Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Jesus) said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” (The lawyer) answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And (Jesus) said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But the lawyer, forgetting for a moment the test and sounding as if he really wanted to know, said, “But what if I do not love my self? How then shall I love my neighbor?”
That is not, of course, how the scripture reads in its final form. Luke reports instead that the lawyer asked the lawyerly question, “But who is my neighbor?” and Jesus then proceeded to tell the parable we call the Good Samaritan. But I have long thought and often said that there were other questions the lawyer might have asked in his conversation with Jesus.
How, for example, do I love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, strength and mind? How might I even begin to love God in that totally self-giving way when I am so well practiced, day by day, at withholding the most of me in most situations? I hold back my affections and attentions, hold back my compassion and concern, keep the lid of my heart closed tight against my friends and family and God. I measure my words, and so what would it look like to give God unmeasured praise? I tithe my money but give God less than a tithe of the rest of me; what would it look like to give God even a tenth of my hopes and dreams, even a tenth of my fears and worries? How do I give God even a tenth of my thanks?
I do not admit to anyone when I am wrong, and sometimes, least of all to myself; what would it look like to made full confession to God and neighbor, really to love God and neighbor, our near neighbors and our far neighbors, our friends and our enemies—for me to love my enemy, for me to love my friends, for me to love the Lord my God with all my heart and soul and strength and mind… what would that look like? How could I do that? How could I even begin to do that? And if I started today, how long would it take until I had given him all of it? I kind of wish the lawyer had asked some of those questions…
Or this other question. What if I don’t love myself? You tell me to love my neighbor as myself, but what if I don’t love myself? What if I hate myself, or hate my life? What if I am so empty of anything that seems of worth—I mean, I may have much of the world’s goods, but so little of lasting goodness, so little of anything that matters. What I am full of is guilt and regret and shame, envy and greed and lust, and I hate that about me! Why am I like that?
What if I am bitter, years of grief and sorrow and disappointment?
What if the reason I judge so quickly the sins of others is because I see in them precisely what I despise in myself? What if my self-righteousness is really a form of self-loathing. My noble pretensions hiding something else again…
I go to the gym sometimes, and I work out and do the weights—am I doing that because I honor and treasure my body, and am trying to take care of it, or am I doing it because I despise the way I look in a looks-conscious era and am trying to meet another standard, that I can never meet because I am old and arthritic and gravity takes its toll, and I hate it that my youth is gone and my energy too, and I am so envious of the young ‘uns who looks so young and good and thin. Except they are immodest, too, half-dressed and "pull up your pants and put on a shirt!" I would say…
I have heard that depression is anger toward another person or situation turned inward. Perhaps, then, judgmentalism, prejudice, is self-loathing turned outward. I might not be afraid of someone taking my job if I had real confidence that I was doing so good a job it could not be taken away.
How do I love my neighbor when I do not love myself? And yes, yes, this is a twenty-first-century psychological reading of an ancient text, but the question is no less real for all of that. And I sometimes wonder if a lot of what ails us, in our relationship with others, is not really in others at all, but in ourselves. We direct against another person, another situation, the fear and self-loathing that are ours; never realizing that the fear and self-loathing are themselves sinful, contrary to the Gospel. Perfect love casts out fear, I John says, but day by day we would rather live with fear than live to become loving. We go on hating ourselves, and sometimes we are unaware—it goes unconfessed—when Jesus’ life and death prove how precious we are to God. He dies not only because we are sinful and self-directed and we will put out the light so that we can continue in darkness; he also dies because we are so precious to him that there is no pain he will not endure, no cross he will not bear, no price he will not pay to see us safe and saved at last.
How do I love my neighbor if I do not love myself? Well, in point of fact, the question is moot… John tells us that at the Last Supper Jesus gave us new instructions. A mandate, in fact, from which we derive the term Maundy, as in Thursday. On Maundy Thursday evening Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. As I have loved you, so you ought also to love one another.”
We have to be Jesus to each other, in other words, and it does not matter how we feel about ourselves, only how we know Jesus to feel about us, and our friends and our enemies. Jesus loved us enough to die for us; should we not love one another enough at least enough to forgive one another? Jesus side was opened by Roman steel; should we not at least open our shut-up hearts to other in compassion? Jesus arms were stretched out on the cross; should we not at least love each other enough to embrace our neighbors? Jesus hands were nailed to hard wood; should we not at least unclench our fists?
We must be Jesus to each other… so we can be Christ for the world. Those words come from Robert Benson in his, "The Body Broken: Answering God's Call to Love One Another." He is talking about the ways we Christians and even entire denominations must get along among ourselves--love and forgive and celebrate one another--if we are to have a credible witness that the poor, fragmented world is to imagine that we have what they need. Just so. And what a wonderful new definition of ministry and mission: be Jesus to one another, be Christ for the world.
And really, the best answer to the lawyer's question. What must we do to have eternal life? Just this: Be Jesus to one another, be Christ for the world.