Two general rules about Jesus stories. No. 1: You don’t want to be the guy asking “Who is my neighbor?”
That seems like a reasonable question, in the abstract. But in the context of Jesus stories, it’s not — not abstract and not reasonable. Jesus has already made the answer perfectly clear in every other Jesus story — in every other story told by or about him, every collection of his sayings, every tradition passed on by the followers who knew him. Jesus’ answer to that question is what he’s known for. It’s who he is.
So asking that question in a Jesus story is always a kind of challenge to what Jesus has been saying and teaching and doing. Luke gets at that when he says that the Bible scholar who asked Jesus this question was “wanting to justify himself.” The Bible scholar already knew what Jesus’ answer to his question had been before, and it seems like maybe he was trying to make Jesus walk that back a bit. So he wan’t just asking “Who is my neighbor?” but something more like “You sound as though you’re saying that we should treat everyone everywhere as our neighbor, with no limits and no boundaries, so seriously, come on, that can’t really be what you’re saying, is it?”
And Jesus said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers …”
Or, in other words, “Yep. That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
That was exactly what Jesus was always saying in this and in every Jesus story. In all the stories told by him and in all the stories told about him.
The only Jesus story where he ever said or did anything different was the one in which he lost an argument with a Syrian widow. That Jesus story has a twist at the beginning in that it’s Jesus who, “wanting to justify himself,” asks the question, “Yes, but who is my neighbor?” The unclean old Gentile lady reminds him of his usual answer to that question: Everybody, no limits and no boundaries. And Jesus laughs and says, “You got me!” and heals her unclean Gentile daughter because that’s the point of the story.
Even with the twist, after all, it’s still a Jesus story. And this is always the point in Jesus stories. And you don’t want to be the guy in a Jesus story who’s trying to argue that anyone anywhere is not your neighbor — that anyone anywhere is beyond the bounds of your obligation to love your neighbor.
This isn’t the only theme in Jesus stories, nor is it the main theme in every Jesus story (although it often is). But this theme is present in and congruent with all of them.
I’ve been using sweeping, conclusive, categorical language here — every, all, always, etc. Such language may prompt you to seek counter-examples. That’s a good impulse, and as a former copy editor I applaud the instinct. Superlatives and grand, no-exceptions statements should always be viewed skeptically. But such skepticism isn’t an excuse to ignore an obvious pattern or a gigantic, relentlessly unsubtle major theme.
And that brings us to general rule No. 2: Jesus stories need to be read in the context of all the other Jesus stories. If you think you’ve found a special, exceptional Jesus story that contradicts and overrules all the other Jesus stories, and you’re thinking that this uniquely special story can be read and understood as wholly separate and unrelated to all the others, then you’re probably not reading it right.
And that, at last, brings us to our main point here, which is about one of may favorite Jesus stories, from the 25th chapter of Matthew. This is a story about Jesus telling a story about sheep and goats.
This is a Day of Judgment story and so it might seem, in a way, to contradict all that business about boundless and limitless love we talked about above. Judgment, after all, involves drawing boundaries and Jesus/Jesus’ story does that here — separating the blessed “sheep” from the cursed “goats.” But then, as it turns out, the basis for this separation is that the sheep treated everyone as their neighbor, while the goats were more selective and exclusive. So it’s not a contradiction of that major theme at all, but rather an emphatic affirmation of it. It’s another Jesus story in which you really, really don’t want to be the guy asking “Who is my neighbor?”
And yet, like the Bible scholar in that other Jesus story, we can’t seem to help ourselves. Jesus’ repeated insistence on love without limits and love without boundaries is so outrageously impossible that we find the question irresistible: Love our neighbors, yes fine, but … ahem … who is our neighbor?
The question, as always, is an attempt to find a loophole or an escape clause. Whenever we ask “Who is my neighbor?” what we really mean is “Who is not my neighbor?” or, less tactfully, “Can’t you please just tell us that there’s somebody we’re allowed not to love?”
And, happily for those of us once again asking this goat-ish question, our most lawyerly lawyers may have found one here. The language in Jesus’ story is just maybe ambiguous enough to provide a bit of wiggle room. See, here’s what Jesus says in Matthew 25:40: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Or, in the perhaps more familiar King James translation: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Hah! See that bit there about “members of my family” or “my brethren”? Squint a bit and that could be just the limit and the boundary we’ve been looking for! Jesus says that we’re obliged — expected, commanded, required — to feed and clothe and welcome and care for “the least of these.” But that vast category gets bounded and limited and qualified as only a lesser sub-set of the least of these. It only applies to the least of these who are among “my brethren” or who are among the “members of my family.”
So here, at long last, we can find the excuse we’ve been desperately searching for ever since that Bible scholar first got up the gumption to carve out some boundaries by asking “Who is my neighbor?” Here, at last, we have a Jesus story in which Jesus tells us that we’re not obliged to treat everyone as our neighbor, to love everyone everywhere without boundaries and limits. That obligation is bounded — extending only as far as our fellow Christians and the rest of the brethren who are members of our church family.
The problem, alas, is that this language is, as we mentioned above, ambiguous. That bit about “my brethren” or the “members of my family” might not imply a restriction in number but might rather simply describe how Jesus’ regards all of “the least of these” everywhere, without exception. It might be Jesus saying that he considers every hungry, homeless, naked, imprisoned or fugitive person anywhere as his kin. “My brethren” might not restrict his meaning to a sub-set of the category of “the least of these,” but it might be, rather, a synonym for that category.
So which is it?
Well, if we take this one text and run off with it to an exegetical laboratory we could probably whip up a strong case either way. We could make like Descartes and lock ourselves in an oven to ponder the various possible interpretations here, parsing every syllable of the original Greek. We could convene a blue-ribbon panel of theologians and seminary professors to debate the long history of arguments that have been made by eminent divines throughout the centuries — some advocating the more restrictive reading and others advocating the more expansively universal one.
All of those things have been tried and retried a thousand times over during the past 2,000 years of Christianity, and the result has been the determination that this ambiguous language is, in fact, ambiguous. If we examine the text of this one Jesus story in isolation, we can make a solid argument either way, with two very different possible answers to the question “Who is my neighbor?”
So rather than go through all of that history and argument yet again, let me just point out that this is a Jesus story. And I think there are two general rules to keep in mind when reading Jesus stories. One is that you shouldn’t try to read a single Jesus story in isolation from all the other Jesus stories. And the other is that, in any Jesus story, you really, really do not want to be the guy asking “Who is my neighbor?”