. In fact, we love ourselves and our love for neighbors should be “as real and sincere” as our love of self.

     It is also essential to define “neighbor” correctly. Rabbinic literature occasionally restricted the category “neighbor” to fellow Israelites. For example, they debated whether a Jew should recue a Gentile who falls into water. In Luke 10, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan to banish efforts to define who deserves the label “neighbor” and who does not. That story features a priest, Levite, and a Samaritan who come upon a man whom robbers thrashed and left for dead. In terms established right before the parable, the priest and Levite asked themselves “Is this my neighbor?” They decided “Probably not” and bypassed the man. By contrast, the Samaritan became a neighbor, and Jesus commended him for that. Indeed, since Jesus often placed himself in his parables, we should see that Jesus, like the Samaritan, became neighbor to us when we were as good as dead. When we had no right to claim Jesus as neighbor, he became our neighbor and rescued us.

     Romans 13:10 reformulates 13:8: “Love does no harm to its neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law,” “Love does no harm” states a believer’s duty in the negative. We do not murder or steal. Other Scriptures state the need to do positive good, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked (James 2:14-17). The law does not “interfere with the exercise of love.” Rather, its commands and prohibitions coach us to act rightly, lest we rest “content with vague and often hypocritical sentiments” that we “mistake for Christian love” (to quote John Murray and Charles Cranfield).

     To summon believers to obey the law is not legalism. This error grows, in part, from failure to recognize that “legalism” has at least three meanings. At times, “legalism” means autosoterism, the belief that people can gain God’s favor or earn salvation by keeping the law (cf. Matt. 19:16). For others, legalism is the addition of man-made regulations to God’s laws. These human regulations often undermine God’s laws (Matt. 15:1-9). Third, legalism can mean a monomaniacal focus on laws and rules that eclipses a proper interest in weightier matters - justice, mercy and faithfulness (cf. Matt. 23:23). But to say we should obey God’s perfect law is not legalism (Ps. 119).

     The law aids our reflection on love. For example, it teaches us how to love our friends, lest we turn friendship into a mutual admiration society rather than a mutual edification society. Then we can grow in grace together, even through timely rebuke and encouragement (Prov. 27:5-6, 17). The law shows us how to love co-workers, seeing them as people, not skill sets. The law also teaches us to love the poor, the widow, the orphan, the spouse, parent, or child. God gives us laws so we don’t have to live according to our best guesses.

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books. His most recent is Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation.

[1] Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 49.


Dan Doriani