“Jesus answered [the scribe’s question about which commandment is the first of all with these words], ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’” (Mark 12:29-31, NRSV)
“[Paul said,] ‘For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”’” (Galatians 5:14, NRSV)
Jesus and the apostle Paul agree that the distinguishing trait for anyone who identifies as Christian is the person’s love for their neighbor. If we have no love for our neighbor, it’s hard to justify that we’re Christian.
Jesus defined the term “neighbor” in Luke’s gospel during his interaction with a lawyer who was looking for a congratulatory pat on the back for what he believed was his superior righteousness (see Luke 10:25-37). He asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, fully expecting Jesus to say he was already well on his way toward an eternity in heaven. Instead, Jesus asked the lawyer to tell him what the law of God said? He was a good Jew, so he knew to recite the Shema from the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), and to include part of Leviticus 19:18, just like Jesus did in Mark’s gospel:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27, NRSV)
Jesus tells the lawyer he nailed it. Now all that is required is to live out those two commandments, and eternal life is his. The lawyer asks for clarification about the second part that includes loving your neighbor as yourself. Who qualifies as his neighbor? Here’s a clue about his motivation: If we need clarification about who our neighbor is, it’s because we have someone in mind that we don’t want to be our neighbor. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have any concerns about who qualifies as our neighbor!
Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with the Good Samaritan parable, highlighting the role of a Samaritan in demonstrating compassion. The Jews despised Samaritans. Then he asks the lawyer to identify the neighbor in the story. The lawyer admitted the Samaritan was the most neighborly, but he couldn’t say, “the Samaritan,” so he said, “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus’ point is this: Everyone is our neighbor, and we must love everyone as we love ourselves—even if we despise them.
God’s point is always about love. And when we get good at loving our neighbor as ourselves, then the Kingdom of God will come to earth, and nothing can stop the power of love.