Our Narrow Definition of Neighbor

The great Greek philosopher Aristotle was once reproached for giving charity to a reputedly bad person. Aristotle replied, “It was the man, and not his reputation, that I pitied.”

The two greatest commandments, according to Jesus, are to love God with everything part of our selves, and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). Just as it is difficult to live out the first commandment when we struggle in our lives, it is also difficult to live out the second commandment when we struggle with others. It is easy to love those we consider lovable, it is a different story when it comes to “those people.”

“Those people” are different for each person. It could be an individual, a group, or a type of person. Our aversion to “those people” could be be based on religion, race, sexual orientation, gender, political stance, behavior, philosophy…or simply for personal reasons. Evangelicals often see themselves as being in a cultural war, so to speak, with people who may be considered out of bounds in any of these areas. As a result, we often narrow our definition of neighbor to fit our own personal preferences and comfort, while disregarding Jesus’ teaching that every person is our neighbor.

ORLANDO – JUNE 2016

The city of Orlando is reeling after facing 3 separate public tragedies within the last week. The most significant was obviously the shooting at the Pulse nightclub, which represented both an act of terrorism and an attack planned against one particular group of people – the LGBT community. This was the largest mass-shooting in US history, and it is a tragedy in every since of the word.

A great deal of the focus, understandably, has been on the 49 people who lost their lives. Several hundred more were injured, however, and many will face a long road of recovery. I was encouraged to learn that among those who came out to give blood for the surviving victims were Evangelical Christians. These are people who disagree with the claims and lifestyles supported by many in the LGBT community, but also are willing to serve them and sacrifice on their behalf through the love of Christ.

Giving Blood
A line of people waiting to give blood in Orlando the day after the shooting. Several of the blood blanks had such a strong response that they had to refuse new donations during the week. Photo Credit, Orlando Sentinel (6/12/16)

This is significant, because it demonstrates that we can disagree with a person or a group and yet still love and serve them. No matter the person or their situation, we ought to never question whether or not they are our neighbor whom we are called to love.

Jesus Responds

On one occasion Jesus was asked by a teacher of the Law, “Who is my neighbor?” This question prompted one of Jesus’ most famous parables – The Parable of the Good Samaritan. In the parable, a Samaritan went out of his way to care for a man who had been robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the side of a road. He took action after two important religious leaders – a priest and a Levite – intentionally passed by the man by crossing to the opposite side of the road.

Before turning to the parable, however, it will be helpful to consider just how far the often elitist leadership of 1st Century Judaism had narrowed down their definition of the word neighbor. While there are many examples throughout the Bible to which I could point, one stands out that is not included in either canon. It is a text that was well-known to Jesus’ audience, however, and held sacred by many Jewish teachers of the law.

The following “verses” come from apocryphal work know as Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, Ben Sira, or Son of Sirach, which was written around 200 years before the ministry of Jesus – in between the last book listed in the Old Testament (Malachi) and the first book listed in the New Testament (Matthew). Many of the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day considered this work to be a part of their scriptures. Others considered it to be simply a helpful collection of wisdom. In either case, this selection certainly demonstrates the narrowing of the “neighbor” definition by many:

Sirach Septuagint
Sirach 12 in the LXX

1 If you do good,
know for whom you do it,
    and there’ll be gratitude
    for your good deeds.
Do good to the godly,
and you will find a reward,
    and if not from them,
    then from the Most High.
There is nothing good
for those who continue to do evil
    or for those who
    don’t freely offer charity.
Give to the pious, but don’t assist sinners.
Do good to the humble,
but don’t give to the ungodly.
    Hold back your bread,
    and don’t give it to them,
        since by it they might gain power
        over you.
    You will encounter twice as much evil
        for all the good things
        that you have done for them. (Sirach 12:1-5)

Many of the Judean Jews had narrowed their definition of “neighbor” so far that they had redefined the word. This allowed them to redefine to whom they had to show love…or better yet, they could redefine to whom they did not have to show love. Many Judean Jews even began to exclude their fellow Judeans from the neighbor category, choosing only to include as neighbors those who shared their same beliefs and brought benefits into their lives.

Perhaps it was this kind of narrow thinking regarding one’s neighbor that prompted Jesus to respond in the way that He did. His parable not only taught that any person in need is our neighbor, but His use of the Samaritan as the hero in the story was itself a powerful statement. The Judean Jews, like the lawyer who asked Jesus the question, had long looked down upon the Samaritans with hatred and disgust. The Samaritans did not like the Judeans either, which meant there was little to no trust remaining between the two groups. When Jesus used the Samaritan as an example of what it means to love one’s neighbor, He communicated clearly that every person is our neighbor and every person can be a neighbor to someone else.

Jesus used the Samaritan as the “moral of the story” to teach us what it means to love our neighbor. I love the detail Luke gives us regarding all of the steps the Samaritan took to care for the injured man:

“But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’” (Luke 10:33-35)

Rembrandt Good Samaritan
Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, The Good Samaritan (1633)

Who is our neighbor?

The way many of our brothers and sisters have chosen to serve the LGBT community reminds me of the actions of the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable. These people put aside their differences and disagreements in order to serve those who are hurting. The relationship between evangelicals and the LGBT community can often be similar to that of the Judeans and Samaritans. In His parable, Jesus did not condemn either group. Instead, He shone light on the actions of “the one who showed mercy” to the injured man. The teacher of the Law asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” In Jesus’ parable, the Samaritan never even had to ask.

Jesus point? Every person is our neighbor to whom we should show love and mercy, so we also should not have to ask.

Russell D. Moore
(AP Photo/Southern Baptist Convention)

Russell Moore, present of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote an excellent piece about the tragedy just after it hit the newsfeeds. In his conclusion, he gave an excellent challenge for our churches:

“Let’s call our congregations to pray together. Let’s realize that, in this case, our gay and lesbian neighbors are likely quite scared. Who wouldn’t be? Demonstrate the sacrificial love of Jesus to them. We don’t have to agree on the meaning of marriage and sexuality to love one another and to see the murderous sin of terrorism….As the Body of Christ, we can love and serve and weep and mourn. And we can remind ourselves and our neighbors that this is not the way it is supposed to be. We mourn, but we mourn in the hope of a kingdom where blood is not shed and where bullets never fly.”

-For more of Russell Moore’s commentary on these events, read his article at russellmoore.com.

-For more on the Parables of Jesus, join us at South Tulsa Baptist Church (www.southtulsa.org) or visit us online to view or listen to services and podcasts by clicking HERE.

5 thoughts on “Our Narrow Definition of Neighbor

  1. Laura Roy says:

    Important reminder for those of us engaged in the “culture wars.” Yes, important perspective clearly explained. Thank you!

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