I Am to Become a Neighbor, Not Look for One

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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What ever happened to neighbors? We used to know who they were—the folks next door, those we worked or studied with or ran into at the corner store. Today we may or may not know the people living near us. We may study and shop online and keep in touch with our closest friends by email and take weekend plane trips to visit them. But given that, what can it possibly mean to be a "neighbor"?

The "neighbor" idea was also in flux in the first century when Jesus lived in Palestine. Both in the Old Testament and in Roman culture, neighbor meant something like brother or sister. For the people of Israel, it meant a fellow member of the covenant—though on rare occasions it might extend beyond. In Roman culture, a neighbor was a countryman with whom one shared certain rights and obligations.

In first century Palestine, this common understanding of neighbor had come under attack. Jews and Romans coexisted uneasily with minority groups like Samaritans mixed in. In such a multicultural situation, who is a neighbor? We glimpse the uncertainty in an encounter in Luke 10:25-37. A smart-alecky lawyer asks Jesus how one can be sure of heaven—a trick question, clearly. Jesus turns the tables to ask him, "How do you read Scripture on this point?" The lawyer gives the expected answer from Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18, "Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself." Jesus commands him, "Go ahead and do this, and you will live."

"But who is my neighbor?" the perplexed lawyer presses—just as we might ask today.

Jesus responds with a story of a man on his way to Jerusalem who falls among thieves and is left wounded by the road. After a priest and a Levite pass by and cross the road to avoid the poor man, a Samaritan passing by immediately cares for the injured traveler. We are shocked when religious professionals show no concern and even more astounded that a Samaritan—of the religion Jews despise most—stops to help. The outcast becomes the story’s hero! The injured man is never identified, but it doesn't matter because, contrary to what we might expect, he is not the one we should treat as a neighbor. The Samaritan became the neighbor by what he did.

Never mind, Jesus seems to be saying, that people around you are different from yourself, that the old definitions of neighbor seem no longer to fit. A neighbor does not have to do with geography, culture, or social ties; it has to do with a loving response. I am to become a neighbor, not look for one. Just as Jesus the true Neighbor showed compassion toward the unfortunate ones he met, so we—by His grace—are to become a neighbor like him.