In this week’s gospel reading from John, Jesus tells his disciples that he is giving them a new commandment: to love one another. Interestingly, the Golden Rule to love one’s neighbor as one’s self is not Jesus’ invention. In Leviticus 19:18, God tells the Israelites, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” So for centuries, Jewish people had been striving to follow God’s command to love the neighbor as the self. What, then, is new when Jesus tells his disciples to love one another?
What is new is Jesus himself. The next line in the gospel reading has Jesus saying, “As I have loved you, so also you should love.” In other words, Jesus’ life, his actions and teachings, is where we can look for clues as to what it truly means to love one another.
Think about what you know about Jesus–how he acted, what he taught, with whom he interacted, what seemed to be most important in his life. What does Jesus’ life teach us about what it means to love one another?
One thing that is new with Jesus is the emphasis Jesus puts on forgiveness. When Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive a brother or sister who sins against him, proposing seven times as a suitable answer, Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18: 21-22). The point is not that the seventy-eighth transgression is the final straw; rather, Jesus is trying to demonstrate that his followers are called to forgive to the point that it may seem ridiculous to those who do not believe in God’s forgiving love. Can you imagine forgiving someone seventy-seven times for doing the same wrong thing to you?
And Jesus did not just teach forgiveness. He lived it, too. Take Jesus’ relationship with Peter, as just one example. Peter falls asleep in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus is clearly in agony and asks Peter and the others to stay awake while he prays. Peter denies that he knows Jesus three times, directly after Jesus has been arrested and is facing trial for his life. Peter was not there when Jesus was crucified, and he did not aft first believe Mary Magdalene when she told him and the other disciples that Jesus had appeared to her post-resurrection. How would you feel if one of your closest friends abandoned you like this in your time of greatest need? Yet Jesus does not write Peter off or begin a smear campaign against him. Instead, he continues his relationship with him after his death, appearing to Peter and even commissioning him to go and baptize people and to spread the good news of the resurrection.
If we are to love one another as Jesus loves us, we are to practice extravagant forgiveness.
Another thing that is new with Jesus is that who counts as our neighbor gets expanded and changed. First, Jesus includes our enemies in the group of people who we are to love. Jesus points out that it is not hard to love those who love us or to greet those who are like us. Really, who does not do that? But followers of Jesus are called to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. And again, Jesus does not just talk about forgiveness but he also forgives. Even on the cross, Jesus prays that God will forgive those who have crucified them.
Second, Jesus asks us to think differently about who we are to love. In telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus demonstrates that our neighbor is anyone who needs our help. That is, our love should not only be motivated by who we love or who loves us. Rather, our love should also be motivated by the needs of others. So who is our neighbor? Our neighbor is the person in need, regardless of where that person lives, what religion that person believes in, what that person looks like… And not surprisingly, Jesus demonstrated this expansive definition of the neighbor in his ministry. He healed lepers and those possessed by demons, people who would have been kept on the margins of society. He dined with tax collectors and included women in his followers, more people who would have been on the margins of society. Jesus spent time with those who needed his love and healing the most.
If we are to love as Jesus loves, we are to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and help those in need, regardless of their differences.
Think about Jesus’ command to love one another again. Who in your life needs to be forgiven? Who seems to be against you who could use your prayers? Who in your world is in need? How can you show love for this person? Write down one way that you can love as Jesus loves this week.