When challenged by a legal expert about what was most important about the Law, Jesus famously answered: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind … and love your neighbour as yourself” (Mt 22.37-39). It’s a wonderfully simple response. But this simplicity is deceptive. For even in its simplicity, it is a Mystery; that is, the closer we examine it, the more depth we see there is. (Remember that in theology a Mystery is not a puzzle to be solved, but an inexhaustible truth.)
On the whole, Christians could use more of Mystery, particularly when we approach our scriptures. Somehow, over the centuries, as questions of orthodoxy — and after the Reformation, specifically biblical orthodoxy — came to be more important, much of the Christian tradition seems to have lost its sense of curiosity and wonder as it approached its scriptures, questioning the meaning of every word and parsing every participle and preposition in the search for a certainty of interpretation that is well beyond what can be expected from human language. This is a far cry from the Jewish approach, which delights in the possibilities of ambiguity and understands the scriptures as a burning bush — alive with meaning but never exhausted. We would do well to regain this sense of wonder and humility.
Take for example the two simple words “as yourself” (ὡς σεαυτόν) from Jesus’ summary of the Law. How do we interpret them? “As” is about as ambiguous a word as there is in English. It signifies a comparison, but what kind of comparison? Turning to the Greek doesn’t help, as it’s just as ambiguous as the English. (Note that the clause you just read contains the word ‘as’ three times.) As much as proponents of one interpretation or another may want to suggest otherwise, I’m not convinced it’s wise to cling to one possibility and reject the others without good cause. Sometimes ambiguity can add richness and depth to a passage, instead of confusing it, and we cut ourselves off from something good, true, and beautiful if we try to eliminate ambiguity instead of playing with it.
With this in mind, there are three interpretations of this phrase I’d like to meditate on today.
Love your neighbour as [you would love] yourself:
This reading interprets Jesus’ commandment through the lens of the Golden Rule: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you” (Mt 7.12). Like the Golden Rule, it assumes a certain degree of love of self: treating others as you want to be treated, or loving others as you want to be loved requires that you want to be treated well and believe that you are yourself deserving of love. This is the reading I was exposed to as a child, and it works well as a Sunday School lesson because it’s an exercise in empathy and perspective-taking. In its most basic application, it makes me ask the question of what my neighbour might want: If I want a cookie, maybe my neighbour wants a cookie too.
And so we are called to love our neighbour as we would want to be loved ourselves.
Love your neighbour as [you also love] yourself:
This reading interprets it as a double command, to love both your neighbour and your self. Unlike the first reading, it doesn’t make any assumptions about self-love and even suggests that love of self might be just as much of a stretch for some of us as love of neighbour. While perhaps less of a common interpretation historically, I think it’s helpful in the present, since there is an awful lot of self-loathing in our world.
The idea of love of self is controversial among Christians. After all, our scriptures have a lot to say about self-denial and don’t say much at all about self-love. Yet, something feels out of balance if we assert self-denial without also asserting self-love. We’ve all seen the damage such an imbalance can cause, and it bears nothing but bad fruit. One of my favorite theologians, Wilkie Au, offers a helpful way out of this difficulty, insisting that rather than being opposites, self-love and love-denial are complements, each completing and fulfilling the other. This is rooted in the theology of creation, which gives every person their own special dignity as created in the image and likeness of God. “Assent to God,” Au says, “begins with one’s assent to oneself.” In this, self-assent — self-love, self-kindness, self-compassion, self-acceptance — becomes “the psychological prerequisite for all other loves.” Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams sees these loves in a similar way: “Begin to see yourself as a gift, love it as a gift, from God’s hand, and [you will] learn how the neighbour too is a gift.” What this is saying is that love of self, far from leading to narcissism, is what allows us to truly love others. To quote Au again: “Acceptance allows the walls of self-defensiveness to crumble and permits the pentecostal winds of conversion to blow freely throughout the self.” And, “The movement beyond one’s self to others in self-transcending love first requires a healthy sense of self …. Because we cannot give what we do not have, self-donation presupposes self-possession.”
And so, we are called to love our neighbour, even as we are called to love ourselves.
Love your neighbor as [your very self]:
And yet, if self-love and self-denial are complementary, it is no surprise that the other shoe must drop. A third, and in our culture, most challenging, reading rejects the idea of the individual (let alone the Western ideal of the individual) outright, insisting instead on “our essential communion,” to use the words of Eastern Orthodox theologian Fr. Thomas Hopko. In this perspective, it is only by loving your neighbour that you can love yourself, because we only exist in relationship to one another. “There is no self there to be defended,” Hopko continues, “except the one that comes into existence by the act of love and self-emptying.” This is a very countercultural idea, and so it runs counter to the spirit of the previous interpretation, which is rooted in the problems and concerns of our culture.
As radical as it is, this interpretation is grounded in the Gospel, the good news that says the first will be last and the last will be first (Mt 19.30, Mk 10.31, Lk 13.10), that the poor and humble will inherit the Kingdom (Mt 5.3, Lk 6.20), that it is only in losing one’s life that one will find it (Mt 10.30, 16.25, Mk 8.35, Lk 9.24), and that God is most fully revealed in the act of self-emptying in love (Phil 2.6-8).
While Hopko certainly affirms the fundamental goodness and dignity of every human person, for him true personhood presupposes relationship. In a real way, our self depends on our neighbour.
And so, we are called to love our neighbour as our very self.
And so from these two simple words, we have three very different interpretations of what it is we are called to do and why. And yet each is true. We must love our neighbour out of empathy. We must love ourselves so that we can love our neighbour healthily and without neurosis or pathology. And yet paradoxically, we must also love our neighbour so that we might find our self in them.
This is a great Mystery. Thankfully, in the face of Mystery we can simply affirm the simple words of Jesus: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
[Works cited: By Way of the Heart, Resurrection, “Living as Communion” (in The Inner Journey: Views from the Christian Tradition)]