“Love your neighbor as yourself,” says Paul in Romans 13, echoing the words of Jesus Christ. Why? Because, “love is the fulfilling of the law.” You will not murder, you will not steal, nor shall you covet or commit adultery if you love one another. Paul is laying down a marker for the Christian life. It is a life based on love, from which flows all the blessings of the law.
Now this is commonly received wisdom in the church. Really no matter your denomination or whether you’d classify yourself as a liberal or conservative, mainstream or evangelical, you’ve heard a sermon about loving your neighbor. It is a common trope in any church. And because it is so common we forget how astounding it is to hear the statement, “love your neighbor.”
Paul writes this after spending chapters talking about division between Jews and Gentiles. He has seen firsthand the pain that comes from divisions in the church. He understands how living hard it can be to break old habits of division and attitudes of disdain. He wants the Jews and Gentiles to be a church, living in relationship with God and with each other.
But loving your neighbor is even more radical than that. The Roman world was intensely socially stratified. First you had Roman citizens and then everybody else. You had freemen and slaves with no rights but what their master gave them. You had the super-rich with hundreds of slaves. Women where the under the firm hand of their father or husband. Loving your neighbor wasn’t socially responsible in the Roman world, because you neighbor could be some lowly scum. And as Jesus makes clear in the story of the Good Samaritan, your neighbor is your enemy—he is the lowly scum. So “love your neighbor as yourself,” says Paul. Show her respect. Treat her as a friend. Understand that she is part of God’s story. Be a follower of Christ.