It may seem odd, but despite the prominence of commandments to love in the NT, which can also be found in the OT, there have actually not been that many scholarly monographs written on the subject. We could point to the seminal work of C. Spicq, a French scholar, whose mammoth study was finally translated into English, or the classic little book by V.P. Furnish entitled The Love Commandment in the New Testament but scholars have been surprisingly reticent to address this topic in detail, and I am not sure why.
In this post I would like to explore two of the horizontal love commandments– ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ and ‘love one another as I have loved you’ (the ‘I’ in question being Jesus). Let’s start with the observation that love is commanded. It’s not optional. It follows as well from this that the sort of love we are talking about in this post, while it certainly may involve feelings is not basically grounded or based in feelings one has for others. Feelings are notably unresponsive to attempts to command them. The sort of love Jesus has in mind then is commandable as well as commendable. It has to do with a decision of the will, resulting in loving actions. This becomes clearer in the second of the two love commands mentioned above. If the disciples of Jesus are to love one another as Jesus loves them, that necessarily entails love in action. Indeed, in the Johannine context in which that commandment was originally given it talks about Jesus loving to the uttermost, even to the point of giving his life for his disciples.
It seems clear then, that the second of these two love commands has to do with discipleship to Jesus and behavior towards fellow disciples, not generally benevolent behavior towards just anyone. It also seems that this comparison– between how a disciple should love another disciple and how Christ loves his disciples is a much stiffer, higher, more demanding love commandment than ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ where the love of self is the point of comparison.
Some modern psychological treatments of ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ have not surprisingly, in a narcissistic, me first age, talked about the endorsement of self-love that seems to be implied here. The problem with that is that self-love is not commanded here, it is taken for granted as a point of comparison. And again, this is not about feelings or liking oneself. It’s about love in action.
You will no doubt remember that Jesus had a little debate with a lawyer on who counts as neighbor, leading to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus takes the question from the lawyer to be a question about limits, namely, who is not my neighbor, for example like someone who suggests that people in one’s neighborhood are one’s actual neighbors, and other folks due to lack of proximity don’t qualify. The problem with this, from a NT point of view is that Jesus gives an extreme example of neighborly behavior namely by a Samaritan to a Jew. The implication seems to be that followers of Jesus are to treat everyone else in a neighborly love. The Samaritan as example shows what love in action to any and all neighbors, looks like. The parable then in fact could be said to be an illustration of Jesus’ other horizontal love commandment– namely love thy enemy.
A few implications are worth mentioning. Nothing in what Jesus says implies that when one acts in a loving manner towards ‘the other’ whether neighbor or disciple or enemy, that this implies in any way acceptance of all their behavior. Certainly not. Christians are called to love even racists, but that in no way implies a condoning of racism.
Unfortunately, in current American discourse, the assumption is sometimes made that loving other people means leaving all moral discernment or ethical standards behind. But such a treatment of ‘the other’ would not really be loving. It would in fact be merely indulgent. The love we are talking about is not a love that accepts a person’s bad behavior, it is a love of the person themselves because they are someone whom God loves and for whom Jesus died. The love we are talking about is a holy love, a love that helps the other behave more like God desires, not less. More on this in the next post.