The Christian Moral Code, Part 5: Love

Mark Rubinstein

With this column, the author concludes his five-part series on the Christian moral code, begun in the April/May 2016 issue. Topics covered include sin, forgiveness, humility, hell and achievement, and now love.

—The Editors


Love of God—“with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5)—is the greatest commandment, according to Jesus (Mark 12:29–30). The second, according to Mark (12:31) and Matthew (22:39), is “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” drawn from Leviticus (19:18), the third book of the Hebrew Bible. Love is the great moral theme of the Gospels, for which they are justly famous. For many, including me, nothing is more compelling about Christianity than this theme. Expressed in so many ways—in the Sermon on the Mount, in the parables of Jesus and in his behavior—love is the great theme that, I think, made Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Dickens so enamored of Jesus. Christianity, so it is popularly believed, taught people to love one another and to do unto others as they would have others do unto them. This, so it is claimed, is the true revolution in human relationships that we owe to Christianity.

Yet the commandment to “love thy neighbor” was not invented by Jesus. A close alternative appears on page 3 of my copy of the Bible, when Cain asks God if he is his “brother’s keeper”—an episode commonly interpreted to mean that all men are responsible for looking after each other. By the time of Jesus, the commandment was not just a Judaic principle; it could be found in most religions and all over Greco-Roman philosophy. But even for this greatest of themes, the Gospels fall remarkably short. As history has proven, this prioritizing of the two great commandments—love God first and love neighbors second—has proven unfortunate, since they are often inconsistent. Too often, love of God has meant hatred and murder of neighbors who follow other gods. The Gospels are also unclear, to say nothing of jejune, about how far the concept of “neighbor” extends; about whether you should love each of your “neighbors” with the same intensity; about how to learn to love (not said: you need to know and love yourself first); and, more fundamentally, about why you should love your “neighbor” (not said: because you want the benefits of civilization). Does it mean, “Love thy neighbor as much as thyself,” which seems both impractical and inadvisable, or “Love thy neighbor at least a little bit but thyself more“?

Luke’s well-known Parable of the Good Samaritan somewhat clarifies the word neighbor. At the time of Jesus, it seems most people regarded their neighbor as a fellow countryman or perhaps a sojourner like the Samaritan. The liberal idea that real outsiders with other customs, languages, and beliefs who dwell in other lands deserve to be considered neighbors does not clearly appear in the parable or anywhere else in the Gospels. Indeed, Mark (7:27) and Matthew (15:26) so narrowly construe the word neighbor that, when a Syrophoenician or Canaanite woman comes to Jesus for help, he reflexively equates her to a “dog.”

The Christian god as represented in the Gospels does not promise “unconditional love,” as is often claimed. When Leviticus 19:18 is read in context, the full verse indicates that the word neighbor is meant fairly narrowly: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. I am the LORD” (emphasis added). Mark’s Jesus says, “For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, my sister, and mother” (Mark 3:33–35, emphasis added). He crucially limits the franchise: you deserve God’s (and Jesus’s) love and compassion only if you come to “believe” in the eschatological mission of Jesus. This requirement of belief lies at the heart of the great contradiction in Christianity. Christianity is a religion of inclusiveness, compassion, and love—yet it also condemns to eternal misery any who disagree with it. Have you been witness to this carrot-and-stick form of sermonizing? If the message of love does not win you over, perhaps you will succumb to threats. This approach is hammered home again and again in so many ways that it has virtually become the defining signature of Christianity.

Celsus, the second-century Greek polemicist, complained that the ethical teaching of Jesus was “commonplace and in comparison with the other philosophers contains no teaching that is impressive or new” (from The True Word, as quoted by Origen in his Against Celsus). For some time, unconditional inclusion had been part of the popular school of Greek philosophy known as Stoicism, as represented by Cicero and Seneca. Nonetheless, I think it fair to say that Jesus and Paul made inclusion more central to their teaching than anyone known before them. Despite ambiguity, imitation, and unsatisfying partiality, the greatest moral advance in which Christianity participated is inclusiveness.

Yet Christian inclusiveness is self-limiting at a level far below that of which humans are capable. Its cramped morality appears in biblical Gospel aphorisms such as “Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven”; “Judge not, that ye be not judged”; “Give, and it shall be given unto you”; and, more generally, “With the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured unto you again.” No believer who expects a heavenly reward or hellish punishment can ever rise to the lofty moral code possible for the unbeliever, who is in the enviable position of being able to do good without any such expectations. Such a one can strive to reach a level of fitness that permits one to care for one’s fellow human beings naturally, from one’s own psychological strength, knowing from experience that “virtue is its own reward.”

Mark Rubinstein

Mark Rubinstein is a retired professor of finance who taught at the University of California at Berkeley. He now writes on early Christianity and humanism.

By the time of Jesus, the commandment to “love thy neighbor” was already part of most religions and also Greco-Roman philosophy.

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