In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus teaches us,
(NIV) "37 … 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
This has sometimes been called the "Shamah".
From time to time, I like to discuss religion and other related topics with a hard-core atheist beatnik named Michael who likes to prowl Old Town Pasadena. One day we were discussing the Shamah, and Michael said that he thought that the verse concerning loving one's neighbor as oneself allowed for a narcissistic interpretation. He asked about the child molester who interprets the verse as a license to pleasure a child as he pleasures himself.
Michael's critique is ridiculous, but it raises interesting questions about the verse that I want to explore. The passage is based on the premise that we all, on some level, pursue our own self-interest with all of our heart soul mind and strength, and we all know it. Since the passage begins with the command to love God, I want to examine the command to love God from the perspective of our self-interest, which will bring light to what the passage means when it commands us to love ones neighbor as oneself. As I will attempt to explain, there are many facets of what it means to operate with the force of “all our heart, soul, mind and strength”.
We are to operate in an enlightened self-interest with respect to God, pursing God with all of heart, soul, mind and strength. It is casting our full self-interest onto God, giving him final authority, that we succeed in loving God and placing faith in him. We naturally pursue our own self-interest as we perceive it with a forceful investment of heart, soul, mind, cunning and strength. It takes an exceedingly extra application of our resources to consciously redirect those onto God in a relationship with Him, and it is this conscious redirection of our self-interest away from our attempts at Godless self-management that will take all of our heart soul mind and strength. It is when we succeed in connecting to God that we will actually operate in what is truly our self interest in the long run – thereby advancing our enlightened self-interest.
Now, in examining “Love your neighbor as yourself”. There is an aspect of this that is patently obvious – we all pursue our self interest with great force, whether we are doing it in a Godly way or not. The verse is intended to help us call attention to what we all know that we do and is calling us to invest the exceedingly greater investment of our resources to pursue the self-interest of others with the same degree of force that we apply to the advancement of our own self-interest. It is intended to jar us out of our self-evident selfishness.
Now if you only read the second verse and did not place it hierarchically under the first and did properly contextualize it with the rest of Scripture, you could twist it into pursing the ungodly self-interest of others with the same force as you pursue it for yourself. If you were really perverted, you could twist it even further into conflating pleasure with self-interest and therefore should please others as you do yourself. And if you were really, really perverted, you could twist it even further into the idea that you were being called to give other’s pleasure in the same manner that you give yourself pleasure – and on your terms. Needless to say, you would need to twist the verse quite a bit to use it to justify child molestation.
So lets untwist the verse to what it really means, placing it properly in hierarchy under the first – it means to pursue the Godly self-interest of others with the same force that you pursue your own Godly self-interest, employing all of your heart, soul, mind and strength in the endeavor. Now there is another pitfall in understanding the Shamah – far more subtle that the molester ---- one that Christians are more prone to fall into. It is the idea that the particular thread of God’s ministry to oneself is necessarily the exact same thread of ministry that God has intended for another person.
With this fallacy, one interprets the second half of the Shamah that we are to pursue the Godly self-interest of others employing the same ministry strategies, ideas, vocabulary, timing that were successful in our own discipleship. In fact, there is a great gap that we must cross to get from advancing our own Godly self-interest to advancing the Godly self-interest of another person with the same force and effectiveness. We must come out from the poverty in our understanding of another person, understanding that particular person's unique background, experiences and needs – and seeking to unravel the mystery of what God’s doing in that person – and in the culture/cultures that they belong to. It is overcoming this poverty of understanding that the Shamah places an often overlooked claim on our resources --- we are to love our neighbor with all of our heart soul mind and strength. Specifically, we are to employ the full force of our resources to understand and participate in God’s unique thread of ministry to that person and to the environment that person is operating in.