Who is My Neighbor?

Who is My Neighbor? July 18, 2016

I had someone ask me about the claims made on a blog called Theological Sushi about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Here is an example of what the post claims (click through to read the details):

This is an important argument for understanding who the neighbor is. The laws in the Old Testament do not command us to take care of the unbeliever. Instead, all of the laws have to do with preserving the life of one’s fellow covenant community member, doing what is just to one’s fellow covenant member, not defrauding one’s fellow covenant community member. The only thing the law commands about the unbeliever is to not adopt his ways, to reject his gods, and to drive him out of the land. If all of the law is fulfilled in loving the plēsion, however, this means that the plēsion does not include the unbeliever, but instead, only refers to the fellow community member…

The idea that everyone is the neighbor is a social gospel tradition that has invaded the modern church. The idea that everyone is not my brother, but everyone is my neighbor is a syncretism of the social gospel and orthodox Christianity. It simply is not what the New Testament teaches. This becomes important, of course, in understanding to whom Christians are obligated in terms of ministering with physical resources.

The irony is that the post accurately reflects the perspective of the person who asked Jesus “who is my neighbor?” in the story in the Gospel of Luke. The question could be paraphrased as “to whom am I obligated, as a member of the covenant community, and under what circumstances?” The answer was expected to address not only the point that was considered more obvious – a fellow Jew, not a Roman or other foreigner – but also the intersection with other laws – what should one do if purity, Sabbath, or other laws would normally constrain one’s actions in the given context?

Jesus’ parable addresses precisely these concerns – but not in the way that was expected. The protagonist is not merely robbed of money but of his clothing – the things that let you know whether or not he was a “fellow member of the covenant community” had been taken away. Jesus is thus engaging in the classic philosophical exercise of creating a thought experiment that complicates a popular approach to morality.

The story then has two Jews who may be presumed to be of relatively high status, and thus perhaps of greater means, yet who were also bound strictly by purity rules because of their employment in the temple. And thus the priest and Levite avoid what looks like a corpse, and thus the impurity that they were commanded to avoid. I’ve blogged about that topic before.

This all seems like the set-up for a joke at the expense of clergy – their religious scrupulousness put them at a distance from ordinary people, and the listener would expect an ordinary Jew to come to the rescue.

The introduction of the Samaritan throws the listener a curve ball. Unlike the priest and Levite, the Samaritan could easily have said that the man by the side of the road is in all probability not part of his community – odds were that he was Jewish and thus not a “neighbor” from the perspective of the Samaritan.

And yet the Samaritan helps him even so. And we are challenged to do likewise. The parable Jesus told thus reverses the question, asking “to whom are you and should you be a neighbor?” And the implied answer is “to anyone in need, to anyone who, if the situation were reversed, you would desperately want their help.”

And so the blog post mentioned at the beginning of this post misses the fact that, while both Jews and Samaritans were (for the most part at least) descended from the people of ancient Israel, each denied the legitimacy of the other’s claim to be part of the covenant people. Indeed, it seems to be trying very hard to argue against the very point that Jesus made through the parable! The question posed to Jesus shared the assumptions about the definition of “neighbor” that are expressed there. But the story Jesus told challenged them. And it is disheartening to find a Christian attempting to use linguistics to avoid the uncomfortable and challenging implications of Jesus’ teaching.


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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Yes, obviously the best way to illustrate that we’re only supposed to minister to those inside the covenant is to use a Samaritan.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I just read the article. It’s basically an extended fallacy that is somewhat reminiscent of the YEC arguments about “yom.”

    I think my favorite part was when he pointed out that pleison has both meanings in the LXX, but that has only “confused people.” Yes, it’s annoying that people don’t realize the word can only mean one thing in the situations where you declare it to.

    But, basically, by providing scenarios where pleison -does- mean the covenant community, the argument is that this should be the default, which the parable itself clearly contradicts.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    What makes his argument more stupid is that (at least according to the Lexicon) pleison is simply an adverb meaning “nearby” , so the question “Who is my neighbour?” reads literally simply “Who is near me?” and “Who was neighbour to the man?” as “Who was near to the man?” Trying to squeeze this into “who was in a covenant relationship with the man?” is nonsense.
    Edited to add daftest example: John 4:5: Then he came to a city of Samaria, which is called Sychar, in a covenant relationship (pleison) with the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph.

    • You are the looking up the adjective rather than the noun. Also, you are discussing lexical meaning, whereas the blog post was addressing connotations.

      • Iain Lovejoy

        What noun? The form used in the Good Samaritan story is (according at least to the on-line Greek analysis) the adverb, albeit apparently used as the equivalent of a noun: if there is a separate noun it is not used in the passage discussed.
        I agree the blog post was “addressing the connotations” but was doing so in a thoroughly disingenuous way, trying to limit pisteon to a narrow technical meaning its lexical meaning doesn’t have in order to deliberately reverse the meaning of the passage discussed.
        I would have more time for the post if he argued that Jesus was limiting the message to those in a “covenant relationship” despite the literal meaning of the word (and gave some basis for this) but what he actually does is baselessly claim the word in itself requires a specific narrow reading of the text when it plainly doesn’t.

        • You are quite right, of course, that it is an adjective used as a substantive. And just in case it is useful to you or other readers, Perseus has Liddell and Scott and other lexicons that can be accessed on line: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=plhsi%2Fon&la=greek&can=plhsi%2Fon0&prior=o(#lexicon

          My point was that you seemed to be trying to narrow the term just as that blogger was, albeit in a different way. The fact that the root adjectival meaning has to do with proximity – near or neighboring – doesn’t absolutely determine what the word “neighbor” means even in English. We use it to mean not anyone who happens to be close, but those who live in houses very close to our own. Etymology is not always a reliable guide to usage.

          I also was concerned that you and that blogger might have ended up talking past one another by focusing on different matters. For instance, if he had made a similar point about loving not one’s neighbor but one’s brother, arguing that this referred exclusively to brothers in the Lord, a response that emphasized the root lexical meaning of the term might well not persuade him otherwise.

          I expect this may all sound like I am being unnecessarily pedantic, as well as ungrateful towards someone who ultimately agreed with me. And so let me apologize if it came across that way. It would be not merely ironic but shamefully so if, in talking about this issue, I behaved in the process in an unappreciative way towards one of my neighbors in cyberspace! 🙂

          • Iain Lovejoy

            Thanks for that. When dealing with the exact understanding Bible passages, pedantic is good, in my view, particularly when someone is drawing out a whole set of meanings or even an entire theology (apparently contrary to the basic tenor of the text) from the use of a particular word.
            Thanks also for the link, which looks useful.)

  • mikegrainger

    From the TDNT entry on plesion:
    “We are not to ask whom to love, for to love is to be a child of God, to love generously and spontaneously. . . . The real point is not to define the neighbor but to be a neighbor.”

  • From time-to-time, when I consider the Parable of the Good Samaritan and look at myself, I wonder if I am even on the road to Jericho, that is to say in a position to encounter a neighbour in need.

  • Leon Tory Walker

    Who is my neighbour? That guy who’s paying for the fence he wants