Who is My Neighbor?

Matt 22:35-40 And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 “This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 “The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” NASB

Both Old and New Testaments tell us that there are two great commandments and if we keep them faithfully, we will fulfill all of the requirements of both the Law and the prophets (Dt 6:5, Lev 19:18). Jesus speaking in Mt 22:35-40 above, quoting the Old Testament, makes this clear. Everything required in the Torah Law and by the prophets flow from these two commandments.

From these two, then, are derived 10 sub-commandments. The first four of those help define how to love God and the second six help define how to love our neighbor.

Then there are 613 additional regulations given. Just over half of these are positive in nature. “You shall do such and such.” Just under half are negative in nature. “You shall not do such and such.” All of these comprise the Torah Law of God and are given to us, according to Paul, as a tutor to teach us how to please God.

Gal 3:23-26 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24 Therefore, the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. 26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. NASB

Before faith as a means of salvation came to us through the New Covenant, the Law was our custodian. We were judged on how we kept the Law, convicted as violators of that Law, and imprisoned in our sin. The Law was our jail guard. We were kept in custody, like underage children with no freedom. Jesus brought us into relationship with the Father. Now the age of salvation through faith has come.

Paul tells us that our relationship to the Law as a tutor, a schoolmaster as it were, has now been replaced by a relationship with the Father as the means of our salvation. All salvation is based in relationship and all relationship is based in trust.

At Mount Pisgah Church we remind ourselves of this by a simple motto: Love God. Love people. The two great commandments are boiled down into 4 words. If we properly love God and love people, we will have kept all of the requirements of the Law and the prophets.

Luke 10:25-29 And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” 27 And he answered and 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.” 28 And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” 29 But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” NASB

Luke’s gospel was written by a Gentile to the Gentile world, so Luke explains things to the Gentiles that Jews already understood (or should have understood) because of their covenantal relationship with God. He tells pieces of the Gospel story that Matthew (whose gospel account was addressed to Jews) leaves out.

Luke’s Gospel goes on to record that the self-justifying lawyer asked a further question to Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (See vs. 29 above.) The Gentile world (to whom Luke was writing) had no such concept as “love of neighbor.” Their worldview was based on love of self or love of others only if it suited one’s self. Luke wanted his Gentile readers to understand the answer to this question.

Who is my neighbor? This is one of the most important questions any man in any age in any place can ask himself. The only questions more important are “who is God” and “how can I serve Him,” but that is a topic for another day. The lawyer referenced above in verses 25-29 was trying to justify himself in a manner that is common to us all.

Feeling pretty sure that he was properly fulfilling the “Love God” rule, he wanted to know just who he was “legally” responsible to care for in order to keep the “Love People” rule.

Being a lawyer, he wanted to meet the requirements of the law. Lawyers in Israel were not civil litigators as in our world. The word meant that they were experts in what the Torah Law said and how one must keep it. These were the guys who would require you to tithe mint and dill. They could tell you how many steps you could take on the Sabbath and still be keeping the Law. They only had one legal case and all of them had the same case: God v. Israel. As arbiters of the Torah Law, they prided themselves on how well they kept it. He was not interested in following Jesus’ command.

This lawyer only wanted to compare it with and analyze it against his own interpretation to see if it measured up to his opinion. This was not an honest question by this lawyer. It was a self-justifying question. This lawyer was “fixin,” as we say in the south, to judge Jesus’ answer, not learn from it. Do we judge what Jesus says and compare it to our own interpretation or do we obey what Jesus says and modify our interpretation to match His?

Jesus could not do much for that lawyer and neither can we, but we can learn what the answer means for our life. It is vital to our walk with God that we do. It is, after all, the second most important commandment in all of God’s Law. That means that it is more important to God than the things we often think are important.

Learning to love our neighbor is more important than political issues (Render to Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s…), more important than lifestyle issues like homosexuality,
more important than fame and fortune and more important than ritual practice; i.e.,
our regular religious behaviors. Loving our neighbor is more important, in fact, than many of the issues which consume our daily focus.

So let us ask it again. Who is my neighbor? Best place to start with that question is with the answer Jesus gave to the lawyer. We usually refer to it as the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Luke 10:30-37Jesus replied and said, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho; and he fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went off leaving him half dead. 31 “And by chance a certain priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 “And likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 “But a certain Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, 34 and came to him, and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 “And on the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return, I will repay you.’ 36 “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” 37 And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.”

A Jewish man is mugged by robbers on the Jericho road. It is a common story. The man is no one special, just an ordinary human being. The thieves steal everything he has including, apparently, his clothes. He must have had some good threads on; e.g., some Jordan Airs, an Armani jacket, some designer Hanes underwear, probably a nice watch; i.e., stuff worth stealing. And they beat him up in the process.

He was probably reluctant to give up his stuff, hence the beating. The robbers leave him lying in a runoff ditch, too savagely beaten to get up and go home, especially without even his underwear.

Now keep in mind in Jesus’ day there was no police or ambulance to call and no hospitals or clinics available. Anyone who wished to help him would have to take him to a private home or to an inn. There are no agencies to step in and take responsibility. An offer to assist would be no small commitment. You cannot just pullout your I-phone and dial 911. You would have to involve yourself if you really wanted to help this guy, and it’s going to cost you.

Jesus tells us a temple priest heading back to Jerusalem saw the man lying in the ditch bleeding and broken, and he just kept going. Not his problem. (And he would have become ritually unclean – Yuck!) Then a Levite, a ritual butcher dedicated to serving God (someone used to blood and gore), came by and looked the man over, but he, too, headed on for Jerusalem.
Finally, a Samaritan came by. The victim was a Jew and the Samaritan would have known it. If nothing else, the man was naked and the telltale sign was in evidence. Besides, it is germane to the story Jesus is telling.

The Samaritans and the Jews were mortal enemies. They spit on each other in public and their children were taught to throw rocks at each other. There was as much animosity between Jews and Samaritans then as there is between Jews and Palestinian Arabs today.

The Samaritans were descendants of people brought in from other nations by Nebuchadnezzar (about 600 BC) and given free land in Palestine. They had intermarried with the Jews left there and considered Palestine to be their homeland. The Jews under Ezra and Nehemiah were later given Palestine back by the Persians (about 450 BC) and the returning Jews summarily kicked all of the Samaritans out of Judea, taking their lands and homes for themselves. (Sound familiar?) In John 4 we see that even a Samaritan woman of ill repute was shocked that a Jew (Jesus) would even speak to her, a “tramp” of the lowest order among her people.

So according to the story as Jesus told it, this Samaritan came upon him lying in the ditch broken and bleeding (and with nothing left to steal). He felt compassion for the man who was culturally his mortal enemy. (Imagine you just found a radical Muslim bearing a tattoo that reads “America sucks!” laying naked in a ditch.)

The Samaritan gets down on the ground and bandages the man’s wounds. Very possibly the man did not smell very good. He is bleeding and surrounded by flies. Most likely he is laying in his own vomit and waste (unless you think he crawled over to the Wendy’s, used the restroom, and then crawled back since the beating ?).

Then he picks the man up and puts him on his donkey. He walks while the wounded man rides to the next village. Once he gets him to the village, he takes him to the emergency room. Oh, that’s right, there is no such thing. He takes him to a Holiday Inn. Oh, I forgot. These do not exist either. So he takes him to an inn and pays in advance for his room, his food and his nursing care. He puts out two days wages and commits to pay any shortfall upon his return.

Now Jesus asks the lawyer, “Given this hypothetical, Mr. Lawyer (because I am pretty sure you were raising a hypothetical), which one of the three men, the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan, proved to be neighbor to this man?” The lawyer was no doubt reluctant to answer. He could not even say the word “Samaritan.” He said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.”

Then Jesus says something that rings through the ages. He said, “Go and do the same!” He said it to the lawyer and He says it to you and me. “Go and do the same!” Jesus has defined for us, “Who is my neighbor.”

Jesus once told his disciples that there was an unlimited supply of poor people (Mt 26:11). Jesus did not heal everyone who was sick nor raise everyone who was dead. He did not feed everyone who was hungry and He did not call us individually to do it either. Jesus tells us plainly that He provided ministry to those to whom He was directed by His Father.

John 5:19 Jesus therefore answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner. NASB

Jesus gave to people as directed by the Father. He tells us He did nothing of His own accord. There were several times when the original impulse did not come from the Father, but from the request of others. When He worked his first miracle by changing water into wine at Cana, the impulse came from Mary, His mother, almost against His will, it seems. Another time He told the Syrophoenician woman that He was not called by God to minster to the Gentiles (the dogs).But He did minister to her because she insisted.

It was not His original intention to work either one of these miracles and He initially resisted both of them, but ultimately He performed them both. Based on what He tells us, He would have had to ask God, “Father, do you want me to do this? It was not originally My idea.”

Jesus was selective about where He gave Himself, but generous when He did. When He came across a special giving opportunity or when others brought Him one, Jesus asked God what to do.

I have a friend who is very generous. I have known him for many years. He is wealthy now but he was generous before he was wealthy. I have seen him provide for the needs of literally hundreds of people, some very extensively. I have seen him give gifts that range
from generous tips to people who do not otherwise earn much, all the way to a million dollars for a single cause.

I once asked him how he knew when to give something to people. His answer was, “You give to the people God brings into your path. When you see their need and you know you can meet it, that’s when you know you should give.” In other words, my neighbor is
anyone God brings into my path and anyone God points out to me.

1 John 3:17-19 But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. NASB

James 2:14-18 What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. NASB

Charles and Esther Mulli were multi-millionaires who God led to give all they had to rescue the abandoned and abused street children of Kenya. As of 2015, they have adopted, fed, clothed, sheltered and educated over 10,000 street children over a 25 year period. Their remarkable story is told in Father to the Fatherless and I have seen their amazing work with my own eyes many times.

The story of Mother Teresa is well-documented and equally remarkable. These are two of many examples of people whose love of neighbor was fully demonstrated. However, they did not get their overnight. Their generosity started small and grew.

How does God show us people who we should consider our neighbor? First, they are near us, in our “neighborhood.” These are the people around us every day. At home, at school, at work or at play, these are our neighbors in the traditional since. We should pay special attention to those people in this category. We may be the only “Jesus” they ever see, the only witnesses to God’s love they ever experience in their day-to-day lives. There is nothing more neighborly than to lead people to know God by our good behavior, and nothing more unfriendly than to lead people astray by our bad behavior.

Then there are those people who God brings our way. The man we bump into on the street, the young girl who comes to our door selling cookies, the friend of a friend we know, the tradesman we encounter in the normal course of life, the lonely kid at our school who is picked on, the victims of tragedy we see on TV, the orphans we read about in a magazine, or the widow we learn about on the prayer chain. The Bible has a lot to say about caring for orphans and widows and the poor.

James 1:27 This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

The Greek word for visit here is episkeptomai. It means “to care for” or “to relieve the burdens of.”

Isa 3:14-15 The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and princes of His people, “It is you who have devoured the vineyard. The plunder of the poor is in your houses. 15 “What do you mean by crushing My people, and grinding the face of the poor?” declares the Lord GOD of hosts. NASB

Finally, there is a special group of people who are our neighbors; i.e., our enemies. We often spend more time in proximity of our enemies, mentally and emotionally, than we do with most other people. We are told to love our enemies and to feed them when they are hungry. Our enemies are also our “neighbors,” biblically speaking. Nowhere does the Bible give us a license to hate people, any people. Everywhere it requires us to love our fellow man as we love ourselves.

Failing to properly care for our neighbor can and will be very expensive in eternity. This is, after all, the second great commandment and will have great ramifications. Jesus talks about gathering the people who survive His Second Coming to judge them in this regard. True Christians are not in this group. They will have gone to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. The Jews are not in this group. They are “the least of these, My Brethren” that He refers to in His teaching in Matthew 25. They are the ones whom the remaining surviving people should have treated as neighbors.

The people being addressed here are neither Christians nor Jews at the Second Coming. They will be gathered to Jesus from the four corners of the earth and divided into two groups known as “the sheep and the goats.” Those who have previously treated the Jew as their neighbor by feeding them when they were hungry, clothing them when they were naked, sheltering them when they were homeless, etc. are called by Jesus, sheep, and may enter into the joy of their master.

Those who failed to treat the brethren of Jesus as neighbor by failing to give them what they needed are called by Jesus, goats, and are consigned to eternal separation from God along with the Antichrist and the False Prophet. This life or death judgment is based entirely on discerning “who is our neighbor.” This principle can be, and frequently is, in many sermons, extrapolated to all poor men and women everywhere, but in context it is about Israel.

People are neighbor to us in different degrees. At the very least, we should have compassion on everyone. Jesus did. We should hate no one. God does not look at people as good or bad. He looks at people as captured or free.

God sent Jesus to set us free. The job description of the Messiah was that He came to set the captives free. “The captives” include every human being on earth, past, present and future. Isaiah tells us that all of us have gone astray like wandering sheep. We all are or we have been “captives.”

Isa 53:4-6 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried. Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. NASB

Paul tells us that all of us, both Jews and Greeks (meaning religious people and non-religious people), have gone astray. He is quoting David in Psalms 14:2 and 53:1-3.

Rom 3:9-11 What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; 10 as it is written “There is none righteous, not even one. 11 There is none who understands. There is none who seeks for God. NASB

Ps 53:1-3 The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, and have committed abominable injustice. There is no one who does good. 2 God has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men, to see if there is anyone who understands, who seeks after God. 3 Every one of them has turned aside; together they have become corrupt. There is no one who does good, not even one. NASB

The job description of the Messiah is found in Isaiah 61:1-2. Jesus acknowledged that responsibility to set the captives free in His first sermon in His home synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4). Jesus told them that He was the man who came to set us free.

Isa 61:1-2 The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and freedom to prisoners; 2 to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD…. NASB

Luke 4:16-22 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book, and found the place where it was written, 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, 19 to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” 20 And He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon Him. 21 And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” NASB

Jesus had compassion on all men. Like His Father in Heaven, Jesus saw them as captured, not evil. From the cross, He looked down on the people at His feet, most of whom were shouting at Him, sneering at Him, torturing Him, gambling for His few possessions and muscling His mother out of the way. His response was to pray God’s mercy on them because they were captured, not evil.

Luke 23:34-37 But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves. 35 And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.” 36 And the soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!” NASB

If we want to be like Jesus, we must have compassion on all men and women, even those who are our enemies. If we want to share His heaven, we must share His compassion for His neighbor. We must see that at some level, all men are our neighbors. Our first call to loving our neighbor is to have compassion, not hatred or indifference, for everyone, Otherwise Jesus will say to us, “I never knew you.” We are told that we should not even bring our offerings to the altar if we are at odds with our neighbor. We must fix that relationship first before God will accept our offering (Mt 5:23-24).

Properly understood, this understanding of “who is our neighbor” was intended by Jesus to provoke a “sea change” (a fundamental rethinking) in our attitude toward all people. At the most basic level, we must have compassion on our neighbor and to see them as captured, not evil. There but for the gracious revelation of God, go I. If we are better than some, if we act more Christ-like than some, it is entirely because we have God’s revelation in our lives, not because we are intrinsically better people.

Maybe we were brought up in a Judeo-Christian culture. That is a gift! Maybe we had good parents, good schools and a good church. That is a gift! Maybe someone intervened in our lives to get us on the road straight and narrow. That is a gift! None of us deserve our enlightenment. That, too, is a gift!

So when I see my neighbor in darkness, I must have compassion for him. I must pray for him and reach out to him to the degree God directs me and to the degree my neighbor will let me.

If my neighbor is hungry, God may lead me to feed him or see that he is fed. If my neighbor is homeless, God may lead me to shelter him or see that he is sheltered. If my neighbor is naked, God may lead me to clothe him or see that he is clothed. If my neighbor is mourning, God may lead me to comfort him or see that he is comforted.

God will not cause me to care for every poor, hungry, naked, homeless person. I do not have that many resources and neither does Bill Gates. That is a job for all of us, not for each of us. However, God will have us to provide care for some poor, some hungry, some naked and some homeless people. Of that we can be assured.

Some will be assigned to us and we will be held responsible for them to God. He was planning on providing for them with resources He deposited in our treasuries; i.e., His treasuries over which He made us stewards. These may be relatives out of work or out of luck. They may be people at work or at church. They may be people we encounter in the community or people next door.

They may be people we encounter on a mission trip. In fact, the real reason we may be sent on a mission trip is to find a “neighbor.” We are sent out “here, there and everywhere” through the Great Commission in order to teach them the Great Commandments. The best way to teach anything is by example; i.e., by being a good neighbor.

If my neighbor is angry at me, hostile toward me or has evil intent against me, God may lead me to have compassion on him even as I protect myself and/or my family from him After all, Jesus would tell us, my enemy does not REALLY understand what he is doing. If my neighbor is he to whom I have been married some years and he regularly gets drunk and beats me, I should go to the women’s shelter or my father’s home to protect myself from him.

I should forgive him and have compassion on him because he is captured by his alcohol and his broken psyche, but I do not need to go home with him again until he demonstrates a real change by getting into and maintaining a recovery program.

There is a fundamental difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is a gift given by the offended to a “neighbor.” Reconciliation can only occur after the offender makes restitution. We are commanded to forgive. Reconciliation is conditional.

Jesus once told the Pharisees that they would strain out a gnat and swallow a camel (Mt 23:24). Let’s get past the humorous imagery and understand the import of this statement. If we read the text, we will see that Jesus was not trying to be funny. This was one of His few angry speeches directed at the religious leadership of Israel who were leading the people astray.

In their lack of insight into Great Commandment One they were also violating Great Commandment Two. They were leading their “neighbors” astray. He told them that they would travel land and sea to make a single convert only to make them “twice the child of Hell that you are!” (Mt 23:15).

So what was his point about straining out gnats and swallowing camels? He was telling them they were majoring on minors and focusing on the wrong things. They were majoring in legalism, doctrine and religious behavior and ignoring justice and mercy. What is Jesus saying to us?

Matt 23:23-24 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. 24 “You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! NASB

In our efforts to be religious, to do the right things, to be good people, we do not always emphasize the things we should. We may attend church regularly and keep the commandments, at least the big ones. We may pride ourselves that we do not commit adultery or murder people.

We may keep the Sabbath and raise our children to do these things as well. As Jesus told the religious people of His day, these things we ought to have done without neglecting the weightier commandments.

What Jesus is saying is that we should keep the Ten Commandments but not neglect the Two Great Commandments; i.e., our relationship with God and our relationship with our neighbor. Keeping the Ten will not count if we neglect the Two. Loving and caring for our neighbor is only slightly less important than loving God.

Said another way, if we love God, we must also love our neighbor and that is more important than any other behavior. The call to love our neighbor is the second highest call upon our lives according to Jesus.

1 John 4:20-5:1 If someone says, “I love God,” and fails to care for his neighbor, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his neighbor whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. BWC translation