25 Love

Two different words out of the original Greek of the New Testament both get translated as “love.” The resulting confusion steals some of the clarity of Jesus’ teaching.

With apologies to scholars ... entry numbers from a concordance book provide a handy alternative to reproducing the Greek characters. In a concordance that I happen to use, one of the Greek words we render as “love” is entry #5368. This “love” is intense fondness—the emotional state of relishing and the superlative of “like.” I can use this word to say I love my family, and I can just as accurately use it to say I love the films of Bill Murray.

The other word that gets rendered as “love,” the one Jesus tended to use in his commands, is entry #25. This type of love is more of a moral state than an emotional one. To “love” in this way means to regard the object of love as being inherently worthy.

When Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” the word he used was 25 love. We are more accustomed to thinking of 5368 love. Therefore, we read the command as saying, “Have tender and gushy feelings for your neighbor.” We try to cultivate these feelings, often fail, confess our inadequacy, and leave the matter there.

A better translation might be “serve.” This is not a great translation, in part because it is possible to serve someone out of a sense of personal low worth (which is false) rather than a sense of the other person’s high worth. Nevertheless, try this substitution, if only as an approximation, just to land closer to what Jesus originally said.

When Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” read this as “Serve your neighbor.”

In John 13:34, when Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you”—just after he finished washing the disciples’ feet—try reading this instead as saying, “Now serve one another as I have just served you.”