The most famous verse in Leviticus may be the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). This imperative is so sweeping that both Jesus and the rabbis regarded it as one of the two “great” commandments, the other being “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Mark 12:29-31; cf. Deut. 6:4). In quoting Leviticus 19:18, the Apostle Paul wrote that “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10).
Working for others as much as for ourselves
The crux of the command lies in the words “as yourself.” At least to some degree, most of us work to provide for ourselves. There is a strong element of self-interest in working. We know that if we don’t work, we won’t eat. Scripture commends this motivation (2 Thess. 3:10), yet the “as yourself” aspect of Leviticus 19:18 suggests that we should be equally motivated to serve others through our work. This is a very high call—to work as much to serve others as to meet our own needs. If we had to work twice as long to accomplish it—say one shift a day for ourselves and another shift for our neighbor—it would be nearly impossible.
Providentially, it is possible to love ourselves and our neighbors through the same work, at least to the degree that our work provides something of value to customers, citizens, students, family members, and other consumers. A teacher receives a salary that pays the bills, and at the same time imbues students with knowledge and skills that will be equally valuable to them. A hotel housekeeper receives wages while providing guests with a clean and healthy room. In most jobs, we would not stay employed for long if we didn't provide a value to others at least equal to what we draw in pay. But what if we find ourselves in a situation where we can skew the benefits in favor of ourselves? Some people may have enough power to command salaries and bonuses in excess of the value they truly provide. The politically connected or corrupt may be able to wring large rewards for themselves in the form of contracts, subsidies, bonuses, and make-work jobs, while providing little of value for others. Nearly all of us have moments when we can shirk our duties yet still get paid.
Thinking more broadly, if we have a wide range of choices in our work, how much of a role does serving others make in our job decisions, compared to making the most for ourselves? Almost every kind of work can serve others and please God. But that does not mean that every job or work opportunity is of equal service to others. We love ourselves when we make work choices that bring us high pay, prestige, security, comfort, and easy work. We love others when we choose work that provides needed goods and services, opportunities for marginalized people, protection for God’s creation, justice and democracy, truth, peace, and beauty. Leviticus 19:18 suggests that the latter should be as important to us as the former.
Instead of striving to meet this high calling, it is easy to relax our understanding of “love your neighbor as yourself” into something banal like “be nice.” But being nice is often nothing more than a facade and an excuse for disengaging from the people around us. Leviticus 19:17 commands us to do the opposite. “Reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself” (Lev. 19:17). These two commands—both to love and to reprove your neighbor—seem like unlikely fellows, but they are brought together in the proverb, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love” (Prov. 27:5).
Regrettably, too often the lesson we absorb at church is always to be nice. If this becomes our rule in the workplace, it can have disastrous personal and professional effects. Niceness can lull Christians into allowing bullies and predators to abuse and manipulate them and to do the same to others. Niceness can lead Christian managers to gloss over workers’ shortcomings in performance reviews, depriving them of a reason to sharpen their skills and keep their jobs in the long run. Niceness may lead anyone into holding onto resentment, bearing a grudge, or seeking revenge. Leviticus tells us that loving people sometimes means making an honest rebuke. This is not a license for insensitivity. When we rebuke, we need to do so with humility—we may also need to be rebuked in the situation—and compassion.
For a fuller discussion of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself in the workplace, see "The Command Approach in Practice" and "The Character Approach" in Ethics at Work Overview at www.theologyofwork.org.