Jesus said to the disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) I want to ask a question here. What makes this commandment new?
Important Passages from the Hebrew Bible
Leviticus gives this command, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.” (19:18) Community cohesion was very important to preserving Israelite distinctiveness. Because the violence of vengeance and resentment destroys community cohesion.
Deuteronomy 6:5, which in the New Testament is called the greatest commandment, demands “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” The next few verses explain that loving the LORD means keeping the commandments.
John also emphasizes obedience in Jesus’ parting words to his disciples. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (14:15) The next chapter, this time verse 15:14, says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
The connection to the community requires obedience to the commandments. Community cohesion is a matter of each person living these commandments out of the desire to remain connected to God. John emphasizes the divine presence within Jesus.
What About The Law And The Prophets?
I assumed for years the new commandment was part of the Sermon on the Mount. It isn’t. The golden rule, on the other hand, is. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) Jesus later says, in the same gospel, the two commandments from Leviticus and Deuteronomy were as important. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (23:40) It is curious phrase, “this is the law and the prophets.” What do the prophets have to do with anything?
The prophet Hosea wrote, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (6:6) The New Testament uses the word “mercy” in place of steadfast love.
Another prophet, Micah, explains to those who complain about the harshness of divine requirements, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8)
I use these two examples from the minor prophets because the Holy Scriptures are more than mere commands demanding obedience. Jesus and his contemporaries knew that.
What Makes The New Commandment New?
Safety is found in rule keeping. Obediently following instructions brings comfort in uncertain times and situations. It is the default position for many people. St. Peter’s denials of Jesus are examples of the default position. Peter wants to maintain his connection to the community. The problem is that he was wrong and no one believes him.
Many people view the golden rule as a negative moral rule. Don’t do anything to someone else what you would not want done to you. To them the rule is another way to say “do no harm.” Rather, the golden rule is a positive moral statement. We learn from it that whatever is considered helpful to you should be done for someone else.I once thought the new commandment was not actually new. I thought the same of the golden rule. We needed reminding of these directions for conduct because we easily forget them. They just sounded new. It was a mistaken view. The new commandment is new because it requires courage based in faith.
Actively Engaged For The Good
I worked in a small department in a clothing factory. A younger man coworker was a very big jerk. Thankfully, he didn’t work on the same shift as me. We still had contact though. He was someone I did not want to be around for very long. No one did. In fact, some of our team hated him. When the opportunity to get rid of him presented itself, those people jumped at it.
Bill, not his real name, was accused of sexual harassment. The case appeared to be straightforward. It wasn’t. He usually engaged in the banter of innuendo that was prevalent among some of my coworkers. He made an ill-timed remark to a female coworker. A few of the others persuaded her to file a complaint. She apparently was advised to remove the pages of sexually questionable jokes from her cubicle. On the surface of strict adherence to policy, Bill was in the wrong. The union steward refused to assure that Bill be given due process. The situation was unjust.
Corporate headquarters sent an investigator to interview everyone involved. The investigator said he would listen to anyone else who wanted to talk to him. I asked my supervisor for an appointment. Since I asked for it openly rather than in private, my request drew interesting looks from my coworkers. I went to see the investigator. His name was Rudy.
“Rudy,” I began, “if you want to fire Bill, I can give you any number of reasons. However, this is bullshit.” My choice of words surprised him. He knew I was a bi-vocational minister. I explained my view of the situation. Bill kept his job. He was placed on my shift. As a result, I learned a lot more about patience.
What It Means To Love With Courage
Bill tried insulting me a few days later. A coworker jumped to my defense. “He’s the only friend you have here!” She explained he kept his job because of what I did. He never said another cross word to me again. I got to know Bill better. He remained a jerk. We have not kept in touch. Occasionally, we cross paths and speak to each other.
I stood up against an injustice that day. I did not assume Bill would do for me what I did for him. Yet department cohesion became stronger. I became a trusted person in the group. It doesn’t always work out that way. At first, I believed I acted in the name of justice. Years later, I realized I had acted in steadfast love. More good came out of the action than ending an injustice. Peace resulted from it. I fought for justice and received more than justice.
I am still amazed by it.