His answer was that the most important commandment is to love God with everything you have. Then He added that the second most important commandment is to "love your neighbor as yourself."
Most sermons I've heard on this passage talk about the implied need to love ourselves, but I think Jesus was talking about something deeper than whether or not we like ourselves or have a good self image. He took it as a given that we love ourselves. This wasn't something He was commanding us to do. He knew that it was part of our human nature.
Here's my take on how we love ourselves and how that applies to the commandment to love other people.
We always judge ourselves by our inner thoughts and intentions, but we judge others by their words, actions and results. Loving others as you love yourself means always trusting that their actions are done with the best of intentions even if what they're saying or doing feels really hurtful.
I look at code I wrote more than a year ago and think, "man, that guy really didn't know what he was doing!" I know that I was doing the best I knew how at the time and it did produce the desired result. I have to remember to give others the same grace that I give my past self.
I know I have great potential and I'm learning new and better ways of doing things and relating to people all the time. I tend to look at myself through that hopeful filter. Loving others as I love myself means looking at them with unwavering hope for who they can become — believing in their potential and not getting hung up on their past mistakes.
In general, we are quick to forgive (or justify) ourselves. Even the worst criminals don't think of themselves as bad people. In the opening chapter of his book, How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie tells a few stories to make this point. Here's one of them:
When Crowley was captured, Police Commissioner E. P. Mulrooney declared that the two-gun desperado was one of the most dangerous criminals ever encountered in the history of New York. "He will kill," said the Commissioner, "at the drop of a feather."
But how did "Two Gun" Crowley regard himself? We know because while the police were firing into his apartment, he wrote a letter addressed "To whom it may concern." And, as he wrote, the blood flowing from his wounds left a crimson trail on the paper. In his letter Crowley said: "Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one — one that would do nobody any harm."
A short time before this, Crowley had been having a necking party with his girlfriend on a country road out on Long Island. Suddenly a policeman walked up to the car and said: "Let me see your license."
Without saying a word, Crowley drew his gun and cut the policeman down with a shower of lead. As the dying officer fell, Crowley leaped out of the car, grabbed the officer's revolver, and fired another bullet into the prostrate body. And that was the killer who said: "Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one — one that would do nobody any harm."
Crowley was sentenced to the electric chair. When he arrived at the death house in Sing Sing, did he say, "This is what I get for killing people"? No, he said: "This is what I get for defending myself."
The point of the story is this: "Two Gun" Crowley didn't blame himself for anything.
Loving others as ourselves means looking at those same people and not thinking of them as bad people, but instead hoping and praying that they find grace and mercy. Remember to "first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." Matthew 7:3-5
Proverbs 10:12 says, "Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins." If we ever make a mistake, we do everything we can to quickly cover it up and make sure nobody sees it. How often do we work that hard to cover up someone else's mistakes?
Loving others this way is not easy — that's why it has to be a commandment. We naturally love ourselves, but we can only love others as we love ourselves with God's help — that's why it's the second commandment.