Of all the desires that motivate human beings, the desire for personal righteousness—wanting to be right—is the most pernicious. There is no evil, no matter how unspeakable, we will not commit if we can convince ourselves that what we are doing is for the greater good. We will put up with caging children at our borders, turning away the poor and sick, righteously stifling our own sense of mercy in service to outrage at some injustice. The desire to be right makes us spin our own actions, not only to impress others, but to burnish the image we have of ourselves. We willingly deceive ourselves about ourselves in order to preserve an image of ourselves that is noble, caring, even kind while approving and even performing acts that are cruel and selfish. The desire for personal righteousness makes us remorseless and unrepentant. After all, repentance requires acknowledging sin in our own lives. Sometimes, we willingly acknowledge some acceptable sin in an effort to cover up a deeper, more entrenched sin to which we are culpably blind. No wonder Jesus talked about picking specks out of others’ eyes while being unaware of the plank in our own eyes!
The Bible writers were well aware of how pervasive and pernicious is the desire to be right. That is why they repeated again and again, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” They wanted to assure their readers that no matter what they thought about themselves, the reality was that all their efforts at being right were worthless. As Isaiah puts it, “All our righteous deeds are like used menstrual cloths.” They are not merely rubbish, but the worst, most disgusting rubbish. (The Jews regarded a woman during her period as ceremonially unclean. She could not enter the temple or approach God. Whatever she touched would also become unclean. While laws regarding menstruation unfairly stigmatized women, they also protected the community from the spread of disease at a time when humans knew nothing about microbes.)
We cannot merely rid ourselves of the desire to be right, however. It is fundamental to our humanity. Though it deceives us time and again, it also makes us want to do better. It inspires us to keep trying to do good. What a quandary we are in—wanting to do what is good but lacking the capacity!
Therefore God has imputed righteousness to those who put their faith in Jesus. He satisfies our desire to be right without requiring us to be sinless. Because he has shown us such mercy and grace, he enables us to likewise show mercy toward those who are also trying—and failing—to do what is right.
Everyone is a hero in their own story. While some tell their story to evoke pity and others admiration, we all mitigate our sins to ourselves. We all make excuses for ourselves and seek forgiveness for our worst blunders. “If you only knew what it was like,” we say, and we are quite right to say it. None of us knows anyone better than ourselves. We know how hard we try. We know how often we fail. Despite this knowledge and the free gift that God offers of his own righteousness, we remain unwilling to acknowledge before him just how much we need what he has. To do so, we would have to admit we were wrong.
It has become standard practice now to follow “Love your neighbor as yourself” with admonitions to love yourself. Yet the New Testament never has any such admonitions. Has self-loathing become such a problem over the past 2,000 years that we now need to be told to love ourselves? Or are we missing something that first-century readers took for granted?
When Jesus told his disciples to love their neighbors as themselves, he was talking about care. He was not talking about feelings of self-worth or affection. He was not urging people to like their neighbors but to care for them. If your neighbor is hungry and you have food, feed them. If your neighbor is thirsty and you have drink, give them a drink. If your neighbor is naked and you have extra clothing, clothe them. Don’t ignore your neighbor’s need but treat it as you would your own. Just as you would act on your own behalf to secure what you need to thrive, so act on your neighbor’s behalf to help them thrive. This is what the New Testament means by love. It is care.
Jesus made this meaning explicit when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. There was nothing about how the Samaritan felt affection toward the injured traveler or how the Samaritan had to like himself first in order to help. No. He took care of his obvious needs when the man was unable to care for himself. Instead of blaming the man for whatever he did to become a victim, he just saw a fellow human being in need and went out of his way to help him. He treated him as he himself would have wanted to be treated—with kindness, compassion, and love. He took care of the man. He tended him and paid for his continued care. He helped.
This kind of care is not intended as a long term relationship of dependency. The Samaritan did not undertake to provide for the injured traveler for the rest of his life. He didn’t seek to make the man show gratitude. He just did what was within his means to provide the sort of short-term help he could see the man needed. He assumed that when the man recovered, he would resume taking care of himself.
Jesus contrasts the Samaritan’s behavior with that of two other men, both revered by his Jewish audience: a priest and a Levite. These two men, steeped in the Law and assumed to be holier than the average Jew, did not see a fellow human being in need. They saw an entanglement to be avoided, and unexpected expense, a burden. Their own pursuits were more important than the life of the beaten traveler. They didn’t have time. They didn’t care.
Jesus made his hero a Samaritan to drive home that the love he is talking about transcends racial and social barriers. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews as half-breeds who had compromised their faith and married Gentiles. If anyone had reason to not help the man who had been robbed and beaten, it was the Samaritan. But he did not see a hated Jew bleeding by the roadside. He saw a human being. He didn’t have to like him. He didn’t have to be friends with him. He didn’t have to keep in touch after the man recovered. He just had to help him when he needed help.
The New Testament writers assumed that those they were writing to were adult enough to care for themselves. That is why there are no admonishments to love yourself. Reasonably healthy people take care of themselves. They feed and clothe themselves and take showers and go to work and earn their own living. It doesn’t mean that they like themselves or don’t feel ashamed or guilty. It doesn’t mean that they have high self-esteem or self-confidence. The love they have for themselves expresses itself in care for themselves. It is that kind of love that Jesus urges his followers to have for their neighbors, a willingness to help when help is needed, a willingness to bear someone else’s burden for a while. Love is care.