“Who is My Neighbor?” And The Question We Should Be Asking Instead

Scroll this

I really like questions. I like to ask them, and if it’s something that I’m knowledgeable of, I like trying to answer them. Questions possess fascinating potential. Luke 10:25–37, what is probably most familiar to us as the parable of the Good Samaritan, is full of questions, and I don’t mean that it’s full of mysteries or unknowns. Here, we see a give-and-take of questions with serious implications.

The first question comes when a man stands up and asks Jesus, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” We could restate the question, “What does God require?” Luke tells us that the questioner is a lawyer: a man whose expertise is in the interpretation and application of the Law of Moses. He decides to put Jesus’ knowledge to the test, asking him what he must do to participate in the life of the Kingdom to come.

Jesus responds to this question the way he often does: with another question. He never did this as mere avoidance, nor was he ignorant or unequipped. As we have here, he asked questions to expose motives and to instruct. He knew that a well-placed question is o en more effective than a direct answer.

Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer. “You’re an expert in God’s law,” he says. “How do you understand it?” Appropriately, the lawyer recites two familiar passages from the Mosaic law. The first comes from Deuteronomy 6:4–5: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Secondly, he refers to the la er half of Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

He answered correctly. The answer to the question, “What does God require?” is summed up in these two commands. Love God with your whole self; love your neighbor as yourself. That’s pretty concise and succinct, but don’t be fooled by the brevity of the answer. What is so easily stated is not so easily lived out when we understand it properly.

We tend to sentimentalize these commands, diluting and weakening their force. We miss the implicit demands if we think all they require are warm feelings toward God and other people. We are also prone to define love as seems best to us. That won’t do. The God who commands love also defines it.

What does it mean to love God? The verb that is translated as “love” in Deuteronomy 6 doesn’t communicate so much an emotional response as it does one of covenantal commitment, of lived out loyalty. It means to honor God, to obey Him with all of my faculties. It’s whole-person obedience with my body, my will, my affections, and my mind.

“Love your neighbor as yourself ” is closely related to the command to love God. In Leviticus 19, the imperative to love your neighbor as yourself is followed by God’s declaration, “I am the Lord.” In other words, to love my neighbor as myself is in some way to acknowledge the lordship of God.

Still, what does it mean to love my neighbor as myself? There has been a lot of confusion about this. Some have sought to find in these words an implicit demand to first love oneself, and then after having “mastered” that, to love one’s neighbor. I’m convinced that is completely wrong. The command assumes that self-love already exists and that it should be used as a standard of measurement by which I love my neighbor. To love my neighbor as myself is to exert the same energy and determination that I spend pursuing my own wellbeing in seeking the wellbeing of my neighbor.

Martin Luther put it this way in his commentary on Galatians: “If you want to know how you ought to love your neighbor, ask yourself how much you love yourself . . . You do not need any book of instructions to teach you how to love your neighbor; all you have to do is look into your own heart, and it will tell you how you ought to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Having answered His question, Jesus commends the lawyer, saying, “You’ve answered well. Go do it.” With this response, was Jesus suggesting that eternal life could be gained by law-keeping? No. The weighty demand of the Law must always be experienced if we are to cry out for the mercy of God and flee to Christ for salvation. But we see this was not the lawyer’s reaction.

The lawyer instead asks another follow-up question: “Who is my neighbor?” If we considered this question by itself, it could almost seem that the lawyer had an eager heart to obey God’s commands. Yet Luke makes it clear this is not the case. This is no innocent inquiry; there is a self-seeking, sinister motive underlying the question.

Notice what is going on here. Faced with the obligation to love his neighbor as himself, he wants to somehow narrow the field of those to whom he is responsible to exercise such love. He wants some criteria by which he can determine which human beings he is responsible to love and which he is not. To put it plainly, he is seeking to rationalize his prejudices and indiffer- ence toward certain others, to limit the scope of those to whom this obligation of neighborly love is due.

Oh, how I want to wag my finger at this lawyer and side with Jesus against him! But, if I’m painfully honest, I have much more in common with the lawyer than is comfortable to admit. Even at this stage in my Christian life, I have much more in common with him than I do with Jesus. I wish to strain people through a mental sieve, separating those I must care for from those I’m free to pass over. I want to be the one to determine who’s deserving of my time and attention. Who can I ignore? Whose eyes can I avoid making contact with today? Whose needs can I pretend not to see? Who counts Who doesn’t?

Whom do you tend to place outside the boundaries of “neighbor?” The person whose politics are diametrically opposed to your own? People who process ideas differently than you, perhaps faster or slower? People who are more or less educated than you? People who just aren’t into what you’re into? Those whom you deem, for whatever reason, as not “cool?” People who don’t speak the same language as you do, or at least, not as well? People from a different socioeconomic level? People who are homeless or impoverished, maybe having a criminal past? People who are ethnically different?

Like the lawyer, we are prone to divvy up the pie of humanity and determine which slices are okay not to love. But that’s not the way of Jesus. That’s a question He won’t entertain.

To this question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus doesn’t give an answer. In fact, He appears to dismiss it. He denies the lawyer’s attempt to specify whom he has to love. Instead, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.

In this well-known story, we read that a man, presumably a Jew traveling down a treacherous road, is beaten by robbers and left for dead. Two travelers, both of whom are the religious elite of Israel, pass him by. Yet a third traveler arrives, a Samaritan, and it is he who ministers to the man. Through the attitude and actions of the Samaritan, Jesus teaches us that if our focus is on determining which humans we are bound to love and which we are not, we’ve got it all wrong. Rather than debating who counts as our neighbor, we are called to become a neighbor to anyone on our path, even those whom we might think are unworthy of our compassion. Jesus destroys our selfish attempts to narrow the field of those we must love. He demands that we widen the field to include those we would otherwise overlook, especially those who are defenseless, weak, and subject to the exploitation of others. Rather than asking, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus says we should be asking, “Am I being a neighbor?”

There is intentional shock value in Jesus’ use of the Samaritan. When the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom, they colonized the area by settling it with pagans from other nations. The Samaritans intermarried with the pagan nations and were therefore regarded by the Jews as half-breed traitors unfaithful to the nation of Israel. If He were making the same point today to an audience of Democrats, the Samaritan would be a Republican. If it were a crowd of Republicans, the Samaritan would be a Democrat. You can detect the revulsion that the lawyer had for Jesus’ choice of exemplar. Jesus asks him at the end of His parable, “Which man proved himself to be a neighbor to the man who had fallen among robbers?” The lawyer can’t even bring himself to say, “the Samaritan.” He only says, “the one who showed mercy.”

This is where Jesus makes His point most clear: It was only the Samaritan, a foreigner looked upon with contempt, who saw the man and responded as a neighbor. “When he saw him, he had compassion” (10:33). The word “compassion” here is the same word used so frequently to describe Jesus’ own motivation in doing good works. It’s the word used in Luke 15 of the prodigal son’s father when he saw him from a distance and ran to him. It connotes, “to be deeply moved inwardly.” In our efforts to uphold the truth that biblical love is more than a feeling, we need to be careful that we don’t totally divest love of all feelings whatsoever. The Samaritan is presented as one whose merciful action was prompted by compassion.

Not only does becoming a neighbor involve compassion, it also involves cost. Think about what it cost the Samaritan to be a neighbor. Being a neighbor costs precious time; he was on a journey, with his own destination and schedule when he stopped to help. Being a neighbor costs possessions; he spent his own oil and wine to dress a stranger’s wounds. Being a neighbor costs convenience and comfort; he put the weak man on his animal, requiring that he walk the rest of the way. Being a neighbor costs finances; the Samaritan spent his own money to see that the man would have a place to stay, and he committed to pay for the care he required.

Loving God with one’s whole self and being a neighbor who exercises costly compassion to those in need— that’s what God requires. If my hope of eternal life hinged on how well I did that, I would have no reason for hope at all. But there is one who, like the Samaritan, was despised and rejected, one who flawlessly loved His Father and who saw our dire spiritual need and gave not only what He had, but His very self for us. One greater than the Samaritan has come and paid a price to rescue and restore those ruined, not by thieves, but by their own waywardness. Moved by a profound love for God the Father and deep compassion for us who were His enemies, He gave His life for us. Yes, to pardon us for our failure to love God and our neighbor. But even more—to cause His Spirit to live in us, transforming us into people no longer preoccupied with the question, “Who is my neighbor?” but with the question, “To whom can I be a neighbor—for their good and to the glory of God?”

Dr. Keith Plummer is the dean of the School of Divinity. He can be reached at kplummer@cairn.edu.