Laws of Love
And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:21).
Love is very difficult to legislate, mostly because love flows from the heart. Yet the Bible does legislate love. Not only does it tell us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Lev 19:18), but it gives practical laws that lend definition to that commandment. Consider the examples below.
You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep going astray and ignore them. You shall take them back to your brother (Deut 22:1). This command isn’t so foreign—I suspect that I am not the only one occasionally to drive past a cow grazing outside the fence. It is easy to see the cow as my neighbor’s problem, not mine. The command here tells me that the cow is my problem because it is my neighbor’s problem.
When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it (Deut 22:8). Building codes are not just the stuff of modern county laws. They are meant to protect our families and our neighbors by anticipating things that could reasonably go wrong. The law of the parapet (much like the code requirements of banisters and deck railings) is a charge to look out for our families and our neighbors, and to seek their well-being to the best of our ability. The principal behind the law is apparent, and applicable even to those who do not walk upon their roofs.
If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag (Deut 23:24). Here obligation is placed upon both the owner and the visitor of the vineyard. The law implies that the owner is not to hoard the fruit of his vineyard, but must let his neighbor eat of it. The neighbor, for his part, is simply to eat what he can eat, but not to hoard the fruit of another man’s labor by taking some home.
When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to collect his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you. And if he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge. You shall restore to him the pledge as the sun sets, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you. And it shall be righteousness for you before the LORD your God (Deut 24:10-13). It would be easy to think that, because my neighbor made a pledge, I am justified in going into his home and taking what is mine. Or that it is my right to keep that pledge, even if he needs it. The thinking would be wrong. The Lord is serious about honoring the dignity of another, and about looking out for our neighbor’s need.
These laws give practical definition to the command to love our neighbor. I doubt they are given because the law of love is vague, but rather because, given our selfish bent and our corresponding desire to protect what we consider our own, it helps us to cut through rationalization and see what love looks like. Although love can (and perhaps usually should) include feelings, love is not principally a feeling, but a determination to do my neighbor good. The laws above, among others, simply give practical examples of that that looks like.
As ever, we are our brother’s keeper.