“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Mark 12:31
Definitions are important. Who is my neighbor? What is it to love my neighbor? If we can make “neighbor” mean just a little set of people, our own set; and if we can define “love” to suit our own selfish notions, it will be comparatively easy to pray, “Lord, incline our hearts to keep this law.” But Scripture does not yield itself to our interpretation in this way. We cannot take its words, as the potter takes the clay, and mold them to suit our pleasure. Both neighbor and love are clearly defined in the Bible.
It once happened that a certain man asked Jesus who his neighbor was, and we have the answer in the parable of the Good Samaritan. A neighbor is anyone who is near us and is in any need, distress, or danger. He could be the worst man in the land, outlawed by his own sins — he is still our neighbor, the man the commandment bids us to love. We would be willing enough to love our neighbors, if we could choose them — but this we cannot do. We must let God choose the particular neighbor He wants us to love.
What is it to love our neighbor? It is the loving that is hard. We could do almost anything else, short of loving unpleasant neighbors.
But love is the word, and no revised version changes it. No matter how disagreeable, unlovely, unworthy, our neighbors for the time may be, still the commandment persistently and relentlessly says to us, “You shall love him.”
Our neighbors are about us all the time, needing our love. Indeed, they touch our lives so continually, that we must guard our every look, word, and act—lest we hurt some sensitive spirit.
Some people seem to forget that other people have feelings. They are constantly saying words and doing things which give pain. True love is thoughtful. We must train our hearts to never jokingly give pain to any other human being. Our neighbors have hearts, and we owe to every one of them—the beggar we meet on the street, the poor wretch we find crawling in the mire of sin’s debasement, the enemy who flings his insults in our face—to everyone, we owe the love that is thoughtful, gentle, and gives no hurt.
Our love ought also to be patient. Our neighbor may have his faults. But we are taught to bear with one another’s infirmities. If we knew the story of men’s lives, the hidden burdens they are often carrying for others, the unhealed wound in their heart—we would have most gentle patience with them. Life is hard for most people, certainly hard enough without our adding to its burdens.
“Your neighbor” is any man, woman, or child, of whatever character, condition, nation, or religion, whom God may place near you in need.
But there is an inner circle. There is a brotherhood in Christ that is closer still. We are to do good to all men, especially to those who are of the household of faith. That does not mean, merely one’s own particular church.
One who went up in a balloon said that as he arose, the fences that divided the country into fields and farms faded out, until soon he saw only one great, wide, beautiful landscape of meadow and field and forest, with winding stream and river, shining in rich loveliness beneath the pure skies. So it is, as we rise nearer to God in love and faith and Christian experience. The fences that divide God’s great church into ecclesiastical farms and pasture fields, grow smaller and smaller, until at last they vanish altogether; and we see only one wide, holy, Christlike church. All true Christians are one in Christ. Most differences of denominationalism are but of minor importance, in comparison with the love of Christ, the cross, the Bible, and heaven—which all true Christians have in common. We should learn to love one another as Christians; love soon breaks down the fences. We should comfort one another and help one another, on the way home.
J.R. Miller was a pastor and former editorial superintendent of the Presbyterian Board of Publication from 1880 to 1911. His works are now in the public domain.