To Learn to Love Your Neighbour Must You Learn to Love Yourself?
I’ve been thinking and reading about Jesus’ two great commandments, one following the other, which say to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “love your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:27). These commands are at the same time pretty straightforward and loaded with complexity. In the infamous case of the Rich Young Ruler, there was some question about “who is my neighbour,” and I think Jesus answer is pretty relevant to another one floating around in our day — What did he mean by “as yourself”?
 One of the ways this is commonly answered is to carry over the verb — i.e., “love your neighbour as you love yourself” — and then to construct a notion of appropriate self-love from which it can be gathered how to go about loving others. This is basically the “golden rule” interpretation: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Not a bad rule of thumb, especially if one wants to apply this for a non-believing public, but is it what Jesus meant? Even as a rule of thumb surely we can see how it falls short. I mean, how well do I know what’s best for me, let alone what’s best for others? What makes me think that what I want or need is actually wanted or needed by someone else? More on the nose from a theological point of view: Doesn’t this interpretation actually put self-love at the basis of the two commandments, thus undermining what they actually intend to say? In other words, to love God and neighbour do I first have to love myself? Doesn’t that prioritize self-help before the help of others? Doesn’t that put selfishness at the backbone of unselfishness?
 An alternative explanation might be to overstate the interjection of “your neighbour” between “love” and “yourself” so that the one actually replaces the other. If the one interpretation banks ultimately on self-love, this banks on self-emptying. It is the stuff of altruistic stoicism and ascetic self-denial. But here we run into similar problems. If self-love presumes too much, so does self-negation. Why assume that love for God is always antithetical to concern for one’s own well-being? To learn to love your neighbour must you learn to hate yourself? There is no telling in advance whether love for the neighbour will coincide with or contradict our own desire or self-esteem, which is why neither the golden rule nor the principle of self-denial will suffice. Theologically speaking, if my love for neighbour is informed or predicated upon the quality of my self-love (on one hand) or self-denial (on the other), does it also follow that in my love for God (heart, soul, mind and strength) I am turned back upon myself for the resources by which to obey the command? We might rally behind Psalm 139 for one reading and Philippians 2 for the other, but is either of these what Jesus meant?
 I want to put the compelling (if exegetically innovative) interpretation of Karl Barth on the table for our reflection. In Church Dogmatics I/2 Barth riffs on the second great commandment and the parable of the Good Samaritan and comes to the conclusion that to “love your neighbour as yourself” means love your neighbour as you yourself are loved. To be specific, when it comes to loving our neighbour, Barth says:
Self-love means, and must mean, to be alone with ourselves, to seek ourselves, to serve ourselves, to think of ourselves. Now it is true that we do this. It is true that we do it even when we love our neighbour…. But the commandment: Thou shalt love thy neighbour, is not a legitimation but a limitation of this reality. If I love my neighbour, that is the judgment on my self-love and not its indirect justification. When I love my neighbour I do not apply to him the same good thing as I do to myself when I love myself. Far from it. When I love my neighbour I confess that my self-love is not a good thing, that it is not love at all. I begin to love at all only when I love my neighbour.
The only positive meaning of ‘as thyself’ is, then, that we are commanded to love our neighbour as those who love themselves, i.e., as those who in reality do not love, as the sinners that we are. It is as those who in fact and absolutely and constantly seek themselves and serve themselves and think of themselves … that we are addressed and claimed by the revelation and commandment of God and therefore concretely by the commandment to love our neighbour…. When we do, we shall cease trying to hide from each other. There is nothing to hide: we can and should love our neighbour only as the people we are, and therefore ‘as ourselves’ (450-452).
I’d like to know if you think this is exegetically warranted or not, but you gotta admit it is an ingenious and illuminating bit of theological interpretation. In a way, Barth is basically carrying over the verb — i.e., “love your neighbour as you love yourself” — and then reckoning with the fact that you can only love yourself in spite of yourself — i.e., as part and parcel of your reception of God’s everyday mercy and correction. (Exegetical note: In Matthew it appears just this way, but in Luke the one reciting it actually uses the verb ἀποκριθεὶς (love) in the first commandment and it carries into the second by implication).
With the words “thou shalt”, Barth sees in Jesus’ words a differentiation of the second great commandment from the golden rule. Love for neighbour is not summoned out of us (i.e., find it within yourself) but is commanded of us by the incarnate God. More precisely, love of neighbour is neither conjured up from a healthy self-esteem nor mustered up in resilient self-contradiction, but occurs as a miracle when our hearts, souls, minds and bodies are given to God (416). But what does that mean?
To the question “who is my neighbour” Jesus’ answer was not only “the one who had mercy” but also “go and do likewise” (418-419; Luke 10:37). And so to the other question we might suggest the same answer: If you want to learn to “love yourself” you’ve got to learn to love your neighbour. The Neighbour is first the “Great Samaritan” Jesus Christ (426) and second everyone with whom He has come in solidarity (429-430). Thus to “love your neighbour as yourself” means, as Barth puts it, “to reconcile ourselves to the existence of the neighbour, to find ourselves in the fact that God wills us to exist as His children in this way and this alone” (430). If there is a way which we love ourselves it is by turning to one another and sharing the love that is ours in Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ command is not predicated on either self-esteem or self-negation — in fact it is not predicated on self at all. This love is neither self-promoting nor self-negating, but self-giving. It gives to the other because in the everyday mercy of God it has a self to give. And this self comes to be not simply in the form of privately experienced renewal or personally conjured up motive of compassion but in the publicly experienced interaction of the injured and the outcast, the priest and the worship leader, the celebrity and “the least of these” as they are brought together in the ministry of reconciliation that stems from the communion already accomplished for us in Jesus Christ.
That’s what I’m working on these days. I’d love your feedback on either the validity of the interpretation or the value of the application (or both!).