In one of my favorite snippets in the Scriptures, a lawyer, after receiving from Jesus confirmation that he rightly understood the law’s demand to love “your neighbor as yourself ” (Luke 10:27), sought to justify himself by requesting a definition. “And who is my neighbor?” the lawyer snapped back at Jesus (v. 29). He was asking, in effect, “Whom do I have to love?”
The lawyer pressed this question, we’re told, to justify his stinginess of heart. He grasped the seemingly impossible demands of the law of neighbor love, and he understood himself to be on the wrong side of the law unless that law could be shrunk down to size.
Loving is hard enough when it comes to family and friends. But loving my neighbor as myself? That’s only possible (if at all) with a cramped definition of “neighbor.” The next-door neighbor is fine. Even next door on both sides. The backyard neighbor too. But surely there must be a limit to the command to love my neighbor as myself, the lawyer hoped. This applies only to an exclusive enclave of the neighborhood, right?
The next-door neighbor is fine. Even next door on both sides. The backyard neighbor too. But surely there must be a limit to the command to love my neighbor as myself.
The lawyer hoped Christ’s demand that he love his neighbor wasn’t, as it seemed, a demand to love all his neighbors. Certainly, loving the entire cul-de-sac would be sufficient.
In response to the lawyer’s second question, one born of miserly love, Jesus told what has become perhaps his most famous story of all. He spins that story—the parable of the good Samaritan—in the most shocking of ways, touching on a deep ethnic hatred in the culture to impress on the listeners how radical the command was. If we let it, this parable can help us understand the depths of our obligation to love others.
Who Is My Neighbor?
The story opens with a man about whom Christ tells us nothing. We don’t know whether he was good or bad, honorable or evil, responsible or foolish. We don’t know about his educational background, his occupation, his upbringing, or his social status. No details are provided that would make him especially worthy or unworthy of our love. He’s whomever you want him to be—or don’t want him to be. He’s the person you envision as deserving of your love, and he’s the person not at all deserving of your love.
He is, in a sense, “everyman,” representing the best and the worst of humanity: a typical human being, just another face in the crowd. The key attribute of this man for our purposes is his ordinariness in the fullest sense of fallen humanity’s ordinariness.
Though we’re told nothing about this man, we are told what happened to him. He was traveling along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho when he suffered a serious injustice—an assault and robbery. But injustice takes many forms. The particulars aren’t central to the point of the story. The key detail is that he was the victim of an injustice.
Responses to Injustice
Into this story of injustice, Jesus introduced two additional characters. By all appearances, the two men who arrived on the scene of the crime were good and honorable: a priest and a Levite. Neither one committed or contributed to the injustice the traveler suffered. They showed up after the injustice was perpetrated and stumbled on the crime scene by happenstance.
When these two men spotted the victimized man in his helpless condition, they did nothing to exacerbate the injustice he’d suffered. They didn’t further assault him. They didn’t steal his remaining money or goods as he lay battered on the side of the road. Rather, the two men simply ignored him. They left him be. They minded their own business. They passed by the aftermath of injustice in which they played no role, declining to intervene. They opted not to be, as we say today, “good Samaritans.”
Jesus then tells of a third man, a Samaritan, who also happened on the scene of the injustice. The Samaritan saw what had occurred, felt compassion, and did something about it (vv. 33–34). Interestingly, Jesus tells us the Samaritan felt sympathy for the victimized man. But the Samaritan didn’t stop at warm feelings. He acted. He intervened. He helped.
The Samaritan had done nothing to contribute to the injustice. And yet he helped remedy it. He invested his time, money, and energy to provide whatever measure of redress he could for the injustice suffered by another.
Are You a Neighbor?
With that, Jesus turned back to the lawyer with a question of his own: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (v. 36). The lawyer had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Christ responded by asking, in effect, “Who acted as a neighbor?” As the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55) observed, “Christ does not talk about knowing one’s neighbor, but about one’s self being a neighbor, about proving one’s self a neighbor.”
The question isn’t “Who are they?” but “Who are you?” when it comes to those in need. We’re called, Christ says, to be neighbors to those in need with whom we cross paths when it’s within our means. It’s what they’re due from us; we’re obligated to them. “Neighbourliness,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, “is not a quality in other people, it is simply their claim on ourselves.”
As we see in Jesus’s parable, when we’re in a position to help, it’s no answer to say we played no role in causing the wrong that gives rise to the need. To narrow the obligation to love based on our role, or lack thereof, in the injustice is to play the lawyer, circumscribing the boundaries of the neighborhood of affection. Neighborly love isn’t a love of culpability but a love of compassion. Whether or not we’re responsible for committing the wrong doesn’t determine whether we’re responsible for remedying it.
The law of love that Christ commended was more than a command to “do no harm” and, if need be, to correct the harm we cause. To love as Jesus commanded is to desire someone else’s good as an end in itself. Christ suggests our obligation to love means we must fix messes we didn’t cause and cure injustices for which we weren’t responsible. Christian love is proactive, affirmative, and interventionist. Christian love jumps in to help.
Compelled by Command
Why is the law of love so broad? Why does it reach so far? Why is my responsibility to help not constrained by my role in perpetrating the harm? Why am I the keeper of not only my brother but also my neighbor? Jesus hinted at the answer in Matthew 22 when another lawyer tested him with an apparent trick question: What is the greatest commandment?
Neighborly love isn’t a love of culpability but a love of compassion.
This time, there was no question about how to inherit eternal life. Rather, the questioner sought a ranking of obligations. What’s the single greatest commandment? At first, Jesus responded somewhat predictably: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment” (vv. 37–38).
But then, with a twist, Jesus volunteered that “a second is like” the first. That lawyer hadn’t asked for a second commandment, but Jesus offered one anyway: “Love your neighbor as yourself ” (v. 39).
Notice the important connection Jesus made between the two commandments. The second was, in his rendering, “like” the first. The similarity isn’t only that they’re both commands to love but that, while the first commandment is to love God, the second commandment is to love the image of God—humankind. Men and women are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27–28), so loving God’s image-bearers is like loving God himself. We must love without regard to our definitions of worthiness because worth is determined by God’s having made others in his image.
To love others is to love the Lord himself (Matt. 25:40). Or as the disciple whom Jesus loved put it, “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).