Who Is My Neighbor?

Who Is My Neighbor? (Luke 10:25-37)

by Bob Burridge ©1993, 2017

The Bible makes it very clear that God tells us to love our neighbors. To obey this important instruction from our Lord we need to know who we are to love, and what it means to love them.

In Luke 10:25 a lawyer asked Jesus,
“What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

The answer Jesus gave him helps us understand what it means to love our neighbors.

First, Jesus responded by asking the lawyer a question. He asked, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”

The lawyer answered by quoting the same two verses from the Scriptures which Jesus himself used in Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:31. The quote is from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. The lawyer said, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus commended him for giving a correct answer. Then he told the lawyer to, “do this, and you will live.”

The lawyer responded with another question. He asked, “And who is my neighbor?” He seems to be doing what many Rabbis were guilty of in the time of Jesus. He was questioning the plain meaning of the words of the law to get around having to obey in every instance. If he could narrow down who was a “neighbor”, he could excuse himself from having to be loving toward everyone else.

Some had perverted Leviticus 19:18 limiting their love obligation to the Jews only, or specifically to the “good” Jews. The Pharisees were particularly guilty of very narrowly limiting their moral obligations to avoid feeling a responsibility to tolerate or to be kind to others outside their own group.

Jesus answered by illustrating his main point with a parable.

First he set the scene:

30. Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.

The way to Jericho from Jerusalem is partly mountainous with winding roads and caves. It was a natural place for thieves to hang out and attack travelers. This man came from Jerusalem, probably meaning that he was a Jew. He was attacked by robbers. He was beaten, and stripped of his clothing and all that he had. They left him nearly dead.

In time, a Priest passed by.

31. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.

Perhaps this Priest had been serving at the Temple in Jerusalem and was on his way home to Jericho where many of the Priests and Levites lived when off duty. The Priest saw the injured man in need but didn’t help. Instead he passed by on the other side of the road avoiding him.

We have to remember that this was a parable. The point is the Priest’s lack of compassion and mercy. He seems to have simply been avoiding involvement.

There is no excuse for refusing to help when you are in a position to provide it. God’s moral principles revealed in Scripture are very clear:
Leviticus 19:34 says, “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

This says that even a stranger or a traveler must be treated with love as if he was one of your own countrymen.

Exodus 23:4,5 says, “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.”

This shows that even an enemy’s animals must be shown justice and kindness.

But this injured man was not just an injured animal, and it appears that he was a fellow Israelite, not just a stranger.

Next, a Levite passed by.

32. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

The Levites assisted the Priests at the Temple. This man did the same thing as the Priest before him. He passed by on the other side offering no help.

Then a Samaritan came by. He stopped to help him.

33. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.
34. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.
35. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’

Samaritans and Jews generally despised one another. Some of the Priests taught that contact with a Samaritan was a defilement. In John 8:48 the Pharisees had belittled Jesus calling him a Samaritan possessed by a demon. Jesus made it clear that he did not have a demon, but he ignored the Samaritan remark.

This Samaritan rendered aid to the injured man immediately, His heart was moved with compassion as soon as he saw him. He dressed and bandaged his wounds. But first he applied oil which was used as a salve to sooth the injury, and he applied wine which was commonly used to wash wounds as an antiseptic. The Samaritan then put the man on his own donkey and led him to an inn. There he took care of him that night.

The next day the Samaritan had to leave. But before he left he gave 2 denarii to the innkeeper for his care. That’s equal to about two days wages which would provide for his care for several days. If the costs were more, he promised to pay when he returned.

Jesus asked the lawyer which proved to be a neighbor.

36. Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”

The word translated here as “neighbor” is the Greek word “plaesion” (πλησιον). This noun comes from the adjective “pelas” (πέλας) which means something that is “near”. Luke used a different word for “neighbor”, “geiton” (γειτων), in Luke 14:12. In the context we see that it means someone living near you. In Luke 1:58 he uses the word “perioikos” (περιοικος) for “neighbor”. It’s a compound word which literally means “around house”, a geographical neighbor.

In all 16 uses of “plaesion” (πλησιον) in the New Testament, it does not mean just the person living next to you. It was not about geographical nearness. It refers to those who come near us, those we come in contact with, and should care about. This Samaritan came upon the injured man, and was willing to be “near” him in a caring relationship.

The lawyer correctly answered.

37. He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

The lawyer balked at saying “the Samaritan”. Yet he knew the one who had pity was the true neighbor. Jesus told him to keep doing likewise.

We should not be asking “Who is my neighbor?” as if to limit our help and mercy to just certain people. We should ask, “How can I be a good neighbor?” When needs come to us, and we are able to do something about it, our duty is to help.

The “love” part of “loving our neighbor” also needs clarification.

1 Corinthians 13 spells out a profoundly different kind of love than what the world understands. Verses 4-8 define what a true biblical love produces.

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. …”

Biblical love begins when spiritual life is implanted in regeneration. The Bible says, “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). If God hadn’t first promised to send a Savior to die to redeem us, love as God reveals it would be completely unknown in our world. The only thing that can change the way people behave is a change of heart that impels them to do right rather than to do wrong.

Galatians 5:22 says that love is a fruit produced in believers by the Holy Spirit. In fact, love is the first item in the list of the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Some years ago I was challenged to piece together the main elements of love in the Bible. To summarize what I found, I put together this definition: “Love is a disposition implanted into needful human hearts by the prevailing grace of God whereby we are enabled joyfully to obey the revealed desires of our Creator; both toward the Lord himself, and toward others.”

But, what about the original question about inheriting eternal life?

It’s not our actions or attitudes that earn eternal life. All our deeds and acts of mercy and kindness fall short of removing the guilt of our own sins or the inherited guilt credited to us in Adam’s sin in Eden.

Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,”
Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned–”

Only the work of Jesus Christ as our Savior could pay our debt. He died in our place. That alone is the foundation and cause of our receiving the gift of eternal life.
Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. ”
Galatians 2:16, “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
1 Peter 3:18, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, ”

When we are truly granted sincere faith in Christ’s work of atonement, and when it shows in our changed lives, those good actions of love reveal the state of the heart.

This kind of love toward our neighbor is a necessary obedience. When present, it shows that a person is redeemed by grace. When absent it makes us doubt that our faith in Christ’s work is sincere. Love is an essential evidence of regeneration.

Jesus spoke of it in John 13:35 when he said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In John 14:15 Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” in 1 John 2:3 we are told, “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.”

We are directly commanded to love our neighbors (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27, Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14, James 2:8)

A person showing sincere compassion and true mercy to those God brings into their lives
gives evidence that his profession of faith in Christ alone for his salvation is real,
and that he has been restored to union with God by grace and has eternal life.

Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

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