Our Neighbor And The Law

Our Neighbor And The Law March 1, 2021

Daphni Monastery: Mosaic of Abba John the Dwarf / Wikimedia Commons

Paul, showing his knowledge and understanding of the teachings of Jesus and how they related to his Jewish heritage, implores us to love our neighbor. He tells us that when we do so, we fulfill the law:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom 13:8-10 RSV).

It might seem strange to say that we owe others love, for should love not be something which is freely given and not treated as a mere obligation? And yet, the law is centered upon the dictates of love. It tells us what to do when we ourselves do not yet know pure love, that is, when we are not yet motivated and directed by love. If we truly act out of love, we will fulfill the law without the need for any external directives. In order to make this clear, in order for us to understand the purpose and motivation for the law, we are told that the law can be summed up by two forms of love: love for God and love for our neighbor. Thus, when asked by a rich young man what he should do to receive eternal life, eternal beatitude with God, Jesus indicated that the young man should follow the law by loving his neighbor as himself:

And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?”  And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt. 19:16-19 RSV).

It was not a new reading of the law which Jesus gave. Thus, at a different occasion, a Jewish lawyer, a scholar, gave a similar reading. Upon hearing the lawyer’s interpretation of the law, Jesus told him, if he followed through with what he said, he would inherit eternal life:

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read?”  And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live” (Lk. 10:25-28 RSV).

It is clear, when we read the Gospels, this understanding of the law, that it focused upon and was centered upon love, lay behind much of what Jesus taught to his disciples. Jesus, his early followers, Paul, and many of the Jewish scholars of his day were in agreement: to fulfill the law we must love our neighbor. The rules are meant to help us understand what that means, but we can also find other ways to express this truth, which is what Jesus did with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The law is the law of love. Love, in one sense, must be given freely, but yet love is also a law unto itself: those who know love know its pull upon them, how it motivates and directs them to act. It is a law, but it is a law which does not hinder us and bind us in some sort of unfree state; rather, when we are full of love, we find ourselves truly free, liberated from the bonds of sin. Moral laws, to be truly moral, present and serve what love motivates us to do naturally. The more we put the moral law in practice, not in a legalistic manner, but in understanding its intent by its connection with love, we will find ourselves opening up more and more to love until at last, we will be so filled with love, all we do will be in and through that love. Then we will transcend the legalism of the law and truly live by its spirit, the spirit of love, fulfilling our place as children of God.

Thus Abba John the Dwarf tells us that if we truly want to be set free, if we truly want the glory of God and the bounty of eternal life, we must build ourselves up properly. We are to do this, not by looking after ourselves, after our wants and desires in a selfish manner, but rather, by working for the good of our neighbor:

Abba John the Dwarf said, ‘A house is not built by beginning at the top and working down. You must begin with the foundations in order to reach the top.’ They said to him, ‘What does this saying mean?’ He said, ‘The foundation is our neighbour, whom we must win, and this is the place to begin. For all the commandments of Christ depend upon this one.”[1]

The law of love, whether it resides in us internally, or if we must listen to its expectations through moral constructs, expects us to take care of our neighbor, to be concerned with their interests, so that we build them up and make sure that their needs are truly fulfilled. Christ commanded us to take care of our neighbor. The more we do so, the more we will find we are also building ourselves up. For truly, the more we follow the dictates of love, the more we act on them, the more they become a part of us and transform us so that in the end, we will be able to be who we are meant to be, that is people made in the image and likeness of the God who is love. We will become reflections of love. Then, we will find our heart has become so pure that we shall even see God. For God is love, and those who want to see and know God must know love.

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 93 [John the Dwarf Saying 39].


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