When Jesus began teaching, many Jews were very absorbed in keeping religious laws and they discussed them frequently. The idea of serving God by observing laws or rules is called legalism.
Jesus was not a legalist. In the next few posts we will look at how Jesus responded to the legalism of his day, but we begin with what Jesus taught as the guide to behavior instead of following rules.
Jesus Weighs in on the Law
Matthew shares a story in chapter 22 that summarizes Jesus’ principle of behavior in one short statement:
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.
And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
This principle of love is not unique to Jesus, but he made it his own. His entire approach to behavior is based on the principle of love as opposed to following rules.
Most people focus on the second statement, Love your neighbor as yourself. Indeed, this is the practical aspect of the application of love—to treat others well and seek their good just as we seek our own good. But I think there is a reason Jesus why Jesus mentions love of God first.
How Can We Really Love Other People?
How can we really love other people when we often do not even love ourselves? If we don’t love ourselves and seek what is best for us, then it is counter-productive to treat other people the same way; but here is where God comes in.
A big reason we don’t love ourselves more is because we feel that no one else loves us—or at least their love is inadequate. In addition, we often feel alienated from God perhaps because we think he is very demanding and we just don’t measure up, so we think the most important person there is hates us.
We might have low esteem and care little for ourselves, or we might feel alone and isolated, or we might decide to focus on something that matters less, like fame or money, which brings us into opposition to people we see as standing in our way.
But when we begin to understand the Father as Jesus presents him to us, we realize that he does love us; he loves us unconditionally! He is not angry at us at all but wishes to have a relationship with us. We also realize that God loves everybody else as well.
As we respond to God’s abundant love for us we can love ourselves better and seek what is best for us, then we are better prepared to love others and desire their good in the same way—especially as we begin to see them through the Father’s eyes.
Let Your Light Shine
With this being said, we now turn to the beginning of an important passage in which Jesus contrasts legalism and the principle of love. In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus is teaching his disciples.
He says to them:
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.
In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
Among legalists, even today, there is a tendency to show off good works: ‘Look, I am observing this religious rule to the letter; I am a righteous person.’ This is not what Jesus means by letting other see our good deeds. In fact, as we will see later in this series, Jesus actually tells us NOT to do this.
I think what Jesus has in mind here is that our love for other people should be obvious simply in the way we treat them.
Jesus said in John chapter 9, While I am in the world, I am the light of the world. But here he tells his disciples, You are the light of the world. How can this be?
I believe that as we follow the light of Jesus we become the light of the world as he was when he was here, and a big part of that is to let our light shine so that our good deeds of loving others is apparent. It was certainly apparent in the way Jesus treated people.
One might object that I draw a specific conclusion from the passage that is not clearly suggested. However, this is part of a larger context. I think it would be good to examine what Jesus says immediately following this statement about light and good deeds. We will do that next time.
Image Credit: Ribhu Dey via Wikimedia
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