For centuries, Christians have been encouraged to love their neighbors as themselves. The command originated in Leviticus 19, but was made popular by Jesus in Matthew 22 when he gives what is sometimes referred to as the Jesus Creed; to love God and to love others. Since that time, people have tried to define exactly who is my neighbor. Jesus’s example in Luke 10, with the parable of the Good Samaritan, helps to define neighbor as anyone we see who is in need. Others have written books and articles in an effort to define the term in an understandable way. While these works are helpful, perhaps a new question should be asked. Not simply who is my neighbor, but what does it mean to love my neighbor?
Love is a tricky word to define because we use it so often. Love is used to describe our affections for various things, from our spouse to our favorite candy bar. Scholars will go into long diatribes about the different Greek words used for love and how each one has various nuances, but those discussions can admittedly get confusing at times. Sometimes we define love by what it is not: it is not hating enemies, it is not ignoring those in need, it is not being self-focused. Or, we use passages of scripture like 1 Corinthians 13 (love is patient, love is kind…) to define the word for us. All the time trying to discover what exactly my role is toward my neighbor.
Perhaps an understanding of blessing might help. When God calls Abraham in Genesis 12, God promises to bless Abraham and to use Abraham as a blessing. God’s blessing upon Abraham is to make his name great, to make him wealthy, to give him land, and to provide descendents. Abraham’s blessing on the nations is slightly different. While it includes the eventual gift of Jesus as the Messiah, it also includes the way Abraham is to treat and act toward anyone he comes into contact with. Abraham is to bless others in the same way God has blessed him. That doesn’t necessarily mean giving everyone money and land, but it does mean that Abraham needs to help provide what is needed for others to flourish.
Richard Bauckham in his book Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Age defines blessing as “God’s characteristically generous and abundant giving of all good to [God’s] creatures and [God’s] continual renewal of abundant life. Blessing is God’s provision for human flourishing.” Bauckham will go on to speak of how blessing in the biblical sense is relational. Blessing helps to bind individuals together. As one provides gifts leading to human flourishing to another it binds those two parties together allowing relationship to take place. To bless one in scripture helps to provide what is needed for abundant life. It’s more than just serving someone else or providing for a monetary or physical need. It is sacrificing of oneself so that others can reach their full potential.
Using this notion of blessing to help define love changes how we often interpret what it means to love our neighbors. In this sense, loving your neighbors is more than just not hating them or considering them equal. To love your neighbor means to help provide them with what is needed to have abundant life; for life to flourish. This means we may need to reconsider how we love our neighbors. While there may be nothing wrong with how we typically love, there may be a deeper level we are called to engage with them. For instance, consider how we love those who are hungry. Typically, we give them a box of food or buy them a hamburger at McDonald’s. While it is good to provide them with a meal, it may not actually lead to abundant life. Loving them in a way that leads to blessing will mean that we have to get involved in their lives in a way to help them reach a point where they no longer need to ask for food. It means that our love for others must reach a deeper level. We must be willing to commit to the long process of helping others improve their lives so that they can flourish. Obviously, we can not force people to improve their lives, but we must be willing to try.
As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors. This is a life commitment, a commitment to join the work of God in being a blessing to others. It is not a simple task, but it will have eternal rewards.