Who is My Neighbor?

If you think the lesson of the parable of the Samaritan is that even a Samaritan is my neighbor, you may be missing the main message!

Good Samaritan

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Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

Jesus says we should love our neighbor as ourselves. We should seek their good just as we seek our own. As we discussed before, to love our neighbor we must first love ourselves, but the question arises: Who is the neighbor we should love as ourselves? In Luke chapter 10, a scholar asked Jesus this question:

“Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “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 neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers…”

Jesus Tells a Story

You can imagine the listeners crowding around to hear this intriguing story, and thus begins the parable of the Good Samaritan. We all know it; a man, presumably a Jew, was robbed, injured, and left half-dead. A priest came by but crossed the road to avoid the victim. A Levite did the same. Then a Samaritan happened by.

We know that Jews, especially scholars, despised Samaritans. Yet in this story it was a Samaritan who stopped to help the victim. Though Jews didn’t take kindly to contact by Samaritans, he manhandled the victim onto his donkey. He did this at considerable personal risk (remember the robbers) and he spent his personal money on the victim’s care.

As Jesus ended the story he asked the scholar,

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

There are Two Lessons in this Story!

Notice, however, that the original question has gotten turned around. The question was: Who is the neighbor we should love as ourselves? We might understand from this parable that the despised Samaritan is the neighbor we should love, and this is true, but there is second lesson here.

The person demonstrating how we should love our neighbor is not the Jewish victim but the despised Samaritan. The neighbor is the victim! So the lesson of the parable is not that we should love those who are beneath us, but rather we should love those who look down on us, despise us, and make our lives difficult.

There are a lot of people like that. In this blog, I often emphasize the arrogance of one such group—religious leaders, past and present, who presume to judge and dictate to common people. This parable shows how we should respond to such hurtful religious leaders: we should love them as we love ourselves.

Your observations and comments are welcome below.
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9 Responses to Who is My Neighbor?

  1. I love the way Jesus turns questions around so that there is a multi-layered meaning. 2000 years later and this lesson is just as relevant as it ever was. Interesting post.

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  2. Yes Stephen, so do I. Jesus never allows the questioner to frame the conversation. Thanks for visiting and commenting!

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  3. As with many stories there are many layers but I don’t think it’s fair to just dismiss “even a Samaritan is my neighbour” right at the start. After all at the end you basically come back to “even someone I despise and despises me [the Samaritans didn’t have a high opinion of the Jews either and Jesus’s interactions with the woman at the well suggest they could be equally legalistic (should we worship on this hill or that)] is my neighbour.

    Some of the truly revolutionary aspects of this story is that a Samaritan teaches the Jewish listeners a moral lesson (when they were the “corrupt” ones who had compromised their beliefs) and that the Victim of the mugging accepted the help, many of the listeners would have suspected the Samaritan was going to attack him more and that he would compromise his purity by being associated with the Samaritan, yet he accept the help and so lives. In many ways an echo of redemtion. Personally I have a big problem with universalism for that very reason, if someone finds God and Grace repulsive, as some do, then to force them to be before the very thing they hate, to bow before the king they don’t want wouldn’t be nice, it would be hell.

    (final fun side note “the young man seeking to justify himself” It sounds like he is trying to prove that he is good enough and ticks all the boxes by loving the “right” people)

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  4. Thanks Chris! I enjoyed your comments.

    I hope I did not dismiss “even a Samaritan is my neighbour”; that was not my intention. I simply wanted to draw attention to a less traditional ‘second’ lesson. The traditionally understood lesson is still valid, of course.

    Your statement about the victim accepting help from the Samairtan was very enlightening! All my life I have played this scene in my mind with the victim being unconscious and unable to respond. Funny how we inject our own visualization into such stories.

    You are right, I think, that the young man was trying prove he fulfilled this command by liking the right people. I am so glad none of us do that today! Thanks for the useful comments.

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  5. Pingback: What Does it Mean to Love Others as Ourselves? | Jesus Without Baggage

  6. Hi Tim . Another meaning is that the injured man represents Jesus.
    Matthew 25:34-46

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