Love’s Obligations

What does it mean to love your neighbor? Paul says that “love does no evil to the neighbor” and that “love is the fulfillment of the law.” How do these two statements coalesce to produce a practical Christian ethic of behavior? One is stated negatively—love does no evil—while the other is stated positively—love fulfills the law. But how do we know when we are enacting these demands?

To do no evil seems an amorphous requirement, calling us to ponder the ways our lives affect our neighbors, questioning how love might be made manifest in any given situation. Jesus asks us to consider that one of the ways love of neighbor is realized is by calling our brothers and sisters to turn from sin. There is perhaps no harder path to walk than that of correcting a “neighbor,” whether that is a family member or friend, though when done with genuine compassion, there is no greater act of love.

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When friends or family call us to account, anger is often the first response; we are often not interested, at least not initially, in hearing our faults. But Jesus encourages us, because it is an act of love. “If another member of the church sins against you,” he says, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” Yet Jesus also knows the risk of initial rejection: “If you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” The path is hard because it hurts to shine a light on sin.

The path is also hard because of mixed motivations. We probably all know cases where people have been condemned by brothers and sisters on the basis of hearsay and rumors, leading to broken relationships and estrangement from the church. Part of the Christian reality today is that we might not know our neighbors in church well enough to know how they are living. To love someone enough to correct them requires genuine intimacy. The start of doing no evil to our neighbor is learning who they are and taking time to build relationships.

We begin to know people by making certain that our treatment of our neighbors, regardless of our personal relationship with them, is always grounded in the love that emerges from the teaching of the church and the commandments. Paul says that this is what we owe our neighbor, “to love one another.” In fact Paul claims that when we love one another we have “fulfilled the law.” All of the commandments, he says, “’You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

But the word translated “summed up” (plêroô) should really be translated “fulfilled.” To fulfill the law, according to Paul, does not mean to make a summary statement of the commandments. Rather, he is making the profound claim that those in Christ “fulfil” the law through their lives by faith working through love, guided by the Spirit. The law is not reduced in scope, as “summed up” might suggest; “fulfillment” indicates its diffusion into every action and area of our lives, allowing love of neighbor to guide us even where there is no specific legal prescription.

It should also be noted that Paul claims both here and in Gal 5:14 that the law is summarized by Lv 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but does not mention in either place the verses Jesus joins to that verse, Dt 6:4–5, the Shema, which proclaims the heart of Jewish belief: the love of the one, true God.

Why is that? Paul might simply take for granted the presence of the love of God, but he might also have a deeper purpose. While it is easy to claim that you “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Dt 6:5), it can be a lot messier and complex to love our neighbor this way. Paul understood that the way to fulfill the law and to do no evil to our neighbor is to make tangible the love of God.

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