by Megan Torgerson

The command to “love your neighbor as yourself” turns up just one time in the Old Testament. We find it buried deep in an eclectic list of instructions to (among other things) not mix fabrics, not consume blood, and not round off the hair on your temples. This might seem a strange place to put a commandment to love yourself and love your neighbor. Consider, however, that the people of God will be set apart, living a different lifestyle than that of the people around them. They would be marked by their worship of one God. The mark that God’s people would bear would be physical in nature, evidenced by the clothes they wore, the food they ate, and the style of their hair.

However, the mark is not merely on the surface. You can recognize God’s people by how they treat others.

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. Leviticus 19:18

In that same chapter, God tells Moses that the people must not harvest their entire crop. They should leave the edges unharvested so that those who are hungry, poor, or far from home can find something to eat. Lying, stealing, or not paying someone their wages on time is not permitted. You should not make a decision that favors the rich, but instead grants the greatest degree of justice. The actions of God’s people reflect a deep concern for the others, lived out in daily life.

Some of the stranger laws, like interbreeding herds or sowing multiple grains in one field, are harder to understand in our modern culture. But there is clearly a respect for integrity and singularity. God’s people will be set apart, in the purity of their garments and the purity of their actions.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus refers to these words from Leviticus when he is questioned by a lawyer who wants to put Jesus to the test. When the lawyer asks who exactly the neighbor that he must love is, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.

Samaritans were considered impure, second-class citizens by the Jews, so a Samaritan wouldn’t be expected to do anything good. However, he shows up the more upstanding folks like a priest and a Levite—the pastor and politician of their day. The message here is: Don’t think for a second that God wouldn’t call you to love someone you don’t like—or that someone who shouldn’t like you would give everything for you.

In order to give so fully of yourself, there needs to be enough of you. You need the appropriate balance of love and respect for yourself. When Paul recalls the command to love others as yourself in Romans chapter 13, he reminds us that all the commandments are summed up by loving others as you love yourself. When we steal, we love ourselves more than we love others by taking what we don’t deserve. When we covet, we love the things and lifestyles of others more than we love our own selves. When we murder, we love and value our own lives more than another’s. But when we take care of ourselves, making ourselves no more or less important than our neighbors, we are living out God’s command.

It is perhaps harder to see love of self as part of our call as Christians, especially since sacrificial love for others is the very foundation of our faith. It is Jesus’ full giving of himself in total self-sacrifice that forms and shapes our beliefs. Contemporary slogans like “What would Jesus do?” frame our personal theological reflections. While we must remember this and keep the great gift Christ gave us at the center of our faith, it can be taken too far.

Biblically, we have more examples of believers living out love for neighbor over love of self. Paul writes about becoming “all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:22), which is a pretty self-denying way to live. Because of these references, a faithful Christian might think it’s more important to recognize and live out the love of neighbor. But the scriptural command remains: As people who love God and follow Jesus, we must love ourselves as much as we love our neighbor.

Returning to the command to love in Leviticus, we cannot ignore that vengeance or bearing grudges are strictly prohibited. You may have heard the saying that the one who seeks revenge digs two graves. In other words, by immersing yourself in the destruction of another, you destroy yourself. Perhaps you have known this feeling. When we focus our energy on following our own purposes and desires, when we decide someone else’s life is less valuable than our own, or when we choose to hate, we are not who God made us to be.

Just as God called the people to be set apart from others by their actions and appearance, so we are called. We are to be marked as God’s people by our actions toward others: By being kind and gracious, our self-care reflects respect and gratitude for the lives God gave us. Our trust in the God who made us shows in every decision we make.
It may not look exactly the same as a partially sown field, but it still shows. Don’t be afraid to claim love of self alongside love of neighbor as the way you live in God’s kingdom here and now.

The Rev. Megan Torgerson is the associate pastor at Augustana Lutheran Church in West St. Paul, Minn.

Discussion questions:

1. Can you think of a person or situation where you observed an imbalance between love of neighbor and love of self? What happened?

2. Does our culture appear to prefer self-love or other-love? In your experience of other cultures (whether in other countries, families, social circles, etc.) have you observed a different preference? Why do you think that is?

3. How might our devotion to God change if we overload our love for neighbor or our self?

4. Is your life over-balanced towards self-love or other-love? How do you recognize that? Why do you think that happens?

5. Many of people give something up for Lent as a way to remember the sacrifice Christ made for them. What if you were to take on something for Lent? What practice, behavior, or belief would you add to help you balance self-love and other-love?

This article first appeared in the 2011 issue of Cafe.

Photo by Alex Block from Used with permission.