The Love of Jesus
Jesus Christ is rightly regarded as the most important person for helping us understand love. Especially at this time of year, it seems wise to ponder the love of Jesus.
Jesus lived about two thousand years ago in present-day Israel and Palestine. Almost all that is known about Jesus comes from the New Testament. Four books – Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John – are accounts of his birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection. In other New Testament books and in writings produced in the past two millennia, many have interpreted and developed Jesus’ love legacy.
Jesus drew upon teachings from his Jewish heritage to offer what many consider the central insight of his ministry. Matthew records this insight in these words: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Jesus adds, “Upon these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt. 22:37-40). Mark’s version of the same insight concludes with Jesus adding that there are no greater commandment than these two (Mk. 12:31).
In the book of Luke, Jesus is asked what must be done to inherit eternal life. Jesus answers with these same two love commandments. The questioner responds to Jesus, however, by asking who one’s neighbor might be.
The answer Jesus gave this second question came in the form of a story. Jesus tells of a man who is robbed, beaten, stripped, and left to die. Two religious people passed by the victim, but these religious people ignored the opportunity to help. However, an impure outsider – a Samaritan – came to the injured man’s aide, cared for his wounds, and found him a place of safety. In this story, the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus suggests that a neighbor is any person in obvious need. All other laws — including religious ones — are secondary to the law of love (Lk. 10:25-37).
Matthew records Jesus saying, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Mt. 7:12). The point Jesus makes is not that the laws and the words of the prophets are useless. Rather, Jesus is suggesting that love is their culmination or overarching guide. Matthew later records Jesus inviting his followers to love as inclusively as God, for God sends sunshine and rain on the good and bad indiscriminately (Mt 5:43-48).
The apostle Paul, the most important witness for the Christian movement emerging after Jesus, picks up and promotes Jesus’ idea that love is the fulfillment of the law. “Owe no one anything,” Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, “except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘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.’ Loves does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rm. 13:8-10; see also, Gal. 5:14).
According to Jesus, the neighbor and others who should be loved include those whom some people might consider unlovable. In fact, Jesus commands his followers to love enemies. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” Jesus declares. “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 6:43-44).
Luke’s account of the command to love enemies involves Jesus saying that his followers should “love your enemies and do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…. Love your enemies, do good, and lend, anticipating nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Lk. 6:27-28, 35-36). In this, Jesus is saying that his listeners will imitate God when expressing love even for those who oppose them.
Jesus says that those who love the neediest will be rewarded. The king will say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundations of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:34-36, 40). Jesus advocates love for those sometimes considered unlovely.
In his own actions, Jesus demonstrated that followers should also love the downtrodden, outcasts, and marginalized. Jesus showed love by washing feet, giving to the poor, listening to and blessing children, resisting retaliation, and feeding the hungry. He was moved with compassion for the sick, lame, and hungry. He associated with the social outcasts, such tax collectors, Samaritans, women, and non-Jews. Breaking with social norms, Jesus voluntarily assumed the social role of a servant.
At times, Jesus praised and promoted self-sacrificial love. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:12, 13).
At Easter, Christians especially reflect on Jesus death and resurrection. Jesus’ death on the cross is the prime example of self-sacrificial love. Jesus’ death benefits others. The apostle Paul says, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rm. 5:8). Jesus’ love is cruciform.
Jesus tells those who want to follow his lifestyle that they should follow his example of love. “By this all will know that you are my disciples,” says Jesus, “if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). Later in the New Testament writings, the Apostle Paul says that Jesus should be the example for those who want to love as God loves. “Be imitators of God, as beloved children,” writes Paul, “and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph. 5:1, 2).
Jesus’ life, words, death, and resurrection have been an inspiration to many throughout history who seek to understand and express love. Especially this holy week, I pause to ponder – and to imitate – the love of Jesus.