Who are Our Neighbors?

In Matthew, we are given the scenario of the Pharisees coming to Christ to question Him about the commandments:

34 But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” 37 Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’” (Matthew 22:34–40)

Oftentimes I think the second commandment—to love our neighbor as ourselves—given above by Christ isn’t followed exactly the way He intended it to be. To clarify, I think when it comes to “neighbor” people usually fail to realize the scope of the term. The Bible is very clear on who our neighbors are, and being one of two of Christ’s commandments, I think it is very important to fully understand what He meant.

The Good Samaritan

It just so happens, like with many other lessons in the Bible, we have this very question asked by a lawyer in a passage in Luke that is very similar to the above in Matthew. I’m sure many of you have heard it. The answer Christ gives is the Parable of the Good Samaritan:

29 But he [the lawyer], wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and encountered bandits, who after having stripped him of his clothing and having wounded him, departed, leaving [him] half dead. 31 Now by coincidence a certain priest was coming down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. 32 Likewise a Levite, arriving at the place, came and saw, and passed by on the opposite side. 33 But a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came by him; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 And coming to him, he bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and putting him on his own animal, he brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave [them] to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever you spend in addition, when I come back, I will repay you.’ 36 So which of these three does it seem to you proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the bandits?” 37 And he said, “the [one] who showed mercy to him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:29–37)

In the scene drawn by Christ, we have a man (a Jew) who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho on what was known as the “Way of Blood,” a desert road where many robberies and murders were committed. It is here that Christ places the man “half dead” and then builds a story that really pierces the heart of those around Him.

The first two men—the Priest and the Levite—were most likely coming from the Temple after having served their Temple duties, as that is what Priests and Levites did. Christ tells us that when these men passed by, they both passed by on the opposite side of the road. Now being men of the Temple, they both knew the Law very well, and should know what it says about compassion. However, being men of the Temple, it was also extremely important to them to remain ritually clean, and by taking a chance of dealing with a corpse, they would have become unclean for Temple service. So this picture Christ has drawn us shows that it was more important for them to uphold their religious system than to show love and compassion on their fellow Jew dying in the ditch.

The third man to come by—a Samaritan—was the least likely to stop and help due to the utter hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans. And this is what makes this parable so wonderful. When Jesus was telling this story to the Jews, the last thing they expected was to hear that a Samaritan was the one who saved the man lying in the ditch. John Wesley comments on the passage by saying:

It was admirably well judged to represent the distress on the side of the Jew, and the mercy on that of the Samaritan. For the case being thus proposed, self interest would make the very scribe sensible, how amiable such a conduct was, and would lay him open to our Lord’s inference. Had it been put the other way, prejudice might more easily have interposed, before the heart could have been affected. (John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on Luke)

To have a Jew being saved by a Samaritan is the perfect way to word the story, or like Wesley says, prejudice could have been interposed and the whole meaning behind Christ’s words would have been missed.

The Samaritan not only stopped to help him but dressed his wounds with wine and oil and took him to the local inn to be looked after. When the Samaritan left the inn the following day, he left two denarii with the innkeeper to continue helping the man and informed him that he would repay him when he returned if it took more. How amazing and compassionate the story has turned out to be!

Christ then finishes by asking the lawyer which of the three was a neighbor to the victim of the bandits. His only reply could be that of the “[one] who showed mercy.” Wesley says that “he [the lawyer] could not for shame say otherwise, though he thereby condemned himself and overthrew his own false notion of the neighbour to whom our love is due.”[1] After shaming himself and learning the true meaning of love and compassion, Christ then says “go and do likewise.” How powerful that lesson is!

Love your Enemies

In that parable, we learn something very important about loving our neighbors; our neighbor extends beyond those that are close to us, even to our enemies. This same theme is carried throughout Christ’s teachings. We see in Luke 6:27 and 28 that Christ says: “But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you.” Our neighbors are more than just those that live next door, more than those in our family, more than those that attend our church, more than those in the body of Christ, but everyone. Even our enemies. Christ continues in Luke 6 with this:

32 But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend [to those] from whom you hope to receive [it] back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners, so that they may receive the same amount back. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping to receive nothing back; and your reward shall be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. 36 Therefore be compassionate, just as your Father also is compassionate. (Luke 6:32–36)

If we only love those who show us love and compassion, what good does that do? Christ says even the sinners do that. It is to no avail. But we are to be different from the sinners. We are to love everyone and do good to all. Just as Christ explains, even the Most High is “kind to the unthankful and evil.” And if we are to “be imitators of God as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1) then we, too, are to “walk in love, just as Christ also loved us and gave Himself for us” (Ephesians 5:2).

The Final Judgement

Think about the passage in Matthew 25 describing the last judgment:

34 Then the King will say to those on His right hand, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.” 37 Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? 38 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? 39 Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” 40 And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25: 34–40)

This is the perfect example of how we are to treat our neighbors and it also gives us more information on the scope of our neighbors: those who hunger and thirst, the stranger, the sick, the naked, and those in prison; it is the “least of these.”

Conclusion

Hopefully this has brought a little clarification to who our neighbor is. Christ says in John, “if you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Therefore, I think it is of the utmost importance to understand who our neighbor is so that we can fulfill the command of Christ to love our neighbor as ourselves. Regardless of who it is, we have learned that it can be our worst of enemies, but as Christians, it is our duty to love and treat others with compassion, even if they are persecuting us. Think about Christ who prayed for His murderers while on the cross. Or Stephen who also prayed for those that were stoning him. To lash out in revenge or cross the road on the other side to avoid someone in need would be to deny Christ. And if we deny Him, He will also deny us (Matthew 10:33).

[1] Wesley’s Explanatory Notes, Luke 10:37

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