We are all familiar with Christ’s teaching concerning the Two Greatest Commandment: to Love God with all of oneself and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Given the teaching that these are the two *greatest* commandments, we expect that these prescriptions have been the object of the most obsessive analysis and exposition in theology and biblical commentaries. However by virtue of its abstraction and generality, it is something of a mystery what exactly does it mean to “love your neighbour as yourself”, the very abstract nature of this commandment has given rise to some very speculative extrapolations and inferences from these bare words (Kierkegaard’s extremely heavy “Works of Love” comes to mind).
But there seems to be a very obvious solution to this problem. It is clear both from the immediate context and many commentaries that these are direct quotes from the Old Testament, so why don’t we just look at OT where the quotes appear? Here however are several truly astonishing points. First, while “love your neighbour as yourself” maybe the second greatest commandment, it has only *one* mention in the entire Old Testament, tucked away in Leviticus 19:18 in the midst of many other sundry laws and regulations, yet somehow the Scribes managed to pick it out as the second greatest commandment in Luke 10:27. The second truly astonishing thing is that, in a cursory look through several contemporary commentaries, not one has seen fit to actually *quote* the Leviticus passage to make sense of the “Second Greatest Commandment”. I find that truly staggering. Surely given a commandment of this magnitude and importance, and given its somewhat vague and general nature, a quotation in context where it was first taught and given some concrete meaning would be highly advisable, but the commentaries I looked through (at least for Matthew and Mark, I didn’t check for Luke), not one actually quotes the original Leviticus context. Admittedly I haven’t looked through all commentaries, maybe I missed one which did, but still.
Anyway, what does the original Leviticus passage say? This is where it gets interesting:
‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, and so not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, and you shall not keep your anger against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am Yahweh.Leviticus 19:17-18
This turns our expectations of what it means to “love” your neighbour as yourself on its head. Gospel commentaries by and large focus on Jesus’s clarification, or extension, of the meaning of “neighbour” in “love your neighbour”, expanding it to the stranger. What few commentaries have done is to analyse the word “love” instead of “neighbour”, and in the Leviticus context, loving your neighbour entails *reproving or rebuking them*. Here we are given an fleshed out exposition on what sort of actions and attitudes “love” actually entails, and one of them entails rebuke. It would be interesting to speculate how many woolly claims that “love” means “don’t judge” or “be nice” or whatever could have been avoided if pastors and commentaries had actually bothered to just quote the Leviticus context in full.
From this quote we are in a much better position to extrapolate and speculate on the meaning of “love your neighbour as yourself”. First, in a nod to the common sentimental reading, it does mean not hating your neighbour, it’s right there in the text, your shall not hate your brother in your heart. However, the command not to take vengeance is paired with the recommendation to reprove/rebuke in its stead, from here I think we can surmise that “love” as God has revealed means to seek our neighbour’s good and benefit, vengeance while will satisfy *our* injured rights and dignity, does nothing for the offender, and to love our neighbour entails not seeking our neighbour’s evil, destruction, or whatever in vengeance, but to seek their remedial, rehabilitation, their improvement, benefit and good, which is embodied in the action of reproving and rebuking them to improve them.
This reading however will entail a much more expansive notion of what “our neighbour’s good” means, it doesn’t just means the satisfaction of their needs and wants, although that obviously is a part of it, but it fundamentally refers to their moral/character improvement overall, which is why rebuke, rather than vengeance, is prescribed, why hatred is proscribed, we want to see our erring brother flourish and become better in the end, not to destroy them to satisfy our injured feelings.
I’m sure a lot more could be said on the second of the Greatest Commandment, however, I simply want to end off by noting that despite the constant mantra about how the New Testament only makes sense in the context of the Old, it is astonishing how few people actually do refer to the Old to discover its concrete referent and meaning of the command to love our neighbour as ourselves. As I hope it’s clear by now, referring back to the Old Testament to make sense of Christ’s own teachings can reveal some very interesting truths.