A friend asked me what it means to love thy neighbor.
She is a librarian, and let me begin by saying that I love librarians; sitting above me now is my painting of Hypatia of Alexandria. Librarians are guardians of civilization and this role will not diminish regardless of how many gigabytes can dance on the head of a googlecloud; no AI can replace the capability of a human mind to process and cata-organize information. Most importantly, no AI can replace the conscience of a librarian; this is why tyrants loathe and fear librarians at least as much as they do teachers, artists, authors, actors and scientists.
For the most part, Jesus taught in parables, but when we are told to love our neighbor as ourselves the message is a direct commandment that brooks no argument; nor does it exist in a vacuum. It was not just something that popped out of His mouth after a day of fishing with the boys. He was in Jerusalem on Holy Tuesday where He was teaching in the Temple to the crowd; He begins with the Parable of the Wicked Tenants which is a warning to the Priests and Elders who are watching and clearly want to have Him arrested on the spot but they are afraid of the crowd and so they leave and send the Pharisees and Herodians to argue with Him in the hope that they can trip Him up in front of the crowd. They fail by instead setting Him up for the ‘Render unto Caesar’ line that leaves them ‘amazed’. Then the Sadducees try to get metaphysical by asking about how many husbands a resurrected woman could have but He informs them that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses is the God of the living, not the dead, and that they are gravely mistaken in their thinking.
I like to think of the scribe in the story as a Temple librarian who saw how well Jesus was answering all of these challenges and simply asks Him what is the most important commandment. To this Jesus answers the first commandment is to love God and His exact phrase is a perfect merge of passages from Deuteronomy and Leviticus; then Jesus adds a second commandment of His own which is to love our neighbors as ourselves. This revolutionary synthesis so impressed the scribe that he not only agreed on the first point but said that the second one was more important than any sacrifices or burnt offerings; Jesus told the scribe that he was getting close to the Kingdom of God. After that, there were no more questions. His admonition for us to love our neighbors was in every sense the summation and distillation of His message.
I think that was the moment when Jesus sealed His doom with the Priests and Elders; even though they would charge Him with breaking the Sabbath it was when the scribe agreed that loving each other was more important than making burnt sacrifices that was completely unacceptable to them. Loving thy neighbor remains the most radical and difficult aspect of Christianity for Christians to face; consider how LGBT people are treated by contemporary Christians or how so many of the righteous in Missouri cheered on the police in Ferguson. Think of how all of the people with Jesus bumper stickers feel about people with ebola or children from Guatemala showing up at our borders. Wonder at how many Christians embrace Ayn Rand’s exhortations to selfishness or decry feeding the hungry or healing the sick. Jesus Christ was tortured to death because He could convincingly argue that we should all love each other; today Christians make torturous arguments to find ways to convince themselves that Jesus wasn’t really that serious about it.
I’ve put this together piecemeal over the past week, adding a sentence here and rewriting another there; I think about this commandment often and am challenged by it every day. For example, when I see the people who call themselves Christians act more like Pharisees and Romans than anything else it is difficult to love them. It is difficult to love the KKK and the other racists that are threatening the people of Ferguson. It is difficult to love people who are cruel to children and impatient with the handicapped. It is difficult to love selfish people. It is difficult to love stubborn and willfully ignorant people who would rather shout and shove than listen and think. It is difficult to love people who want others dead because they don’t like who they love. It is difficult to love people who would value their own fevered egos over the wisdom and compassion of the greatest teachers humanity has known; however, it is those teachers who demand that we find the wisdom and compassion that will allow us to love these most unlovable people around us.