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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