On Loving Our Neighbors As Ourselves

Adapted by the author from a sermon given by him in an Episcopal Church

On Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves 

I have a confession to make.  I seriously doubt that I am anywhere as good a person as I would like to be.
We all know that moment in the service where we say the confession of sins.  Within it, we admit to a most merciful God that
 “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves”.
Why these particular words?   In Mark, Chapter 12, one of the teachers of the law asks Jesus, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” Jesus replies that, of the 613 commandments which, according to Jewish belief as told in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, God gave to man, the first is to “…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: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” When the teacher agrees, Jesus tells him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
The more I ponder this, the more I see that these two commandments cannot be separated from one another, that one is implicit in the other.  We’re told in Genesis that at the end of the sixth day, God looked at all he had created, and He saw that it was “very good”.  Not just the vast heights of the mountains, the rushing waters, the songs of birds, and the warmth of the sun.  But you and I and our families, and our friends,… and the liberal and the conservative, and the Republican and Democrat, and the Jew, and the Christian, and the Moslem, and the believer and the atheist, and black and white and Hispanic, and the rich and the poor, and the heterosexual and the homosexual…and all 7,028,955,304  or so people on this planet of ours… are all part of that “very good” creation as well!   And if we are to love God with our whole hearts then we have to find some way to love all of them.

Now, if you ask me, trying to love  7 billion people as much as yourself isn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world to do.   I have an aunt and uncle that I’m not all that crazy about.  Sometimes it’s hard enough just to tolerate the guy who lives in the house next to us!  Just think how many times we get angry at people just over the petty occurrences of every day life—like when another driver cuts us off at the corner, or when we’re trying to catch up on some work on the train while someone is yelling into their cell phone.  Certainly, I’d have to admit that if I take the commandment literarily, I fail.

So, why is it so important to keep on trying?

Just now, I used a lot of labels to define different types of people in dividing up those 7 billion: “you, me, liberal, conservative” and so on.  We all do that.  We create names for each other and ourselves; wrap people in various labels because we need to be able to differentiate our self from every one around us, or to define our commonality. But, the problem with labels is that they make it too easy to see that other person as nothing more than an object, not as a person, not as a creature of God.  We become more and more alienated from our fellows. So, we stop listening to each other.  If we stop listening to each other, we cannot begin to understand each other.  And without the attempt to understand, we cannot find compassion in our hearts. We cannot love.   And we become less human ourselves.

What is going on around us?  Genocide is occurring in the Sudan; terrible war brings atrocities to the people of Syria; the world is split by wars of ideology, a people, themselves having been victims of the horrors that can ensue when an entire people is known merely as a label, build a wall to protect themselves while shattering the lives of yet another people who’ve they themselves have put labels on on; millions starve in various parts of the world while others argue over abstract issues of morality or economics…And, who is right?  Who is wrong?  What good is even being right if you destroy yourself in the process?  Now, I don’t have the answer to these problems, but I tell you this: When children are being killed and the cries of weeping mothers remain unanswered in  vengeance on vengeance, blood upon blood:, on and on:   How can I say “I love my God”, if I turn away.  SOMETHING IS VERY WRONG!  There must be another way.

The world is wounded and we seem to not heal it, but only wound it and each other more and more. There must be another way for all of us.

In Genesis 18,  God comes to judge Sodom for its sin, and on the way, stops to visit Abraham.  And something incredible happens here.  Abraham, a mere human being, dares to question God’s sense of justice, to challenge God: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked. Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike.  Far be it from you!  Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”  And, God listens to the words of this mortal man and agrees!  He allows Abraham to force him to become more of what God is—for the source of justice and love must act with justice and love.  And Abraham haggles with God—bit-by-bit, Abraham bargains God down until He agrees that if just 10 righteous people can be found there, Sodom will be saved.  No one knows what the population of Sodom was, perhaps 500, perhaps a few thousand or so.  Let’s keep things simple and we’ll go with 1,000.  Just 10 people of good heart would have saved 1,000—that’s just 1% of the population.  That says something tremendously profound about the relative power of good and evil—that the nature of good is such that it takes only a little to ultimately triumph over evil.  And that’s something for old cynics like me to remember when we look at the world around us and we despair.  If you plant the seed, it will grow!

Now, if Abraham, as a human being, dared to challenge God to act justly, God in turn challenges us to do the same.   If we can attempt to see beyond the labels we put on each other, the artificial things that separate us from each other, we might begin to see that we are the same:  we cry, we laugh, we feel hunger, thirst, injustice, and we are all searching for meaning, we all ask “Why am I here? What is my purpose?”  We all seek the light of the divine in a world that is so often cruel, heartless and filled with darkness.    When Jesus taught us to pray to “Our Father who art in heaven”, he invited us to look on God as the heavenly Father of us all, not just the Judeans and Romans of his time, not just rich or poor, not just clean or unclean—all of us!  He defied all the methods we use to separate ourselves from each other to bring us together in this humble prayer where we are all one, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”.  “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”  

 We have to find the spark in ourselves where we can indeed love each other.  For it was God who pronounced us all “Good”.  Who among us can dare to say otherwise? 

 More and more, God reveals Himself in this world of ours—more and more, however slowly, the world grows into the Kingdom.  And this world will not be perfected until we are—until we become willing to truly acknowledge that each person and each creature on this earth is intrinsically valuable and equal, brothers and sisters before God. 

And there is a fundamental question that I ask myself and I invite you to consider as well:  “What kind of world do I want help create? —One of Hope or Despair?  Of Love or Hate?”   I hope I am always proud of my answer.

So, if that confession of sin is not just words on paper, words recited by rote due to their very familiarity, but instead, if as I say that confession, I truly look inside myself as that moment, I am forced to see where I fail. If I want to be honest with myself, I have to admit I haven’t loved God with my whole heart,  because I have not truly loved my neighbor as myself.


But, God’s compassion and love never fail us. And I can look inside myself, admit my failure and repenting, resolve that I will do better in the week to come, and continue to make those words my goal, because God invites all of us to keep trying for that shining vision. “What kind of world do I want to help create?”  And there is the seed of the kingdom of God.  “The kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever. Amen” 


  (note: World population count from  US Census  Bureau estimate as of 11:50AM, EST, July 27, 2012.  You can find this on the Internet ayt http://www.census.gov/main/www/popclock.html).


(c) Copyright 2014       All Rights Reserved

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