“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
So wrote Paul in his letter to the Romans as he summed up what it meant to be a follower of Jesus, not for those ancient Romans only, but for us also. So simple, and yet so hard. Even Paul struggled with it.
Loving one another has been a problem for a long time. We’re not good at it. In our day, love has come to mean something warm, fuzzy,, affectionate, romantic, and intimate, so it’s hard to imagine what Jesus meant when he commanded his followers to love others as he loved them. Emotion had little to do with it. Words and actions dictated what he meant. The gospel narratives describe them in some detail, and it’s from them that we can learn how to love others whom we don’t want to love; good grief, it’s not all that comfortable. Breaking down personal and social barriers that have worked so well to protect us from the contagion of undesirable others requires more, harder work than many of us are willing to undertake. Engaging in the work of healing and reconciliation that goes beyond the norms of every day life is even harder, especially when it involves the lives of people we think don’t deserve healing and with whom we don’t desire any reconciliation. Worse yet, when we are the ones in need of healing and reconciling love, how can we attend to others? It’s easier just to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, and let it go at that, content that we (almost) never commit adultery, steal, murder, or covet. That should be enough, right?
It isn’t. It’s contentment we can’t claim because we do commit adultery, steal, murder, and covet. Adultery, for instance, is only partly about sex. It has a lot more to do with corrupting the integrity of any relationship. That means between friends, coworkers, casual acquaintances, and entire classes of others we don’t even know. It’s something we do with great regularity through gossip, snap judgments, prejudice, and the simply hurtful things we say about others and to others. We steal whenever we assume the right to use something, or somebody, that we have no right to use. Maybe it’s as trivial as pencils from the office supply cabinet, unintentionally of course. More likely it’s more serious, such as stealing a person’s good name, running red lights, driving under the influence, running up credit card debt with no way to repay, cheating on taxes. You can probably add a few more to the list. We even commit murder, maybe not by killing the whole person, but by killing a little bit of a person with our cruel words, determination to get revenge, selfish works, and the host of things we do to others that, in the words of a friend, “feel like a knife thrust into my gut.” That’s murder by inches and pounds of flesh.
It turns out that we can’t rest contended that we’re good people, while others aren’t, or at least not as good as us. We can’t duck being held accountable for our own actions in a society where mutual accountability to each other is highly valued. We are not excused from making judgments, provided they are provisionally made in the spirit of humility. But in all of these things, we are first and always accountable to God for loving others as Jesus has loved us. Where are we to start?
“Love does no wrong to a neighbor. “ Love begins through becoming more aware of how easily we harm our neighbors, adjusting our behavior to stop it, as best we can, and moving from there into the hard work of healing and reconciliation. We’re not very good at it, but there is no alternative, if we intend to follow Jesus.