The law of love

Anyone who attracts a large enough following will sooner or later have detractors and critics. On one level, the criticisms may be focused on ideological differences. It may even look like a polite debate or reasoned discussion. But on a deeper level, other motives may be at work, like resentment, jealousy, and a wish to prove oneself better, smarter, and more deserving of attention and adulation.

Something similar can be said about the opponents of Jesus. The debates were never simply about theology or the right interpretation of Scripture: they were about power, status, and significance. Those who were used to being touted as religious authorities felt undermined by him and his teaching, and especially by the way he so calmly won every debate.

In Luke 10, for example, an expert in Jewish law tried to trick Jesus into saying something he could use to damage his reputation. “Teacher,” he said, feigning respect, “what must I do to gain eternal life?” The man may have thought Jesus would start waxing eloquent and, with his defenses down, say something controversial. But Jesus seemed to see past the ruse, and turned the question back on him: “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?” It was as if to say, You’re supposed to be the expert here. How would you answer the question?

The legal expert gave the right answer, citing both Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18: Love God with everything in you, and love your neighbor as yourself. It’s the answer Jesus himself might have given, if the question had been an honest one (cf. Matt 22:34-40).

Good answer, Jesus replied. Now go do it.

The man had been hoisted with his own rhetorical petard, and scrambled to regain his footing. Leaving aside the first great commandment to love God, he leaned into the second great commandment and the potential controversy that came with it. “And who is my neighbor?” he asked, possibly with an air of smugness. Go ahead, Jesus, answer the question. I’ve got you now.

Again Jesus sidestepped the ruse. Instead of answering the question, he told a story, one meant to get under the theological skin of his hearers. We know the story as the parable of the Good Samaritan.

You know the parable. A man (presumably a Jew) making the dangerous journey from Jerusalem to Jericho is attacked, stripped, and left for dead. A priest and a Levite happen by, but don’t offer any help; they cross to the other side of the road and go their way. But Jesus makes a Samaritan — whom the legal expert would have considered to be a detestable enemy — the hero of the story. The Samaritan sees the the wounded stranger, and at great risk and expense to himself, cares for him.

The legal expert had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Having told the story, Jesus answers his question with one of his own, “Which of the three men was a neighbor to the one in need?”

Again, the lawyer gave the right answer: “The one who showed mercy.”

And again, Jesus replied, Right you are; now go do it.

. . .

What Jesus calls the second greatest commandment (Matt 22:39) — Love your neighbor as yourself — the apostle James calls “the royal law” (James 2:8). The wording suggests a law handed down by a king; James seems to want us to think of Jesus as king, teaching his followers the nature of the kingdom. And as we’ve seen, James invokes this royal law in response to the way believers are giving preferential treatment to the ostentatiously rich people who come into their religious gatherings.

The priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable had acted as if the needy and dying man didn’t exist; the believers to whom James wrote were treating the poor as invisible. The Samaritan was the one who fulfilled the commandment to love his neighbor as himself, without having to know anything about the stranger other than his need. But in their favoritism toward the rich, the believers to whom James wrote were making social distinctions that failed at love and mercy.

In some ways, this was understandable. Jesus himself knew that the people had been taught to think that the commandment to love one’s neighbor had a necessary flip side: hate your enemy (Matt 5:43). But he taught the opposite: Love your enemies, because that’s what your Father would do (Matt 5:44-48).

It is human nature to draw social distinctions, and not all such distinctions are intrinsically bad. The question is what we do with them. Are those distinctions attached to value judgments? Do we use them to decide who is worthy of our attention and admiration and who is not?

In so doing, James says we have become “evil-minded judges” (2:4, CEB); the distinctions aren’t neutral, but stem from a disordered desire to raise our own social standing. We violate the royal law of love, the law Jesus taught, the law Jesus fulfilled.

Such is James’ challenge to his readers, to us: How can you claim to have faith in Jesus, and yet treat the poor so shabbily? For that matter, how can we dismiss anyone — even those we consider to be enemies — as unworthy of love and mercy? His words are stark: “There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy” (James 2:13a).

Yikes. But here, too, he echoes the teaching of Jesus, as we’ll explore in the next post.