01 February 2024

The Love of the Golden Rule

I think we conflate “love” into something resembling an emotional cudgel. My definition of “love thy neighbor” currently reads as the Golden Rule as my effort at self-preservation.

This is an interesting time when the concept of love is shifting and ill-defined. I thought I knew what it meant to love someone as God commands, but I am floundering in some unfamiliar territory. Recently, I have begun to reflect on my relationship with my “neighbors” and how the use of the term love might apply to such relationships.

As an example, some years ago, my daughter informed me that she would feel more authentic being a man. She knew that I adhere to biblical teachings on these things, so I thought I was being diplomatic in saying that I couldn't go to such places with her. I learned in the few subsequent interactions that this child allowed us to have that she rejected holy writ, no longer believed in my judeo-christian God (if she ever did), that I had always been an abusive father, and that my “misgendering” references were deeply offensive to her and evil-spirited. At the root of these attitudes was the revelation that my “sin” was that I did not really love this child, not only in her eyes, but in the eyes of many others, including those who I thought shared my religious stance. In a matter of five years of decent moral consistency, I went from being an upright family man to being a hateful trans-phobe, mostly over the shifting sands of “love”.

The commonly referenced commandments regarding love are here for your consideration:

Matthew 22

34 ¶ But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together.
35 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying,
36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

I have written on other occasions on what it means to love God, so I will only say that obedience to his commandments is how God recognizes one's love according to other scriptures. It seems pragmatic to me with no smiles or hugs or such - he likes those who obey.

Since these two commandments are so proximate to each other, I am prepared to say that the very short quip “love thy neighbor as thyself” meaningfully doesn't include “with all thy heart” or soul or mind. It looks like God wants to reserve this sort of multi-faceted and “all”-consuming love to himself, to the exclusion of all others. To put love of anyone on a equal footing to your devotion to God, much less before it, would constitute a sin, for the mass of believers that seem practically ready to elevate spouse or child or random stranger above God. I only bring this up so that we don't seek to project our demanded love of God onto others.

In reference to the example of my daughter above, I put my “love the Lord thy God” above the love for my child. It seems that is unacceptable for most, who would tell us to jettison a belief in (much less obedience to) God any time it might jeopardize my child's selfish desire of all-embracing love toward them - “Love me more than God or you don't really love me, so you are a terrible father.”

So, how should we show love for our neighbors that is consistent with Christ's command?

The fragment “as thyself” isn't very useful at first blush. My first thought is that we should be humble, as opposed to the more current self-loving narcissism that we see on such flagrant display in social media and increasingly everywhere else. It would seem nearly impossible to love others the same as the modern person loves themselves, often to the exclusion of all else. Needed self-sacrifice is a dirty word these days, but this love for neighbor seems to require at least putting others on equal footing with ourselves.

I choose to add the following verse to the fray, something you may have read before as “the golden rule”:

Matthew 7

12 Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.

As “the law and the prophets” are mentioned in both references, it seems that the Lord is talking about basically the same thing. If we want a standard by which we put ourselves and others on the same status, it works very well that one will do to a neighbor the same things that we would want done to us - kindness and consideration.

I recall to myself that this is not an expectation for particularly good treatment from others. This is not “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” sort of “I'll do to you what you did to me” turn-about. The Lord's statement isn't a call for social reciprocity - one must treat the neighbor well, likely better than you would treat yourself if you are anything close to as self-effacing as I can be.

At the end of the day, the Lord's desire in “love thy neighbor” seems to be to treat everyone well, which doesn't match up with a modern definition of love that often wants the lion's-share for oneself. In a world of demands and “fairness”, Christ demands that we put God and his interests first and others ahead of ourselves with a humility that many folks choose not to have.