[A25] The Supreme Duty of Man to Man (The Small Catechism)

“What is it we owe our fellowman? We owe it to him to let him make a decent living, to let him have the opportunity for cultivating his mind and inner life, the enjoyment of his rights. We owe him the financial help necessary to bridge over a season of enforced inactivity. But this is not all, it is the least that is required of us. The Divine requirement is, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor.’ The fundamental requirement in the religious and ethical system of Jesus Christ is love. And love is more than money or a dole of bread. Human life originated and originates in love. Love holds together the basal human institution, the family. It recreates, gives new visions and new impulses to, the individual human life. It is the principle which leavens and transforms all human relations. It is the active principle of all heavenly conduct on the part of God and the holy angels.”

Table of Contents

25. The Supreme Duty Of Man To Man

“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” — St. Mark 12:31.

You doubtless recall that at the close of the First Table of the Law we considered Christ’s synopsis of those three commandments. He put it into positive form. He did not say, Thou shalt not; but, Thou shalt. The throb bing heart of all the Law was given in those old, but still new, words: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.”

God would not be satisfied, could not be satisfied if the human heart were purged of every trace of idolatry, if man’s lips never uttered a blasphemous sound, did not a higher obedience follow. If man’s soul were simply like a piece of white paper, with never an ugly mark or blotch on it, that could not satisfy God. He does not want a colorless, inactive, unresponsive life. God wants man’s life to be blood-red with human affection and energy; He wants to be enshrined in that man’s heart as the object of his highest affection. He does not want man’s lips to be dumb, but vocal with praise and thanksgiving, and Himself the primary object of it. God wants man to love Him, reverence and serve Him with that rapture of delight which pure, strong love alone can give. In this desire of God there is not a vestige of what we, in the language of mortals, call selfishness. The very nature of God and of His universe demands this; and the highest good of his creature, man, demands it. This is the first commandment. It is the law of the supreme duty of man.

There is a second commandment like unto the first. It is also a summary of the Second Table. As in the first, so here, Jesus is not satisfied with prohibitions. It is not enough that we do not kill, or steal, or bear false witness against the neighbor. He wants something living and positive.

“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

If the first commandment were fully realized in our lives, this second would follow from it as naturally as the stream follows the channel which nature has provided as its outlet.

As the first commandment, without any qualifications, sets forth the supreme duty of man — that toward God, so this second commandment sets forth the supreme duty of man to man. This is the subject to which, in this hour, we will give our attention. There are two leading thoughts which I shall elaborate: What it means to love one’s neighbor; and the conduct implied.

The Obligation — to Love

The requirement of this second great commandment is very simple of statement; but exceedingly deep and difficult of comprehension, and still more difficult of realization in life. The simple, easily understood injunction is, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself;” but it penetrates to every nook and corner of human life and conduct, where we are to follow it with our obedience.

In our generation there has been more discussion of problems of social welfare than ever before. Almost every phase of human need and human progress has received attention from some body, or class, of people. Laws are being rapidly proposed and not infrequently enacted that look to the improvement of the living or working conditions of this or that class. And the end is not yet. Diverse are the motives prompting this activity. Some of it is political and looks to party prestige. Some of it is done by hired agitators, whose only interest is monetary. Some of it is the result of dawning class consciousness and pride. Some of it results from refined selfishness, having as its object the betterment of man as an efficient productive factor in the world’s activities. Some of it directly, much of it indirectly, is the result of the growth of a nobler spirit of human brotherhood, a result of the church’s existence and teaching. But, as conditions at home and abroad abundantly teach, the world as such, the civilized, the so-called Christian world, has still very far to go before it will begin, even approximately, to understand and appreciate the second great commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Indeed, anyone who has spent any number of years in fellowship with a Christian congregation, in business dealings with fellow-Christians, or as a co-worker in religious enterprises, knows, from his own experience, that, in spite of our nineteen hundred years of blessing and growth, we are all, laymen and preachers, far from perfectly obeying this commandment.

What is it we owe our fellowman? We owe it to him to let him make a decent living, to let him have the opportunity for cultivating his mind and inner life, the enjoyment of his rights. We owe him the financial help necessary to bridge over a season of enforced inactivity. But this is not all, it is the least that is required of us. The Divine requirement is, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor.” The fundamental requirement in the religious and ethical system of Jesus Christ is love. And love is more than money or a dole of bread. Human life originated and originates in love. Love holds together the basal human institution, the family. It recreates, gives new visions and new impulses to, the individual human life. It is the principle which leavens and transforms all human relations. It is the active principle of all heavenly conduct on the part of God and the holy angels.

What is the standard by which we are to gauge our love for the neighbor? We are not asked to love him supremely, — that would be idolatry. In some instances, especially in the case of parents and children, husbands and wives, this is done. Someone is idolized, all the wealth of love is showered on that person; and when misfortune, sickness, or death comes to this one, complaint is made against God’s dealings. He is charged with inconsiderateness or injustice. This is idolatry. There are persons whom we probably love better than ourselves, for whom we would be willing to sacrifice our own life. But even above this love must be the love of God.

“He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (St. Matt. 10:37).

But for everyone there must be this measure of love — as we love ourselves.

As we love ourselves! Let us calm ourselves for a few moments’ serious reflection, and see what this means. Why and how do we love ourselves? That most people have great love for themselves, needs no special demonstration. But why do we love ourselves? Is it because we are so great or so good? Because we are worth so much to our fellowman? If we honestly threw the searchlight of our own better consciousness, not to say, of God’s holy law, upon the recesses of our inner life, and weighed our credits as they are estimated in the impartial balances of truth, should we have very much of which to be proud? Is our self-esteem based on superior knowledge? Most of us have none to spare: it is not above the average, and with the best it is very fragmentary. The truth is that, if we were severely candid, we should have difficulty in making out a strong bill of justification for our self-love on the ground of any extraordinary conduct or achievement. What, then, is the ground of our self-love? The real ground of this self-appreciation, often debased to self-gratification, is the possibilities inherent in our nature. We may be only partly conscious of them, they may operate sub-consciously or unconsciously; but they are the real ground, nevertheless. We were created by God, who gave us His own image. He gave us an imperishable life. We have fallen far, and have sustained great injury; but great possibilities are ours still. This nature, so greatly marred, so sadly perverted and abused, accounts for the esteem in which man holds himself. It is often, to be sure, a perverted form of the respect and esteem in which man should hold himself, and of the law of self-preservation which he should exercise — but the fact re mains. Our fellowman, however, has the same Father, the same nature, is affected only by the same infirmities, and has the same wonderful possibilities before him; consequently he is entitled to the same esteem and consideration in which we hold ourselves. This is one of the reasons why we should love him as we do ourselves.

And we dare not, by any subterfuges, try to get away from the obligations of the second great commandment. It is God who says, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor,” — love him as we do ourselves. We have no more right to say that we will not love our neighbors than we have to say that we will not love God. Jesus Himself says this second commandment is like unto the first. It comes from the same high source of authority. It requires the same thing. Its binding force is just as irrevocable. Its violation comes from the same fundamental source, offends the same supreme authority, and leads to the same consequences. It is vain for us to claim to be children and worshippers of God while we entertain feelings which lead us to look down upon or hate our brethren of mankind. The Word of God tells us that:

“…if a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen” (1 John 4:20).

The love of God and man are but two sides of one great emotion. The love which goes out to God supremely is, as far as part of its rays are concerned, simply deflected toward man, the child of God.

But we often hear people say, “I simply cannot love everybody; especially can I not love such and such a person.” They argue that love does not come at one’s bidding, that it is a sphere of life over which men exercise no absolute control, that love is elicited by the nature or characteristics of the person who awakes it. We mean by this that we can love only those who please us, whose traits or qualities we admire. And, so far as mere human love is concerned, this is undoubtedly true. But here stands the law of God, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor,” — all thy neighbors, everybody; and love them as you do yourself. True, this love, also, does not come of itself. It does not come from mere likable qualities, for often these are absent. In a Christian sense of love, wishing people well and being willing to serve them — in this sense we can love even those whom we cannot like. This love is God-given. It comes only to those who have learned to love God supremely, and, enlightened by His Spirit, begin to see humanity as He sees it. The child of God loves humanity because God loves it, and gave His life for it, and is continually giving His life to it. The Christian loves men not so much because of what most of them are, but because of what they may become. It becomes possible for the true child of God reasonably to fulfill that apparent paradox Jesus propounds when he says:

“I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (St. Matt. 5:44).

Let us not say that this is a Utopian dream about which we need not much concern ourselves, because it is something beyond our power in this world. That would be to deny God’s power and to give the lie to His Word. Unfortunately it is true that this commandment has not been realized as it could have been. And we know very well that it is not going to be perfectly realized on this side of the Golden Gates. But it has been realized by some people in such measure that if it were generally so realized this old earth would become so transformed as to become a portal of Paradise, a heaven on earth.

In view of what has been done in the way of living up to this commandment, of bringing men to love one another — all of which is but an earnest of the still greater things which might have been achieved, what an indictment this commandment brings against the conditions which still prevail in the world; yea, which still, in far too large a degree, prevail in the Church. The people in whom the spirit of the world prevails, and their name is legion, look on everyone else and everything else as a lemon to be squeezed whenever, and to what ever extent, it may suit their purposes. And too often even among professing Christians it happens that they “bite and devour one another,” with the result that they are “consumed one of another” (Gal. 5:15). My brethren, these things ought not so to be. And where people have truly experienced the love of God in Christ, and have thus had their hearts enkindled by contact with the heart of God, it will not be so.

“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” This is the divine ideal for human society. It is the goal to which humanity must come before it can be crowned. To what has been achieved in this direction we owe all that is really worthwhile in this life. An entirely loveless world would soon become a hell, a seething cauldron of hate. Love is the crowning delight of the intercourse in heaven. But what do we still find among men? On the part of, oh, so many! a colossal selfishness and heartlessness. A disposition to turn, with iron heel, on the very hearts of others; to grind them down into the dust, to take advantage of their direst necessities; like Shylock, to exact to the last ounce the pound of flesh, to be steeled against the needs and the tears of widows and orphans. The world has caught some of the reflections from the Kingdom, and practices occasionally some of her amenities; but at heart it is the same old loveless world, and as world it will always be so. But the sad part of it all is that those in the Kingdom, many of them, have learned so little of this commandment. They forget that Jesus said:

“By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”

Brethren, this commandment is not a problem of merely academic interest; it is not a problem only for discussion, it is a principle to be put into practice in our living. This commandment does not deal with ancient history or present-day theories. It is a matter as vital to our physical, moral, and spiritual well-being, individually and collectively, for time and eternity, as is the heart-beat to the wel fare of our physical organism.

This second commandment condemns everyone of us; for no one, by nature, loves his neighbor as he loves himself. And those of us who are under the influence of God’s grace are fully conscious that our love for our brethren, as our desire for our own highest good, is wavering and fragmentary. But if we are truly converted, regenerated, people, then this commandment has begun to be realized in our lives; we have begun to love men, even all men. Let us today give ourselves a candid self-examination in the light of this God-given, Christ-enforced commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

The Implication as to Conduct

The things implied in the second commandment, so far as the practical application of it to life is concerned, are manifold, if we would set them forth in detail; but they may all be set forth in one comprehensive rule of conduct, prescribed by Jesus Christ Himself:

“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them, for this is the law and the prophet” (St. Matt. 7:12).

The love of which the second great commandment speaks is not a cloistered virtue. Men do not shut this love up in their hearts, brood over it by day, dream of it by night, but never put it into action. The specific nature of this love is that it is active. It was an active love when first it dwelt in the bosom of the eternal Father; for it is written, “God so loved the world that He gave,” — gave His only begotten Son to save. The love of Jesus was ever an active love. Having loved his own, He loved them unto the end. This love led Him not only to His exhaustive campaigns, but to the cross and the grave. And so it is when in human hearts love has been enkindled at the Divine altar.

Mere human love is chiefly, in all its forms, a passion to possess; the love of a child of God, in its human outgoing, is chiefly a passion to bless. It starts with a passion for God and the righteousness and blessedness which it is His to give. Having found these it begins to reach out. It becomes a passion for humanity, for the righting of their wrongs, for the upbuilding of their ruined estate — for their salvation. While this love takes many forms, it is always a desire to serve man out of love for Christ.

Human love often proves a powerful passion. By it the sorrows of the mother are changed into ministries of joy; by it the wearing toil of hus band and father ceases to be a burden and becomes a pleasure. All the arts of literature have been exhausted to exalt this love. Yet, the hearts which beat with this passion become stilled and their activity ceases. But the love which Christ inspires never ceases. Age does not wither its ineffaceable charm, nor the flight of years exhaust its energies. Nineteen centuries have passed since they took Jesus and laid Him in the tomb. But the love He had begotten they did not bury, for it did not die. And every day since then it has proved itself alive by the victories it has won. This is the one love which abides while the lovers die, for it is possessed of perpetual youth, and the inexhaustible energies which are born of God. It is passed on as man’s priceless heritage from age to age.

What has not this heaven-born love done for the world? Let us think of the innumerable men and women who have caught the vision this commandment sets before us as the ideal, and whom the Spirit of God has helped on toward its realization, making them patient, sympathetic, and helpful in all their relationships. Let us think of the forbearance, longsuffering, and forgiveness it has taught them to practice. Let us think of the unbroken line of faithful workers in every sphere of life this love has inspired, from John and Paul down to the many unheralded men and women laboring in obscure places, led on because their hearts have been taught to yearn for the bodies and souls of men, and not only for the fortunate and well-favored, but even, and in a sense we might say especially, for the physically, morally, and spiritually unfit and defective. Let us think of the labors, deprivations, and sufferings many of these people have endured in the service of those for whose good they gave their lives. Let us think especially of the missionaries to heathen lands; the men and women who have gone into the wild and waste places of the earth, to be brought into association with the most ignorant, debased, and vicious of human beings, not for name or fame, but because the love of Christ constrained them. Let us think of how these people, when for long years their best efforts seemed not only unavailing, but were actually requited with the most cruel persecutions, continued to love their unlovely tormentors, refused to forsake them, and worked on faithfully for and with them. In this connection we must not fail to think of the tens of thousands of those at home who supported this advance guard with their gifts and their prayers.

When we think of these things, and others less notable, which the partial realization of this commandment has wrought in this world, we take heart and thank God. We thank Him for the power of His great grace whereby these wonders were wrought in man. We thank Him for these people through whom they were wrought. They have helped to redeem humanity. They have helped to give us renewed confidence that man is a creature that can be saved and restored. They have done more than any others to bless this world and make life worth living.

How much better off this world would be if there were only more of this love of Christ which becomes the love of man. Natural love needs to be sanctified and ennobled by it. And when this is done it is also heightened. How different many homes would be, even many professedly Christian homes, if there was enough of the love of Christ in the hearts of the inmates to lead them to begin to love the other members of the family as they love themselves. The cloud which hangs over many a home, keeping out the sunlight and cheer which means so much to life, is exaggerated self-love, which destroys love for others.

If these people would open their hearts more to the love of God, which is the indispensable requisite, and then cultivate more love for others, a surprising transformation would be wrought The old home itself would seem like a different place. The people in it would not only seem to be — they would really be, different. They would not always want to be served, but would find pleasure in serving. They would not constantly be seeking to get the best of everything for them selves, but they would want to share it with others. And, if people are seeking for happiness, this is the best recipe for it in the world. The truest happiness the world knows does not come to the selfish seeker, but to the unselfish server.

The ancient Rabbis tell us of two brothers who owned and tilled a little farm as partners. One of them was childless, the other had children. The man with children felt sorry that his brother was deprived of this blessing. The heart of the one without children went out to his brother because of his added responsibilities. So one night after wheat harvest the childless brother found it in his heart to help his brother’s situation by carrying part of his sheaves over to his brother’s portion. But the same night the father, rejoicing in the little ones God had given him to rear for heaven, and sorry for his solitary brother, sought to add to his pleasure, and carried a similar number of his sheaves to his brother’s side. How many brothers and sisters have this loving interest in one another’s welfare? There are some, there ought to be many more. And life, all around, would be much happier if it were so.

Nothing can so regulate human relations as Christian love. It makes us not only kindly affectioned towards others, but also patient and forbearing when others exhibit their weaknesses toward us; it keeps down pride and envy in self; it seeks to keep self and those we love from everything unseemly; it seeks for self and all those we love every thing good.

The same principle applies to congregational life. Selfishness and hatred are divisive and destructive; love is a unifying, constructive force. In every congregation there is need of all the tenderness, patience, and forbearance the grace of God can give his children. Love in a church member does not look for honors and preferments, however great the service may be. Love does not look for slights, nor rashly resent them if they should come. Love does not become impatient, nor frown down upon those who, from lack of training, or temperamental infelicity, have difficulty in keeping up with the procession. Love helps to bear the weak brother’s burdens. And it does not do this with airs of superiority, but with meekness. Love knows better than to seek to drive men to good things. Jesus says, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44). He draws us with the cords of love, and it is by the subtle magnetism and sweet compulsion of heavenly love that the Father’s children must go forth to make their conquests.

Oh, that there were everywhere among Christians, pastors as well as people, more of the practice of this love which the Apostle calls “the bond of perfectness” (Col. 3:14). Not a word of depreciation have I to say of the desire for a wider intelligence on the part of churchmen or for a more refined culture. The love of music, beautiful church buildings, an imposing form of worship is permissible. They are things much to be desired. I love all of them. But what the church needs more than all else is a love which not only keeps pace with, but leads the advance in all other directions. We have, doubtless, enough ceremonies, confessions, and churchly privileges. What we do need is the faith-born love which puts the real soul into these things.

Are we speaking of something which is the result of mere caprice? Is this love the only thing in God’s universe not governed by law? It is not so, my brethren. There are laws governing the begetting and the growth of Christian love just as there are laws governing all other things. “God is love” (1 John 4:16). And only by so truly knowing God in Christ that we come to love Him above all things, and trust Him completely, is love for man begotten. And just as surely as we have the first, shall we have the second. But even this love must be exercised in order to grow. The arm which is not used soon loses its strength. The memory which is not developed by the effort to retain soon loses its power to retain. And love which is not put to the test soon ceases to be love. Do we entertain some grudge? Let us determine by the grace of God to root it out. Has someone offended us? By the same grace let us determine to forgive and to forget. Is there someone who seems to exercise a specially repellent influence on us? Let us summon our powers and determine that we will overcome it all by special graciousness. Such conduct will gather momentum by its own weight, and we shall grow in love, the crown of Christian virtues.

“And now abideth faith, hope, love; but the greatest of these is love.”

By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.

Luther’s Small Catechism: Series A – The Ten Commandments

Publication Information

  • Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
  • Title: “The Ten Commandments”
  • Originally Published: 1915 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2019
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0