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of Ethical Issues
Greek has three words for love: erôs, philia, and agapê. Not
occurring in the New Testament, erôs is used when one speaks of desiring
something, whether it is the desire for truth, beauty and goodness, or romantic
Philia is used particularly of love between friends; it implies
mutuality of interests and affection.
Agapê is love which actively expresses good will toward a
person, seeking that person’s best interests. In distinction from erôs,
agapê does not depend upon the desirability or attractiveness of
the person who is loved, and is characterized more by willing than by
feeling. In contrast to philia, agapê may or may not be
reciprocated. We may also observe that agapê may be commanded (as
in the great commandment, below) since it is often a matter of the will
rather than some spontaneous feeling.
While these distinctions are useful, we do well to avoid
over-simplifications: affection may be associated with agapê, and two or even three types of love
may be present at the same time, as in the relationship between wife and
The Love Commandment
We cannot overestimate
the importance of love (agapê) in the teaching of Jesus: love is at the heart of Jesus’
spirituality and ethics. This priority is reflected especially in the text
which declares love of God to be the first commandment, and love of
neighbor, the second.
font indicates the probable use of Mark by Matthew and Luke.
Matthew 22:34-40, 46
|34When the Pharisees
heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and
one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher,
which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another,
and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which
commandment is the first of all?”
||25Just then a lawyer
stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to
inherit eternal life?” 26He
said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read
answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the
Lord is one;
said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your
heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This
is the greatest and first commandment.
shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your
soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’
answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all
a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
There is no other commandment greater than these.”
||and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And
he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you
|40On these two
commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly
said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33and
‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding,
and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as
oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt
offerings and sacrifices.” 34When
Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not
far from the kingdom of God.”
Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken
one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone
dare to ask him any more questions.
||After that no one dared to ask him any question.
they no longer dared to ask him another question.
|Even as we make allowance for a
number of interesting variations in the texts, the outcome is clear: the
obligation to love God with your whole being, and your neighbor as
yourself. What is not so clear to many readers is that agapê, the
distinctive New Testament word for love, carries a meaning somewhat
different from popular English usage, where love so often implies romantic
Loving . . . whom?
1. Loving God is the first
and greatest commandment. Loving God with our whole being—heart, soul and strength—is not new with Jesus; it was already
familiar to Jewish listeners from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, and from the shema‘, an indispensable part of Jewish piety, recited at rising and
sleeping, and at synagogue worship.
Learned Jewish teachers debated which of the 613 commandments in Torah
was most important. Jesus not only recognized loving God as the greatest,
but seems to have implied that all the teachings of Jewish scripture
(“the law and prophets”) were implied in loving God and neighbor
2. Loving our neighbor as
our self is also not original with Jesus; it is a quotation of Leviticus
19:18. It is given a place of honor second only to love for God. We
are to seek our neighbor’s welfare to the degree that we seek our own.
With good insight, the author of Luke connects the parable of the Good
Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) with a discussion of the love
commandment (Luke 10:25-29).
The Golden Rule is similar
to neighbor-love, except that it leaves unspecified the manner in
which one treats other persons.
Matthew 7:12 In everything do to
others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the
3. Loving our self. If self
love is the gauge by which love for neighbor is measured, then it is
reasonable to conclude that self love is acceptable, and even mandatory. To be
sure, such love is to be understood in the sense of agapê, not
some sort of narcissistic erôs. Agapê allows a positive
self-affirmation (not to be confused with rampant egoism), which recognizes our
own intrinsic worth. This interpretation seems to be confirmed by
psychologists, who tell us that it is difficult to love other persons if
we do not love ourselves. A healthy self love will also steer us away from self-destructive life
Loving our enemies. The
commandment to love our enemies seems to be a contradiction in terms, and
indeed it is, if we are using love in the sense of erôs or philia.
But to love our enemies in the sense of agapê
is at least intelligible, if not easy. To do so does not require that we
are romantically attracted to the enemy, or that we necessarily even like the
enemy; instead, it is a challenge to show good will toward the enemy, actively
to seek the
enemy’s best interests.
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