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After the love of God, the greatest commandment is the love of one’s neighbor.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength. This is the first and great commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:37–40, Mark 12:30–31, Luke 10:27, Leviticus 19:18)
There is no commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:31)
Love of neighbor necessarily follows from the love of God, and there can be no true love of God without it.
He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in darkness still. He who loves his brother abides in the light and in him there is no cause of stumbling. He who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going for the darkness has blinded his eyes.
If any one says “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that he who loves God, should love his brother also. (I John 2:9–11, 4:20–21)
The love of the neighbor and the brother does not mean the love of only those who love us and are good to us. The neighbor and the brother mean anyone near at hand, everyone made by God, all “for whom Christ has died.” (Romans 14:15) The neighbor and the brother include also the enemies. This is the point of Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:29–37) It is also the Lord’s specific teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the heathen do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:44–48)
But I say to you that hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He is kind to the ungrateful and selfish. (Luke 6:27–35)
This teaching of Jesus is conveyed also in the writings of the apostles.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection…Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them…No, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink…Owe one another nothing, but to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,” and any other commandment are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 12:9–10, 14–20; 13:8–10; cf. Matthew 25:31–46)
Genuine love is expressed in deeds, and not in words alone. It is expressed through what one actually does in one’s life. It is manifested in concern for others through kindly speech and generosity with one’s earthly possessions given by God. It is revealed in one’s works of faith in keeping all of God’s commandments.
Any one who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that Christ laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and in truth. (I John 3:14–18; cf James 2:8–17)
The love of neighbor “as oneself” is sometimes misunderstood. One should, of course, love oneself in the sense that one is faithful to God and grateful for his life. And certainly one should love oneself in the sense that he sees himself as uniquely important in the eyes of God and the object of God’s own unfailing love and mercy. One should not hate oneself in the sense that he despises the life given to him by God, rejecting his own talents and gifts because he is envious of others. Neither should
one hate oneself for being a sinner, since, as the masters teach, such a self-hate is only the subtle form of a more grandiose price which vaunts a person to stature of judgment greater than that ‘of God Him- self who is merciful, loving and forgiving, (cf. Father Alexander Elchaninoff, 20th c. Diary of a Russian Priest; Father John of Kronstadt, 20th c. My Life in Christ)
One should certainly “hate himself,” however, in the sense that he despises and crucifies his “old self” corrupted by sin in order to “put off the old nature with its evil practices” and to “put on the new nature which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator.” (Romans 6:6, Colossians 3:10)
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2:20; cf also 5:24, 6:14)
This is also what Christ undoubtedly meant when He spoke those most violent and terrifying words in the Gospel.
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)
This is the extreme and terrifying warning against all passionate attachments stronger and more powerful than one’s passionate attachment to Christ alone. And the greatest passion of all which keeps one from the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor is the sinful passion for oneself. Sinful self-love, says Saint Maximus the Confessor, is the “mother of all evils,” and the “original sin” of man’s heart.
One must “hate oneself” in this sense, even as he must hate his family and friends. He must hate them as objects of his sinful self-love, that he might love them, and himself most truly in Christ.