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The Table Video

Nicholas Wolterstorff

Justice and Love: Mending the Dichotomy

Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University
June 5, 2017

Often pitted against each other, Nicholas Wolterstorff explains how justice and love are actually congruent.


When I hear you talk about love and the ethics of love, I often hear words like honor and respect


as going hand in hand. I wonder if you’d speak to that connection. What does respect have to do with love?

So what has been formative for me here, is when one day – well [chuckles] So one day I was looking at a study bible, and looking at these three commands, and then the study bible referred me to Leviticus. I had not realized until ten years ago, whatever, maybe twelve years ago that when Jesus gives the two love commands, he’s quoting.

I had [shrugs] just always assumed that he was just capturing the essence, but there in the footnote, it says, “Luke, uh- Leviticus 19 verse 18” So I go to Leviticus eight- 19 verse 18, and I discov- and there I read, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but I what I discovered is that this is- this comes at the conclusion of, you know I’ve never actually counted ’em but a long list of you shall’s and you shall not’s. Let’s just say 59 of ’em. It covers about three chapters.

A great many.

You shall reprove your neighbor when your neighbor does wrong. You shall treat your neighbor justly. You shall not render unjust judgments and so forth. And so I thought, whoa! There’s this long tradition of conflict of supposed tension between love and justice.

And low and behold, when we look at Leviticus, at the passage that Jesus is actually quoting from we see the, er, examples of doing justice are cited as examples of loving your neighbor. So that was for me, um, revelatory experience, er, and I shouldn’ve, I felt, you know, what a- what an idiot I’ve been all these years I, I should’ve known this long ago. But, um, turns out that very few Christian ethicists, to my astonishment, err, take note of the facts that the second love command is a quotation from Leviticus 19.

And why that should be- Well once you’ve seen, once you- once you look there and you see that justice is an example of doing, uh, doing love then, then the long tradition of putting justice and love against each other has- has to go.

Yeah, so using Jesus’ interpretation of- of really all- the entire Old Testament law, we, you’re suggesting that those love commands, that the command to love God and love neighbor, um come first in priority, and then all those other commands really are expressions of that-


Of those two commands

Right. So I think that Leviticus 19:18, where you read, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and then the three chapters of details, you shall’s, you shall not’s, I think, I think we have to re- read all of those, you know, I haven’t actually counted them, but let’s say 59 of them and then in effect, you have to read it like this, “In short,” you know these, “In short, as in some, love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

That’s how I- I mean what- what’s going on here, Evan, is so I- so I read, and everybody reads this command, um, it- as it occurs in the New Testament, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s basically got no context there, uh. Which will in- uh, enable you to interpret wo- interpret as to what’s meant by love. So my principle has been, well, um, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, it does have context, uh. Context doesn’t always help you to interpret but it often does and in this case it seems to me, it clearly helps to interpret and it seems to me that Jesus, Jesus and his interlocutors would’ve had that context in their, in their mind.

Yeah, and this is to know- draw the connection back to Shalom as well because in so far as those commands helped to secure Shalom in a community

Nicolas: Yep.

And in a- in a-

This in effect how Moses introduces this long series of commands for the-

How to live together.

For the sh- yeah, Isreal. For the Shalom of the community in old Isreal, um. Now be act thus.