Leviticus 19:17–18 says:
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
In the Gospels of Matthew (22:34–40) and Mark (12:28–34) Jesus quotes that final line as the second of the two Great Commandments. In the Gospel of Luke, it is Jesus’ questioner who quotes it, leading to the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan. We’ll get to that shortly.
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) picks up on these Bible themes with this statement in Secrets of Heaven #1088:
People lacking in kindness think nothing but evil and speak nothing but evil of their neighbor. If they have anything good to say, it is only for their own benefit, or else it is an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the person, under the guise of friendship. People who love their neighbor think nothing but good and speak nothing but good of others. They do so not for their own sake or to curry favor with others but because it is what results when the Lord stirs their sense of kindness.
He goes on to say that thinking and speaking evil about other people is what evil spirits prompt us to do; but thinking and speaking good of others is what angels prompt us to do.
In the previous post, “Our New Year’s Resolution Idea for You: Look for the Good in 2015,” Annette and I suggested this as a collective New Year’s Resolution:
Look for the good in the people around us, in our communities, and in the world.
Maybe this sounds like just another of those nice but not so practical warm and fuzzy feel-good notions.
In fact, it is the way of the angels. And for us, it is not only the way we become angels, but also the way we help others to become angels.
Let’s take a closer look.
Who is my neighbor?
When I was considerably younger and even more foolish than I am today, I used to get just a little bit annoyed at the Parable of the Good Samaritan. (If you’re not familiar with it, you can follow the link to read it first.)
Yes, it’s a wonderful story and all. It spins a fine tale about an act of great kindness done by a reviled Samaritan, blowing holes in all sorts of well-established prejudices and dogmas. Oh, so many layers of meaning!
“But,” I said to myself, “Jesus didn’t really answer the question, did he?!?”
It’s easy to miss, because by the time you get to the end of the story, you’re so enthralled with the hated Samaritan doing the good deed that the revered priest and Levite didn’t do that you tend to forget about the original question.
Not me. I remembered. The lawyer had asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
But that’s not the question Jesus answered, is it?
Jesus answered the question, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?
Do you see the difference?
Okay, the difference doesn’t look quite so big to me now.
But to my supremely logical teenage mind, it appeared that Jesus had done a masterful job of verbal aikido in order to talk about what he wanted to talk about instead of answering the guy’s question. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. Sometimes distracting people is the best way to deal with some of the annoying stuff they say and do.
Still, it kind of annoyed me. By golly, I wanted to know Who Is My Neighbor? And Jesus didn’t answer the question!
Our neighbor is the good in other people
Fast forward a few years, and peel away just a few layers of teenage conceit (otherwise known as foolishness), and it began to dawn on me that Jesus actually had answered the lawyer’s question.
Yes, Jesus did tell the lawyer that even hated outcasts such as Samaritans were neighbors. In other words, everyone is our neighbor—even people we don’t like.
But Jesus’ answer went much deeper than that. With this parable he identified precisely who and what our neighbor is from a spiritual perspective.
I can’t take any credit for the insight. It was Swedenborg who clued me in. He said in Secrets of Heaven #10336 (among other places):
People who love their neighbor as themselves love what is good and true simply because it is good and true. They do this because in a broad sense, our neighbor is whatever is good and true. (emphasis added)
Did you catch that?
To put it in somewhat less abstract and more personal terms, when we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves, this means we are to love everything that’s good and true in the people around us.
Think about it. When the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus laid out the scene and then asked the lawyer in turn, “Which of these was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The lawyer probably couldn’t bring himself to say, “The Samaritan.” Instead, he said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
In this way, Jesus drew out of the questioner a very precise spiritual answer to the question of who is our neighbor. No matter what the person looks like or what we think of the person, the neighbor is the part of others that thinks, feels, and acts out of mercy and kindness. Or in Swedenborg’s shorthand, the neighbor is everything good and true in other people.
How to love our neighbor
This means at least two things.
First, it means that everyone is our neighbor. That’s because there is no person on earth who is pure evil. Yes, there are some people who are pretty bad. But we humans aren’t pure anything. Only God is. So no matter whom you encounter as you go about your daily rounds, there is at least some good in that person.
Second, it means that the commandment to love our neighbor is not just about acting from some generalized sense of kindness and goodwill toward others. It is a much more precise and practical commandment than that.
When Jesus said that the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves, he was giving us our marching orders. If we read that commandment in light of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, those orders are to look for what is good and true in the people around us, and love that in them.
Incidentally, when we love what is good and true in other people, we are loving God in them, because everything good and true comes from God.
It may come as a relief that we don’t have to love what’s evil and false in the people around us. We don’t have to love their foolishness, their lies, or their jerky behavior. But we still do have to love them, even when they’re being foolish lying jerks. And the way we do that is to not focus on what’s bad about them, but to look for what’s good in them, and do what we can to bring that out in them.
Reproving our neighbor
In case this seems too lovey-dovey and dreamy-eyed, let’s take a look at one way we can love what’s good and true in our neighbor by recognizing what is evil and false in them. As quoted earlier, Leviticus 19:17 says:
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.
At first these may sound like two unrelated commandments just strung together. But in fact, they’re closely connected.
We’re told not to hate in our heart anyone of our kin. (And these days we know that our “kin” is the entire human race.) If someone has done something wrong, and it’s causing us to feel anger and hatred toward them in our heart, instead of holding it in, we’re told to reprove our neighbor. Here’s how Jesus puts it in Matthew 18:15–16:
If your brother or sister commits an offense against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” [a reference to Deuteronomy 19:15].
Jesus goes on from there, but that’s enough for now. The point is, if we see someone doing something wrong, it does no good to be angry at that person in our heart. Instead, it’s our task to bring it up with them and do our best to resolve it. We may not always be successful, but it’s better than simmering against them until it boils over in some other way.
The commandment to love what is good and true in others doesn’t mean we’re supposed to ignore what is evil and false in them. In fact, one of our jobs with our fellow human beings is to do our best to separate them from the bad parts of themselves. One way of doing this is to confront them when they are doing something that’s hurtful to us or to other people. If we can prevail upon them not to do it anymore, we’ve helped them to become a better person—which means we’ve helped them to grow toward becoming an angel.
Think no evil, speak no evil
Here is the rest of the quote from Secrets of Heaven #1088:
Evil spirits always arouse bad impulses and false ideas in us, and they condemn us. Angels, though, arouse only good impulses and true ideas, and whatever is evil or false they excuse. All of this shows that people lacking in kindness are under the control of evil spirits, who keep us in touch with hell, while people endowed with kindness are under the control of angels, who keep us in touch with heaven.
Remember, Swedenborg didn’t say, “See no evil, hear no evil.” He said, “Think no evil, speak no evil.”
Evil spirits look for bad impulses and false ideas in us, and they condemn us. That is thinking and speaking evil. They identify us with what’s bad in us, and use it to drag us down.
On the other hand, when angels see things that are wrong in us, they excuse it. This does not mean angels consider it A-OK for us lie, cheat, steal, and so on. Rather, it means that they don’t see that as the real us. When angels see the bad parts of us, they look deeper. They look to the heart of goodness that is within all of us. And that is what they think of as our true self. The rest is a false crust to be chipped away and discarded.
You see, what the angels are doing in their minds and hearts is separating us from the evil and falsity that has been attached to us. What they look for instead is everything that’s good in us. And they do their best to draw that out of us, and inspire us to think of our best self as our real self.
That is precisely what we are commanded to do with every person around us. Everyone we know has good in them. Our job is to find it and draw it out. When we think and speak no evil of our neighbor, but think and speak of what is good and true in them, we are walking on the way of angels, and leading the people around us on the path toward heaven.
For further reading: