Little children, I am with you only a little longer… I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
For me, the somber occasion adds tremendous weight to these words. If I were about to leave my loved ones, I would share my most heartfelt feelings, and offer only the most essential wisdom and guidance. Here, Jesus does not quite equate love with discipleship. But he does teach unequivocally that love is the distinguishing characteristic of his disciples. As Christians we need to seriously consider whether we are even recognizable as his disciples. Are we living up to our true mark? Do we conduct ourselves as he did, meaning most importantly, “Do we love others the way he loved everyone during his life?” and “Do we extend to others the love that God has given us?” I hope that by highlighting the centrality of love in the gospel, I might help a few people better understand the meaning of discipleship. And by loving others more completely, I hope these few will help empower Christianity to be a greater force for good in the world, and not any more a benefactor of the evil of social injustice.
All morality is rooted in compassion; If not, it is not what it claims to be.
After speaking at length about the numerous spiritual gifts which Christians might seek, Paul announces: “I will show you a still more excellent way.” Or as another translation has it “the most excellent way.” Then, he launches into his now famous treatise on love. The whole chapter is marvelous, but I will focus on just these first three verses:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
All of these virtues and beautiful heavenly gifts and divine manifestations and sacrifices are reduced to utter insignificance, when compared with the supreme importance of love. While everything else fails, Paul assures us, “Love never ends.” Love is the one thing we can truly on. What a profound statement about the gospel and discipleship! “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” For most Christians, the most important thing is that we accept Jesus. This acceptance constitutes an expression of faith. And faith is “abiding” and important to Paul, but love ranks even higher. If without love “I am nothing.” Then, in some sense, LOVE IS EVERYTHING. So, Paul concludes his comments on the subject: “Follow the way of love.”
-1 Corinthians 12:31; 13: 1-3, 8, 13; 14:1
In each of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) Jesus affirms that to love God and neighbor are the most important commandments. I’ll begin by quoting Matthew, and then I’ll layer on the additional meanings which Mark and Luke each contribute:
One of (the Pharisees), an expert in the law (essentially a Hebrew Bible scholar), tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
In Mark, Jesus concludes his summary of the two great commandments saying, ”There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scholar emphatically agrees with Jesus, noting, “This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And to this, Jesus replies by bestowing on him quite an honor, saying, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
In Luke, the scholar asks Jesus not only ‘which commandment is most important,’ but rather, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus does not originate the great couplet in Luke, but instead turns the question back on his questioner. The unnamed scholar then recites the same Hebrew scriptures that we find Jesus quoting in Matthew and Mark which require the righteous to love God and neighbor (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). Jesus approves wholeheartedly, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live (gain eternal life).” If asked the same question, most evangelical Christians would say something about the necessity of believing in Jesus. I would like us to speak more of the necessity of loving our neighbors.
You can read all three accounts side by side by following this link.
The account in Luke is also significant because as part of this same conversation, Jesus gives the parable of the Good Samaritan as prompted by the scholar’s question “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29-37). Found only in Luke, it is certainly worth reading and pondering. With this parable, Jesus illustrates the folly of assuming that anyone (or any group) is more deserving of love than another person (or group). For brevity’s sake, I will not examine it further here, but you can read it in full at this page.
From these three accounts the reader can discover several incredible things about Jesus’ gospel and the meaning of discipleship. No other commandment is more important than love (See all, especially Mark). All of the scriptures “hang” on love (see Matthew). Loving your neighbor is like loving God (Matthew, more about this in a moment). Love is more important than ritual devotion to God (see Mark). Those who understand the importance of love are “not far” from God’s kingdom (see Mark). Love is what is required to gain “eternal life” (see Luke). Disciples are required to love everyone. No exceptions (see Luke).
I have heard some Christians criticize those they view as ‘putting the second commandment before the first.’ The sad irony is, they are taking a scripture which is meant to elevate the status of love and interpreting it in a way that discourages love. It’s not that they have a problem with love per se. They just don’t want it to get in the way of their preferred cause. Their interest in advancing some particular religious or political view is top priority. For them, love is a misguided nuisance, along with its sister empathy. For example, some Christians don’t want people to love the poor so much that they support government welfare programs. Or they don’t want people to love homosexuals so much that it might seem as if we stopped judging and condemning them (as some think we should). These are the issues that were being discussed when I heard this ‘putting the second commandment before the first’ argument anyway. According to these absurd lines of argumentation, loving your neighbor may be shamefully at odds with loving God; but judging your gay neighbor and fighting against welfare are commendable and superior expressions of love for God.
I think it is rather telling that they would target humane love itself, rather than simply targeting the government program or whatever. Couldn’t they make an argument about the ineffectiveness of a particular program without speaking scornfully about love? Couldn’t they agree that we are to love and care for all people, and then just go on advocating some presumably more effective alternative to the program in question? They could try, and some do approach it this way. But many have instead chosen to take issue with love itself, perpetuate negative (generally false) stereotypes about the poor, and rail against “bleeding-heart” liberals. In leveling an accusation like “putting the second commandment before the first” they separate the “love thy neighbor” portion of the couplet from the “love God” portion and then they place compassion on a lower moral standing than ritual devotion to God. This is the opposite of what Jesus and the other Hebrew prophets are doing (see scriptures linked here).
Jesus only spoke of the second commandment together with, and on par with, the first. He said, “the second is like it (the first),” “there is no other commandment greater than THESE,” and “all the law… hangs on THESE TWO commandments.” By separating the two, when the scriptures clearly suggest that they are closely interconnected, people lose the whole spirit of these verses; and they reveal a serious deficiency in their understanding of a central aspect of the gospel. They make “the word of God of no effect” with such an interpretation. It is a clever sounding argument. I’ll give them that. But I can’t help but recall Jesus’ backhanded compliment to the Pharisees, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7: 9, 13)
The interconnectedness of love for God and neighbor are described even more explicitly later in the New Testament. To ensure that this article is brief, I’ll limit the remainder of my biblical case for love to just a couple more scriptures.
The Letter of 1 John is about as direct as anyone could ever hope for:
Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness… and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.
-1 John 2: 9, 11
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
-1 John 4: 7-8
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
-1 John 4: 19-21
With John’s letter in mind, it is hardly possible to ‘put the second commandment before the first.’ We love God in essentially two ways. One, we experience divine love. And two, that divine love empowers us to love one other more fully. When we show that love by kind words and deeds, we are actually loving and serving God. You can’t genuinely love God if you don’t care for your neighbor. Likewise, you can’t keep the second commandment without automatically, perhaps even accidentally, fulfilling the first.
In his parable of “the sheep and the goats” or “the judgment of the nations” Jesus described this scenario perfectly. To get the full picture, you should read the full story in Matthew 25: 31-46:
Jesus taught that “the Son of Man” or “the King” will separate the people of the world “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” with the sheep on his right and the goats on his left:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ …
Here, in no uncertain terms, Jesus equates loving your neighbor with loving God. Loving and caring for others is the very thing that separates the sheep from the goats. If Jesus ever did draw a line in the sand, it is not drawn between Americans and foreigners, Democrats and Republicans, immigrants and native-born residents, straight people and LGBTQ. It is not even drawn between Christians and Muslims, or between Christians and Atheists, or any other religious alternative. No, if anything, the line is drawn between those who are learning to love and those who refuse to do so. I think it is significant that the righteous ones in Jesus’ parable did not necessarily know they had been loving and serving God. They were so unpretentious that they asked, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” Perhaps it is better to do the right thing, without being pretentious; to be righteous, but not self-righteous; and to be holy, sure, but not “holier-than-thou.” It is conceivable that many of the “blessed” do not necessarily think of themselves as religious people, and that the more sanctimonious crowd will not immediately recognize their virtue.
If "God is love," as John says, then a compassionate atheist is closer to God than a callous or unsympathetic 'Christian.'
Many Christians have embraced these particular religious claims in part because they think they have found the one thing, or handful of things, that makes them more ‘right’ than everybody else, and this can be quite a thrill to the ego. But none of these particular tenets captures the meaning of discipleship nearly as completely as love. If they are true principles, love encompasses them all. “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:10). For those who understand the gospel and the meaning of discipleship, love is not a generic, wishy-washy thing. Love is the whole point. Jesus himself spoke far less about himself than the New Testament authors did. He generally focused on healing people, improving their view of Deity, convincing the world of God’s love, and persuading them to love others more fully.
I would sum up the gospel as follows: Love God and Neighbor.
How do we love God? Let his love into your heart, and extend that same love to your neighbor (everyone).
How do I love my neighbor? Again, let divine love transform you; and meditate upon and consciously try to follow the Golden Rule.
What is the Golden Rule? In a word, Empathy. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
The Gospel is really quite simple. And yet, there are far too many Christians who apparently miss the point. By all means, cherish your Bibles and believe in Jesus; But most importantly, love your fellow human beings. It will be a blessing to you beyond your wildest dreams.
I don’t write to you as someone who has been particularly good at putting love first. I write as one with regrets about overzealous moments when I spoke or acted in ways that hurt someone’s feelings. Even more abundant are the regrettable moments when I entertained self-righteous thoughts and judgments. This is no way to keep going through life. I am not unsympathetic to the concerns that predominantly occupy Christian minds. I am a Christian. I grew up in a Christian household, going to a Christian Church. My opinions formed in this context, in much the same way that other Christians form their opinions. We are told that love is the first and great commandment, but we exist in a flawed human culture where we occasionally feel pressure to conform to expectations that aren’t necessarily in harmony with the principles of empathy and love. I write today to give you permission from God in heaven to love with all of your heart. It may seem at times that other religious concerns get in the way or make it difficult to love. Put love first anyway. “Follow after the way of love.” That is all you need to do. God will take care of the rest. In that moment when you realize you can trust in God’s love, and feel nothing but love for your fellow human beings, it will feel as if an incredible weight has been lifted from your shoulders. This liberating, enlightening, overwhelmingly joyful moment will give new depth and meaning to the call Jesus issued to his disciples. “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. For my yoke is easy and my burdens are light.”