In Leviticus 19 the people of Israel are told to make provision for the poor and alien through leaving the gleanings of the field for them to harvest. God’s people are told to not steal, not deceive one another, defraud or rob our neighbor. We are not to withhold wages, and we are strictly told not to take advantage of the handicapped: “Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind” (Leviticus 19:14). We are not to pervert justice, show partiality, or do anything that endangers another’s life.
God summarizes these commands in a single statement: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Here, buried in the midst of this series of commands, is what rises to be the second most important command in all of Scripture, inseparable from the first.
Jesus was asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” He replied, “Love the Lord your God with all you heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:37). But he did not stop there. He immediately added the quote from Leviticus 19, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:39-40).
While Scripture does not address every given situation in any place and time, Jesus does give us a twofold guiding ethical principle that can be applied in every situation. Love God with abandonment, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. That central principle is the very heart and soul of Scripture, so much so that all the rest of the Bible is said to orbit around it and be subordinate to it.
Jesus concurred with the statement that loving God with all your heart and loving your neighbor as yourself “is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33). The law required offerings and sacrifices. Yet God places the law of love even above obeying other important commands.
What does it mean to love our neighbor as yourself? It means to show the same care for others as we show for yourself. A husband is to love his wife as he loves his own body (Ephesians 5:28). How do we love our body? Not by looking in a mirror and admiring it. Nor by making public statements about how wonderful our body is. We simply feed and care for it (Ephesians 5:29). To love ourselves is to take actions for our self-preservation. Because we love ourselves we jump out of the way of a speeding car. If we love our neighbor as ourselves, we will also pull our neighbor out of the way of a speeding car.
James called this “the royal law” (James 2:8). It is the law that reigns over all laws. The golden rule is an extension of the same principle. It says, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). Do for others the same you would do for yourself in their circumstances, and do for others the same you wish them to do for you in the same circumstances.
When we focus on this overriding ethical imperative, seemingly complex dilemmas suddenly become much more clear. “Should I tell this person everything that’s really wrong with this car I’m trying to sell him?” The answer becomes a simple matter of “if I were buying a car from someone, would I want him to tell me everything that was wrong with it before I decided whether to buy it?” The answer is “of course,” and so the answer to my ethical dilemma is surprisingly simple. “Of course I should tell him what’s wrong with the car.” The question is no longer gray, but black and white. The law of love cuts through the fog and shows me the right action to take.
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Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.