You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. - Leviticus 19:18 (ESV)
We have arrived in this series at the second great commandment.
The commandment is first given in Leviticus 19:18. It is given in the context of prohibiting vengeance or grudges. How does this help us understand what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves?
It seems that there is an implicit assumption that we will not take vengeance on ourselves or bear grudges against ourselves. Why is that? When you take vengeance against someone like God promised to do for Cain and Lamech promised to do for himself, you are talking about attacking and punishing someone in retaliation for what they did to you. But it would make little sense to take vengeance on myself for wrongs done against me by me. At that point, I would be avenger, avenged, and offender all in one. It seems axiomatic that we would not treat ourselves that way.
Holding a grudge against someone is a term used for guarding, keeping, or saving against someone. The term "grudge" itself does not exist, so it is an interpretation. It would seem strange to us to hold a grudge against ourselves. We simply don't do that. Why? I suppose because the person holding a grudge requires another person against whom to hold a grudge. But if I am the one with the grudge against myself, how can I be the offender and the offended? It differs from Paul's admonition in 1 Corinthians 6 regarding sinning against one's own body, because there is a distinction between body and soul. But if I bear a grudge against myself, it is a hopeless contradiction. Therefore to love my neighbor as myself must be to treat a wrong done against me by my neighbor like I would a wrong done by me.
Is it not true that we are much quicker to offer ourselves grace than others? To whom do we show the most preferential treatment if not ourselves? Whose hurts are we most intent on healing if not our own? Whose fate and well-being interests us more than our own?
The command to love my neighbor as myself is as subtle and profound as it is simple. It is not simply a command to treat other people nicely. It is a command to consider our own faculties for sympathy, compassion, preoccupation, and devotion to ourselves with a view to summoning all and projecting that same onto others, especially with regard to their offenses against us. The command to love my neighbor as myself is a command to be far more prone to overlook slights against me than to hold the offender to account. The command to love my neighbor as myself is a command to cover a multitude of sins by the same motivation I desire the same for myself.
Proving to Be a Neighbor
We must bear in mind the interpretive power of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus says the man who took care of the victim despite ethnic differences proved to be the neighbor. Thus neighbor is determined not by an identity prior to action, but posterior to it.
And this seems to be the key to interpreting this pericope in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus does not say that the Samaritan is a neighbor; he says that the Samaritan proved to be the neighbor. Oddly enough, the Priest and the Levite of all people did not prove to be a neighbor to their fellow Jew. Instead, of all people, a Samaritan, a member of a people typically considered something like an enemy to the Jews, did.
We can learn from this that your identity relative to someone else prior to action toward them does not determine the status of your neighborship to them. Instead, your action toward them does. Being of the same nationality does not make you a good neighbor. Being of a certain social status does not make you a neighbor. How you act toward those around you determines whether or not you are a neighbor. Proximity does not make neighbors. Love in action does.
But we should also remark that Jesus changes the question in another way. He does not ask who loved his neighbor as himself, but who proved to be the neighbor. This seems to be a subtle reference to the fact that fellow Jews would have considered themselves neighbors by virtue of being Jews living in the same land. The priest and the Levite were fellow Jews who by definition were neighbors to the Jew who was attacked. But they didn't act like a neighbor. So Jesus seems to be making an interpretation of the command to love your neighbor as yourself rather than taking it on its face.
Jesus seems to be making the point that you are the neighbor to the people whom you love as yourself. He changes what it means to be a neighbor by expanding the definition to how you act toward others rather than by how you identify yourself relative to them prior to any interaction.
No Distinctions, No Exceptions
So what does this mean for those who want to know how to live for God through Christ by loving their neighbor as themselves? It means that we are not restricted to loving those whom we agree is our neighbor, but we love those to whom we prove to be a neighbor. There is no distinction to be made which would preclude us from loving any particular person on the basis of ethnicity or any other distinction.
Given the context in Leviticus 19, we can also learn the lesson that much of loving your neighbor can have to do with maintaining peace between each other by seeking to reconcile with each other as quickly as we reconcile with ourselves. So many of the emotions we experience toward other people - bitterness, jealousy, resentment, etc. - are hardly experienced toward ourselves. We naturally seek to place ourselves in the best position relative to others.
And I think this is key. Instead of a competition where we compete to place ourselves in a better position relative to others, we should seek to place others in a better position relative to us. This does not mean that we disparage ourselves, but it does mean that we seek to honor, reconcile with, and show affection to others in a way that lifts them up rather than seeks to tear them down.