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Jesus Traditions

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Contents of Jesus Traditions

Love (Agapê)


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.


The red font indicates the probable use of Mark by Matthew and Luke.


Matthew 22:34-40, 46

Mark 12:28-34

Luke 10:25-28

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?” 28One 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 there?”
  29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 
37He 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. 30you 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.’ 27He 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 your mind;
39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  


31The 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 will live.”
40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
  32Then 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.” 20:39  Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.”








46No 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. 20:40  For 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 attraction. 

The meaning of agapê

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 attraction. 

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 husband.

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 (Matthew 22:40).

  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 prophets.

  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 styles. 

  4. 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.


Revised August 25, 2003


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