Mark 12:31 (NIV): “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
The greatest commandment is that God’s people are to love Him with every part of themselves: heart, soul, mind, and strength. The second greatest commandment comes from Leviticus 19:18: we as God’s people are to love our neighbors as ourselves.
The reason why these two commandments are the keystones of the entire law (cf. Matthew 22:40) is this:
- If a person loves God completely, with every aspect of who they are, there is no way that they will willfully sin against God, doing what they know is displeasing to Him; no way that they would worship or serve anything apart from Him. Those are the complete opposite of loving God completely. And if they ever find that they have inadvertently trespassed against something that God has commanded, absolute love for God will drive them instantly to repent so that the relationship between them and God can be restored.
- If a person loves their neighbor in the same way and to the same degree as they love themselves, there is no way that they will willfully sin against their neighbor, killing them, committing adultery against them, stealing from them, lying about them, and coveting what they have. Those are the complete opposite of loving their neighbor. And if they ever find out that they have inadvertently wronged their neighbor in any way, love for that person will drive them to instantly repent, to do what is necessary to make things right, so that the relationship can be restored.
By the way, the focus of this second commandment is our neighbor, not ourselves. A teaching makes the rounds from time to time that before we can love our neighbor as ourselves, we have to first learn to love ourselves appropriately. But this command has nothing to do with feelings or emotions. It is about action and attitudes. It really ties in most closely with the golden rule: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12 NIV) Just as we want to be treated with honor and respect, loving our neighbor honors and respects them instead of doing things that will kill body or soul. Just as we want our marriage commitment to be honored by others, love for our neighbor honors their marriage commitment instead of engaging in adultery with their spouse. Just as we want our property rights to be respected by others, love for our neighbor respects their rights to what they own, and doesn’t steal from them, or covet what they have. Just as we want our reputation to be respected, love for our neighbor will never lie or gossip about them, tearing down their good name.
And love like this is not just about avoiding evil. It is about doing positive good to our neighbor every chance we get. Just as we would want to receive food, when we are hungry, clothing when we are cold, and shelter when we have none, love for our neighbor willingly shares what we have with others in need. Just as we would want to be encouraged in times of struggle, visited when we are lonely, and comforted in times of grief, real love for our neighbor looks for opportunities to do those things for them.
This kind of love is easy to see when it is present – no one has to wonder whether they have it or not. If we are doing these things consistently, we will know it. And if we aren’t, we will know that, too. And we, as God’s people, need to realize that this kind of love for others is not an option, a nice addition to our faith if we have the time and energy and means. It is a commandment – the second most important commandment in the whole Bible, from Jesus’ own lips.
Father, it is easy for us to think that this kind of self-sacrificial love in action is “optional equipment,” or something that we might be able to do some day. But there is no escaping the truth that Jesus identified this as an outright commandment for Your people, second in importance only to loving You with every part of ourselves. Forgive us, Lord, for too often putting something so important to You on our back burner, or for disregarding it altogether. Help us to live in Your love, so that it flows all the way through our lives into the lives of everyone around us. Amen.