The great commandment that we are to love our neighbour brings up the question that was asked of Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?”
Dr Luke records for us that,
“One day an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. Teacher, he asked, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus answered, What is written in the Law? How do you read it? He answered, love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus said, You answered correctly. Do this and you will live. But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, Who is my neighbour?” Luke 10:25-29
It is interesting that the man asking the question was an ‘expert in the law’. That means he studied the law and probably taught others about it. He correctly identified the two most important commandments, which are not given side by side in the Old Testament. That means he was attentive to the whole body of writing and could sift out what was important.
Yet he wanted a further definition. The command hangs on the interpretation of the word ‘neighbour’. If a neighbour is one who you know and like, who is part of your life and your world, then that is one thing. If the word ‘neighbour’ has a different meaning then fulfilling the command might require different things of us. We can all like and help those we like to help. We don’t want to care about our enemies or those we feel very uncomfortable around.
Dr Luke’s historical record notes that the teacher of the law wanted to justify himself. Maybe he wanted to justify his teaching that the word ‘neighbour’ was a more limited term, rather than a broad one.
Let’s assume for the moment that you know that great commandment, which Jesus said was the second greatest commandment of all, and let’s assume you actually intend to practice this great commandment.
That means you are actively going to elevate other people to a place of importance, and to serve them as you would wish to be served, fulfilling what we call the Golden Rule.
“Whatever you wish others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12
Or, put simply, “Do to others what you would want them do to you”.
So now you have to find out for yourself who your neighbour is. You wouldn’t want to fail to treat someone like a neighbour if you were supposed to, but then you wouldn’t want to be burdened with trying to care for people you don’t have to. What is the line defining someone who is a neighbour from those who aren’t?
Neighbour can be defined with too much limitation, not including enough people, or too broadly, including people who are not supposed to be included.
Jesus answered the question in an interesting way. Jesus told the account of a Samaritan helping an injured Israelite. We call that the account of the Good Samaritan.
The simple summary is that a man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho is attacked and left injured on the side of the road. A priest, the highest order of religious people, ignored the man and his needs. So too did a Levite, another kind of religious person. When a Samaritan came along he immediately met the man’s needs selflessly. Yet Samaritans don’t like Israelites nor Israelites Samaritans. They have different culture and religion.
Jesus then asked which of the three passers by was a true neighbour to the injured man. The answer is obvious. It is the Samaritan.
Jesus was setting quite wide boundaries in the definition of ‘neighbour’. Complete strangers can be neighbours. People who might likely be our enemies can be neighbours. All kinds of people in need can be our neighbours.
That was probably a much broader definition of neighbour to that taught by the man asking the question. I dare say the man used the Good Samaritan account from then on in his teaching.
However, is Jesus saying that everyone is our neighbour? I don’t think so.
Some zealous Christians can come up with the idea that everyone in the whole world is our neighbour and we have to love them all. Those people might invest themselves in chasing after need upon need, keen to do all in their power for everyone else.
That’s wonderful, but that is not what Christ is teaching.
The Good Samaritan took the injured man to an inn and saw to his needs, agreeing to pay any extras when he passed that way again. Note, though, that having found this wounded man the Good Samaritan did not set up a search party to go looking for other wounded men. He did not set up a Trust Fund for the good of all people attacked on the road. The Samaritan met the needs of one man and one man only. That was the man he came across while living his normal life and going about his normal business.
Observing that, we can come up with a working definition of ‘neighbour’ as, those people you come across in your daily life.
Neighbour doesn’t include all the needy people in the world. It doesn’t include all the sufferers we could be concerned about. It includes those God puts in your path on a day to day basis, in the course of your normal life.
So the definition of ‘neighbour’ is very broad, because you could come across just about anyone. But it is also very narrow, because on some days you might not come across anyone in need at all.
I smile at the story I heard of an Australian man who was in California and saw a lady sitting in a fancy convertible, with a flat tyre. He immediately went to her aid, jacked up the tyre, changed the wheel and put everything back in order again. As he told the lady she was good to go she waved a $100 bill for him to take and he declined. He didn’t do it for money, just to help out someone in need. She then pulled out a card and gave it to him, saying that if he ever had any needs he should call her. He looked at the card, bemused, and asked, “Madonna who?” He didn’t even know there was a performer named Madonna.
Now that man, if the story is true, was being a neighbour. Not to everyone who had a flat tyre, but to the one flat tyre he came across.
I recall hearing that people in old days would greet each other with the greeting, “Howdy, neighbour.” Maybe that wasn’t just a polite greeting, but a way of reminding themselves that the person they just met, even if a stranger to them, is right then and there, their ‘neighbour’ and someone they were to love just as much as they love their own self.