Love that Reconciles
“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord." (Leviticus 19:17-18; ESV)
The commandment that Jesus Christ handpicked to reflect the second table of the law is well known to most Christians and non-Christians alike (Matt. 22:39). "Love for God" is first with "love for neighbor" a distant—but important—second.
Paul echoed this teaching of God stating that the entire (horizontal) law is fulfilled by this command (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14). Similarly, James calls this the summation of the "royal law" (Jam. 2:8). Whatever else the New Testament teaches us about ethics should be read as a particular application of this greater summarization—"love your neighbor."
I have written at length (seriously, pour some coffee before clicking) on the definition of "neighbor." My brief summarization of caution is that in Scripture the question "who is my neighbor?" is an attempt at self-justification (Luke 10:29). And so even today, we must be careful when we ask—or attempt to answer—that question. But placing the definition of "neighbor" aside for the moment, I would like to glean some things from the original context of the commandment "love your neighbor" that has implications for my recent post on anger.
Starting in verse 9 of Leviticus 19, the LORD begins to give instruction on how to treat one's neighbor. In summary, this instruction includes not optimizing the profit of your field but allowing provision for the poor (Lev. 19:9-10), forbidding false words to take advantage of a person (Lev. 19:11-12), forbidding physical or systematical efforts to oppress (Lev. 19:13-15), and instruction on upholding justice for all people (Lev. 19:15-16). This last section, in particular, has a regal, courtroom sense to it. The people of Israel were to be mindful of how the courts treated people and not abuse their neighbor via the court system.
The final of these five blocks contains the verses we are most familiar with. And I would argue that they internalize the teaching of the prior section. While it related to the courtroom, the section containing "love your neighbor" speaks to issues of the hearts. It is summarized as:
- Do not hate (v. 17a) but talk reasonably (v. 17b) lest you sin (v. 17c).
- Do not seek vengeance (v. 18a) or bear a grudge (v. 18b) but love your neighbor (v. 18c).
Verse 17 is translated a number of ways, and it is unclear whether we are to "reprove/talk reasonably" with our neighbor because they are themselves in sin (and we don't want to be associated with it) or because without doing so we will sin in hating them. The nuance is probably important but also small in the scheme of the whole block. Instead of hating our neighbor, we are to talk reasonably to them and this will occasionally include reproving them such that neither of us sins. Similarly, instead of seeking vengeance (or fostering it in our heart), we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. In both lines there is an inappropriate attitude towards our neighbors that requires rectifying.
It is not clear that the vengeance and grudge mentioned are unwarranted. Much like Paul's instruction in Romans 12:14-21, the texts likely assumes a legitimate grievance between two parties. And so this commandment does not encourage love to be seen as the dropping of unjust animosity between two parties but, in fact, justified animosity (meaning it is not a made up grievance). The love being spoken of here then is reconciliatory in nature. And one method for dropping this animosity in neighborly reconciliation is to talk reasonably together and address the sins of the community.
The solution to anger with our neighbor is not to absolve them in some pseudo-forgiveness that ignores reconciliation for a substitute of avoidance. But instead we are to "speak the truth in love" such that the hate, vengeance, and grudges without in our hearts are replaced with a love that pursues reconciliation.
In practice, this reconciliation is not straight forward or easy. It takes two convicted sinners to reconcile, and yet, we are always responsible for the content of our own hearts. This is the fulfillment of the second great commandment that we live as those reconciled one to another (even when that reconciliation is not reciprocated). I close with Paul's beautiful description in Romans 12:9-21:
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9-21; NASB)