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Through the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus teaches about charity. As Jesus often does, he turns the question of “who is my neighbor?” on its head and instead answers “who might be a neighbor to me?". In Luke 10,

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 tyour 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?”

Jesus teaches that God has made our neighbors - everywhere. In some sense, this teaching has technically undermined the traditional usage of the word 'neighbor'.

Does this teaching really undermine taking someone who lives next door as a neighbor or everybody anywhere that renders an act of charity to us? What would Jesus's listeners have understood him to be saying was their "neighbor"?

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    The parable makes clear who is one's neighbour. The Samaritan behaved in a neighbourly way to a complete stranger. The parable is the answer to your question. – Nigel J Jan 10 at 13:33
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    When you come across someone who needs help and you help him, then you are his neighbor and he is a neighbor to you. Right now, we are neighbors. – Tony Chan Jan 10 at 16:28
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The answer to that question is given by the lawyer / legal expert in Luke 10:37

And he said, “The one who showed compassion to him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.”

So instead of thinking "who is my neighbor" we ought to think what it means to be a neighbor for someone (= showing compassion).

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  • Does that now undermine taking someone who lives next door as a neighbor? – Ernest Abinokhauno Jan 10 at 14:06
  • @ErnestAbinokhauno not really. We are to love one another independently on their location. Romans 12:2, «And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind...» – Tiago Martins Peres 李大仁 Jan 10 at 14:11
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    It is clear that we can go ahead and love everybody equally, but from the standpoint of the parable in context they are not neighbors even though they live next doors — unless there is charity interaction. Where that is absent — then they are not neighbors despite living next doors. – Ernest Abinokhauno Jan 10 at 21:49
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    @ErnestAbinokhauno right. They wouldn't be neighbors at Jesus' sight right. The choice is between whose definition of neighbor to follow. I go with Jesus'. Similarly, when we use the word "hope" in real life it often brings uncertainty or doubt; on the other hand, biblical hope is the greek word "elpis" which means an happy anticipation of good. – Tiago Martins Peres 李大仁 Jan 10 at 21:57
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Jesus does indeed reverse the perspective by showing someone receiving neighbourly kindness and asking "Who was a neighbour to him?" instead of answering "Who is my neighbour?"

But his point is not necessarily that you should avoid thinking of the question in favour of "Who will be a neighbour to me?" Rather, he holds up the Samaritan as an example of someone whose kindness extends to everyone. We should emulate the Samaritan — who didn't ask who his neighbour was, but simply acted to help a person in need.

As he so often did when someone asked him a question, Jesus identifies the asker's heart, and rather than answer the question directly, he addresses the underlying concern. In this case the asker was looking to limit his kindness to certain people, and more specifically "to justify himself", i.e. to verify that he's already doing everything he needs to. Jesus, who always looks to push us further than the bare minimum reading of the law, showed that self-justification is the goal of hypocrites (like the priest and Levite in the parable), and not of those who truly love others.

As to your question about literal next-door neighbours: The Greek is plesion, which derives from a root meaning "near, nearby". However, it's clear from the New Testament uses listed on that page that this doesn't mean physically near when used of a person, but relationally near. That can happen in a number of ways: living next to someone, working with them, being related to them, having a mutual friend, being a member of the same church, and so on. (This figurative meaning of "neighbour" is common in other languages too, such as French voisin, which means both "next-door neighbour" and "similar".) This is also the sense of the original Hebrew word in Leviticus 19:18, the verse Jesus is quoting.

Hence, the lawyer is asking which people who are in his group, his social circle — people who have some connection to him. "How big is my group for the purpose of loving?" And Jesus' parable tells him that everyone, ally or enemy, same creed or different, friend or stranger, is meant by "love your neighbour as yourself".


I'm reading the original A Christmas Carol book for the first time. When Scrooge tells Marley's ghost that he hardly deserves his chains when he did so well in business, Marley replies with this famous quote:

Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!

To me this is a great modern rendering of the Good Samaritan. Scrooge thinks in terms of "my business"; Marley, too late, realizes that he should have concerned himself with all people.

This is also why I hesitate to see Matt 25:40's "these brothers of mine" as referring only to Christ's disciples, as some people read it. To me, that's the kind of limiting of "our business" that Jesus was not interested in.

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    (+1) Thanks Luke - your reflections and analysis are very helpful, and though others found more interesting nuances to the passage, I'd say this is the most clear and direct answer to Ernest's question. – Steve Taylor Feb 2 at 22:43
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This teaching is not about geographical distance. You can only be a neighbor to people who are physically near you, at least in the time of Christ, before skype, email, etc, it was not even a consideration that you could transcend distance.

The idea that distance was unimportant comes, I believe, from the fact that all four people were travelling to Jericho from somewhere else. But I think the spiritual message there is that we are strangers in the world, not that we can be neighbors to people far away. They were all potential neighbors in the city of Jericho.

Rather than redefining the definition of neighbor to ignore distance, it defines it to only consider distance and not background. Help those in front of you, regardless of what journey they took to meet you.

This may be hard to understand for us if we don't know the levels of division in judea at the time of Christ.

Background

Those who did not go to Jerusalem to participate in the three mandatory pilgrimage feasts were forever cut off from the people. With the dedication of the temple, it became the only place in Israel suitable for sacrifice, and all other high places were declared abominations, even if these high places were established by the partriarchs. This was a problem for the seceding tribes, who found Jerusalem outside their borders.

Thus during the split with the south, the northern tribes set up their own holy places as the kings of Israel did not want their population going to Jerusalem to worship during the high holidays. From the point of the judea, the northern tribes were thus cut off. This setting up of high places meant the north was much more idolatrous than the south.

Then when the Assyrians captured the northern tribes, they deported large numbers of people and introduced foreigners to the land who were not jewish. These foreigners intermarried with the locals and so the bloodlines of the northern tribes were considered polluted.

Then judea went into captivity, with some being taken to Babylon and others remaining behind. Jeremiah commanded the jews to go to Babylon and declared anyone who did not go to Babylon to be cursed. Writing to the exiles, he states in Jer 29:16-19:

for thus says Yahweh concerning the king who sits on the throne of David and concerning all the people who live in this city, your fellow kinsmen who did not go with you into the exile— thus says Yahweh of hosts, ‘Look, I am going to send among them the sword, the famine, and the plague, and I will make them like rotten figs that cannot be eaten because of their bad quality. And I will pursue them with the sword, with the famine, and with the plague, and I will make them a terror to all the kingdoms of the earth, a curse, and a horror, and an object of hissing, and a disgrace among all the nations to which I have driven them, because they did not listen to my words,’ declares Yahweh, ‘when I sent to them my servants the prophets, sending over and over again, and they would not listen,’ declares Yahweh.

So those who remained behind were also considered cut off from their people. When Nehemiah and Ezra rebuilt the temple and restored the sacrificial system, they instituted a series of racial purity laws that required jews to document both their bloodlines and the fact that they were in Babylon in order to participate in temple worship and be considered part of the community. It was forbidden to marry those of impure blood or to allow them in the synagogues or to participate in the sacrificial system. This created a caste system where many people were considered outside the group even if they were physical neighbors of each other.

Situation at the time of the parable

The outsiders were called Samaritans if they were descended from the northern tribes, but there was also exclusion of other groups as well. In addition to this general dichotomy, the judeans themselves fractured into various sects, such as pharisees, sadducees, zealots, essenes, etc. The Hasmoneans seized the throne but were not of the line of David, which caused some groups to reject them. Then they seized the priesthood but were not of the line of Zadok. This created more dissension. By mixing the office of high priest and king, you ended up with priests who were not Levites. All of these sects tended to not consider other members of different sects as part of their community even if they were in the same geographical area.

This type of fractured society sets the scene for Jesus' parable.

The parable

There are four people:

  • a "certain man" from Jerusalem, but the man's sect is not mentioned -- jerusalem was home to representatives of all these communities. I think this is important. He is on a journey in a foreign place.

  • A "priest" who is (ostensibly) not a Levite. He is also on a journey.

  • A Levite who is from a different clan than the priest, also on a journey.

  • The Samaritan, also on a journey.

These four people all meet in one place, in Jericho. The issue isn't distance, but tribal affiliation. There was no skype or zoom back then. It was not even a consideration that you might be a neighbor to someone you couldn't touch or physically be near.

These four were in the same city, Jericho, but they had different backgrounds.

Of these four, the Samaritan is the one who helped, and by virtue of helping, he became a neighbor to the man.

Message of Parable

As we travel through the world, we encounter people in our local physical communities who have a need, and if we overcome our sectarian divisions and show mercy to them, then we become neighbors to them. This is not about overcoming physical distance, but overcoming everything except distance. If anything, it is a parable about hyper-localism. Just as we are to eat what is set before us, we are to help those in front of us.

Note that this is the exact opposite of modern culture, where we are fracturing into online or virtual communities based on affinity groups that ignore distance, similar to the sectarianism of Palestine at the time of Christ. This creates a situation in which two people who live next to each other might be complete strangers if they are members of separate affinity groups. I.e. this is a symptom of cosmopolitanism.

Difference with cosmopolitanism

Cosmopolitanism is the sense that you abandon your tribal affiliation and become a citizen of the "world", a member of a global community rather than of a local community. Actual manifestations of cosmopolitanism requires allegiance to a dominant international culture that vies with the local culture. In the time of Christ, that was Hellenism. This was a growing issue with Hellenization during this period, as jews began to adopt Greek customs, some stopped circumcision, others performed painful procedures to reverse circumcision, and were more interested in the common (Koine) greek, greek literature, etc.

Jesus was clear that we are to be strangers in the world, rather than citizens of the world, and that the world will hate us, that we must not love the world. Rather than be members of a global community, we are to be reviled and excluded by the global community. But we are members of a spiritual community, the body, but we meet other members of the body by encountering people in our communities.

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  • (+1) I really like your answer, but would disagree with the conclusion that Jeremiah 29 declares that all the remaining people were cursed in some enduring way. The point of Jeremiah's letter was to encourage the people in Exile, and communicate that Exile was the right and obedient thing for them to do, and not to get fixated on returning. It was a curse for their day, which would not outlast the Exile and the generation that suffered it - unless you've got a reference suggesting otherwise. – Steve Taylor Feb 1 at 15:05
  • I'd also question the assertion that there was no understanding of being a 'neighbour' to those far away - middle eastern hospitality culture ran strong in every era, as far as I've been able to ascertain. As with nomads, there is often a common sense of caring for those in need and far from home. I don't think it's a coincidence that the Levite and Priest who passed by both have ritual purity angles to their characters - it would be a touch odd if this wasn't a factor at all. – Steve Taylor Feb 1 at 15:10
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And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25) [ESV]
καὶ ἰδοὺ νομικός τις ἀνέστη ἐκπειράζων αὐτὸν λέγων διδάσκαλε τί ποιήσας ζωὴν αἰώνιον κληρονομήσω

A νομικός, is a "lawyer." This term is rarely used outside of Luke (and not used in the LXX). It "pertains to being well informed about law"1in this case the Mosaic Law.

Old Testament
After being challenged and giving an answer to his own question, the lawyer seeking to justify himself asks "who is my neighbor?" His motive is portrayed unfavorably. Nevertheless, based upon the Hebrew text which has two types of "neighbors" his question has merit:

17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor (עֲמִיתֶךָ), lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor (לְרֵעֲךָ) as yourself: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19)

The first neighbor is specifically עָמִית and the second, the one to love, is רֵעַ. Thus there is a nuance in the Law which the Greek πλησίον and English "neighbor" obscures. The lawyer's "who is my neighbor" likely anticipates an answer in agreement with his own teaching on the difference between the two types of "neighbors" in the Law.

עָמִית is a term which is used just 12 times, 11 in Leviticus and once in Zechariah:

“Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, Against the Man who is My Companion (עֲמִיתִי),” Says the LORD of hosts. “Strike the Shepherd, And the sheep will be scattered; Then I will turn My hand against the little ones. (Zechariah 13:7 NKJV)

New Testament
The simple answer is both are your neighbor. In other words, do not try to invoke the Law as a means to avoid loving others. While it is true the Law has two different terms, there is nothing within the Law which designates or permits understanding the term עָמִית as not being a רֵעַ. The "legal" principle is to love your רֵעַ which includes those who might also be considered to be a עָמִית.

The LXX renders עָמִית in Zechariah as πολίτης, a "countryman" or "citizen." Thus the Law cannot be used as an excuse for not loving, rather requires additional consideration for those who live in the same country, but are not necessarily living in close proximity. In other words, do not allow issues with others who live far away from you to go unresolved and fester.

This follows what is implied about the three types of people in parable since the "special case" neighbor (עָמִית) a fellow countryman in Leviticus applies to a Samaritan or a Levite:

17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor (עֲמִיתֶךָ) [a Samaritan/a Levite], lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people [a Samaritan/a Levite], but you shall love your neighbor (לְרֵעֲךָ) as yourself: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19)

The answer Jesus gives involves the actions of a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. Under the Law priests and Levities were to live in cities among the twelve tribes. Consequently, they would travel from their city to Jerusalem before and after their service; anyone they encountered while traveling might be a person who lived in the same city or tribal land. Thus, any single person encountered might be a neighbor in the narrow sense of living in the same location.

The animosity within Judaism towards Samaritans violates both requirements within the Law. There was hatred and grudges toward those who were brothers which led to a failure to love them.2The proper interpretation of the Law is that one needs to resolve animosity and not simply move away or let it fester because the other party lives far enough away.

Approached from the Hebrew text, the story Jesus tells takes on an interesting twist: the man who is struck needs and receives assistance. If the lawyer has the two types in mind, Jesus has made the injured man correspond to the עָמִית of Zechariah, which is seen by Christian scholars as referring to the Messiah. If the lawyer does recognize a difference between the two types of "neighbors," he fails to understand the significance of one who is coming as a עָמִית to save all men from their sin.

Regardless, the lawyer clearly fails to understand the Law if he was not loving Samaritans and advocating for reconciliation, as the Law requires.


Notes:
1. Fredrick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, The University Chicago Press, 2000, p. 676
2. In John 4, Jesus goes to Samaria where He reasons frankly; first with the woman and then with the rest of the town.

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The meaning of a word usually depends on the context in which it is used. In this instance the context of the word “neighbor” was the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” This commandment forms the second half of the essence or summation of all the commandments. In this broad context, the meaning of “neighbor” likely goes beyond the traditional definition to include but not be limited to those who live in our immediate neighborhood:

  • “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mk 12:28-30)

The parable of the Good Samaritan offers endless food for thought. It is a beautiful meditation on love of neighbor and challenges the boundaries that define who is or is not our neighbor. It also raises the question of what it means to be a neighbor to others and invites the listener to reflect on all these things.

The details or lack of details about each character are significant to understanding the story. The wounded man represents a neighbor in need of love and care, but the only identifying information about him is his route. He might be Jewish since he came down from Jerusalem, but the text does not clearly identify him as so. His anonymity reinforces the interpretation that “neighbor” can be anyone, but especially someone who is in need:

  • A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. (Lk 10:30)

A priest and a Levite passed by, yet they did not stop to help. No explanation is given, though these men would have been well acquainted with the law and the commandments. The detail that they “passed by on the other side” was repeated. Was it just the road that they unwilling to cross? The words seem to hint that there were other boundaries that kept these men from considering the wounded man as their neighbor:

  • Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. (Lk 10:31-32)

A Samaritan man came and “moved with pity” offered compassion and extraordinary aid to the wounded man (Lk 10:33-35). The fact that he was a Samaritan would have stirred up the racial and religious tensions of those times (The Samaritan Schism, Schiffman, Lawrence F.). The divisions that were hinted at before now became the focus. That the term neighbor was being applied to a Samaritan meant extending the definition of neighbor to include people who were considered to be hostile to and who were discriminated against based on racial and religious differences by the Jewish people.

Jesus ended the parable with a question about what it means to be a neighbor to others:

  • Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Lk 10:36-37)

Though Jesus did not directly answer the lawyer’s question “Who is my neighbor?” his parable guided him to the answer and distilled the commandment even further – loving your neighbor as yourself means showing mercy to all. And he ended with these words, “Go and do likewise.” It is not just what we know and understand, but how we apply it in our lives that is the key.

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The word translated neighbor in Lev. 19:18 ( וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמֹ֑וךָ) is an interesting word. The most common word for friend in Hebrew is also רֵעַ.

Although the biblical text has no word for “friendship,” there are a number of words for “friend.” Most common is rēaʿ [רֵעַ] and related nouns such as rēʿâ [רֵיעַ, רֵעָה], raʿyâ [רָעָה], rēʿeh [רֵעֶה], and mērēaʿ[מֵרֵעַ], each apparently derived either from a root r ʿ h [רעה] or a root r ʿʿ [רעע], both meaning something like “to associate with” or “to affiliate with,” suggesting a voluntary dimension to friendship. -- Olyan, S. M. (2017). Friendship in the Hebrew Bible. (J. J. Collins, Ed.) (p. 4). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

Senses in the MT enter image description here

When Jesus said:

Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (Lk 10:36, ESV)

Although it would be too confusing in an English translation, you could in your mind substitute the word friend for neighbor, and the statement would make even more sense.

The Samaritan in the parable does expand the meaning of neighbor beyond countryman.

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  • Very helpful Hebrew background, thanks. Upvoted +1 – Hold To The Rod May 17 at 1:33

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