“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Matthew 22:39
This text is part of the Lord’s answer to the question, “Which is the great commandment of the law?” It is recorded that the question was asked not for information but to tempt the Lord. Today people are prone to tempt the truth by trying to extort from the Word an answer to their questions that will enable them to evade the force of its injunctions.
The answer which the Lord gave settled once and for all the question as to the fundamental principles of religion. Love to God and to man are the sum of all revelation and the essence of all religion. They are the vital principles on which all else depends, and from which they draw their life. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Love to God is to be manifested in love to man. To love God is to love the attributes which constitute His nature. We love God when we love His goodness; and to speak truth from Him is to love His truth. To have respect to God in all that we love, think, and do is to love the Lord with all the heart, and with all the mind, and with all the strength.
All the commandments and precepts of the Word were given to meet our eternal needs. We are prone to make a separation between our temporal and our eternal interests. But we should realize that our interests in this world and our duty to the Lord should never be at variance, for the Lord created the world solely as a place of preparation for heaven.
There is not one set of laws for life in this world and another set of laws for life in heaven. Our real interests can never be promoted by what is contrary to the Divine laws of order. To think that the true interests of an individual can ever be opposed to the interests of others is a fallacy. The common interests of humanity as a whole are the interests of every individual. Our own personal interest cannot be inconsistent with that of our neighbor, nor can our duty to ourselves be opposed to our duty to him.
The Divine law which commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves cannot be opposed to our individual interests. It can be opposed only to our selfish inclinations and to false views of what our interests really are.
If the two great commandments were universally observed, a great change would take place in the world. If men loved each other as themselves, there would be neither war, crime, nor strife; and if men came into the Divine order, there would be neither pestilence nor famine, and the world would become an image of heaven.
Love to the neighbor has two distinct parts. The first is that we do no evil to the neighbor and the other is that we do good to him. When we cease from doing evil, we destroy in ourselves the evils of love of self and love of the world, the roots of all evil. “Cease to do evil, learn to do well.” Ceasing to do evil is the negative side; doing well is the positive.
Society is organized on the basis of cooperation. For this purpose institutions are formed for doing work in the world. Institutions are nothing but colossal men. They are great aggregations of humanity for the doing of those universal works which it is the interest not merely of this man or of that man but of every man to have done. Church institutions, state institutions present the workings of human nature on a large scale. Cooperative efforts are essential to the human life of today. It is by cooperative effort that barbarism and misery can be conquered and men made happy in service to one another.
Social life, too, is an example. We get pleasure in the company of our fellow men, we give pleasure by whatever contribution we can make, the wish to share with others all their gifts and ours. The impulse to social life helps to conquer selfishness; it makes men brothers and kills out self-conceit.
And then there is the field of learning. How many are engaged in this! The untiring pursuit of knowledge through the ages, the conquests that have been made over ignorance, and the vast number of people – teachers and pupils alike – who are today associated in the task of the advancement of knowledge stagger the imagination. And to meet present needs nations are seeing the necessity of pooling their knowledge.
But we are principally concerned with religion, for it is this which will determine the future of mankind. In the book of Revelation we read of the rider upon the white horse going forth conquering and to conquer. It is the Lord, from whom all things are and by whom alone all the evils that harass the world can be overcome.
The world is coming more and more into the state where everyone is a neighbor, and the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” is becoming more and more an imperative. It cannot be divorced from the first commandment, love to the Lord, for it is in love to the Lord that true love to the neighbor has its source. “As I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” The Lord came to redeem and to save all men. This teaches us that the neighbor includes the whole human race. Charity is in its essence universal in scope. But it must be made up of particular acts.
Charity begins in the home, and from the home extends in all directions. If there is no charity in the home, charity is destroyed in its beginnings. And charity or love to the neighbor has many facets. It has to do with our material welfare. It means that we should be faithful and industrious in our worldly occupations. Most of the distress that exists in society does not come from pure misfortune or hard luck. It comes from neglect of our tasks. But charity has a greater work to do than merely to provide for our worldly needs.
The greater work is to provide for our spiritual growth and welfare, that we may be qualified to do good to others. Our great work is that of regeneration – the removal of evil and falsity from the heart and mind and the implantation of good and truth in their place. By this means one acquires the power to love the neighbor and to be truly useful. One is then enabled to let his light shine before men in such a way that they see his good works and glorify his Father who is in heaven. Individual regeneration is the first requirement of charity.
All true affections are from the Lord. Our natural affection will, for example, lead us to do a kind of good to our own families, but there is little wisdom in it, and it may be selfish and lead to harm rather than to good in the end. Parents need to have the spiritual welfare of the family foremost in mind, for that is the end for which we were created.
When charity is established in the home, it can be extended to include the community and nation, and through them all mankind. The love of country is not inconsistent with the love of other nations nor with the love of the human race as a whole. Our country should be loved not as a means of gaining preeminence over other nations, but as a means of promoting the general welfare of all of its own inhabitants and the welfare of other nations as well.
The commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” applies finally and primarily to the church, for the church is our neighbor in a higher sense than any individual or any group. And our particular society of the church is where our spiritual activities and duties begin. It is here that our influence is greatest, where it is most needed, and where it is most effective for good. When we are faithful here, we are doing what is most useful to the welfare of the church as a whole.
The church is the great instrument through which peace on earth will be established by the Lord, and the mark by which all men are to know that we are disciples of the Lord is that we keep the commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”