Between the Hebrew and Greek words that can be translated as neighbor, there are over 150 references with the word. The typical meaning in the Old Testament mostly has to do with inhabitants of a land (nationality, countrymen, or compatriots) and proximity.
Over and over again the Israelites are told to not covet their neighbors’ stuff, lie to or defraud them, or lead them into shameful conduct. But the supreme command comes from God in Leviticus:
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
– Leviticus 19:18 (The Holy Bible: English Standard Version)
From this command we see that Jews are not only to not harm their fellow countrymen, but they are told to love them, even as they love themselves! What a bold statement, even for a unified country under God’s leadership. Yet this command is still only the precursor and glimpse into the divine meaning of loving your neighbor as it is tied to the “sons of your own people.”
Beyond Social to Moral
Jesus, of course, reveals God’s true heart for love in general and loving your neighbor specifically. He removes the proximity and nationality (social) bonds and instead focuses on the morality of God’s command to love your neighbor as yourself. We see this most clearly in the parable of the Good Samaritan which I would quote entirely hear for your benefit.
25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 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. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 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.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
– Luke 10:25-37 (The Holy Bible: English Standard Version)
The beauty in this dialogue between Jesus and the lawyer is that the lawyer doesn’t end the conversation the first time that Jesus tells him to go and keep this commandment. Instead, we get this revelatory teaching because the lawyer wants to go a step further. He wants to know just who it is that he has to love as himself. Jesus, seeing an opportunity to teach God’s truth, jumps in with a story to exemplify not just who our neighbor is but also how to be a neighbor.
The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” but Jesus responds with His own question at the end of the story: “Who proved to be a neighbor?”
I have to admit that I never saw this subtle shift until I heard it today on the Pray As You Go app (read more about the app here).
Jesus goes beyond the proximity and social context of being a neighbor by showing a Samaritan being a neighbor to a Jew, where the religious leaders would not. He then adds a moral layer to the word by adding compassion and priority, fleshing out the true concept of loving your neighbor as you would love yourself.
Are You Proving to be a Neighbor?
I’ll be the first to admit that this is not easy. Loving our family, friends, and closer acquaintances is fairly easy. But actually loving those around us that are hurting, different than us, or repulsive to us outwardly are also those to whom Jesus calls us to be a neighbor.
How is your experience going with this?
Also published on Medium.