Jesus and the Neighbor Question

by Anthony Le Donne
Associate Professor of New Testament

In both Jesus’ teachings and the teachings of his earliest followers, care for neighbors, strangers, and enemies is fundamental. This aspect of doctrine is borrowed from the Jewish instruction to care for the foreigner. For example, Exodus 22:21 frames the following as a divine mandate, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” This is only a single example of a repeated instruction in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus extends and interprets this mandate. In Matthew 25, Jesus even suggests that failing to do so will result in a curse. “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41).

One of Jesus’ most famous stories (often called “parables”) was motivated by this topic. Luke 10:25-37 places Jesus in conversation with a legal expert.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 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.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘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. 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. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 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.’

As is typical in the Gospels, Jesus is showcased as a rhetorical genius who never loses a debate. In this context, the “legal expert” is a typical literary feature. He functions literarily to showcase Jesus’ rhetorical skill. In reality, such debates are usually very lengthy and are rarely settled by a single parable. Even so, this short passage reveals a crucial characteristic of Jesus and the impact he had on early Christianity. Not only is care for the stranger central to Jesus’ preaching, it is central to the way Jesus thinks about salvation. As Luke presents him, Jesus tells this story in direct response to two related questions: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”; “who is my neighbor?”

The first of these questions is met with Jesus’ question: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” Notice here that Jesus reinforces the value of Jewish legal instruction for his followers. Notice also that he suggests that how one reads the law is as important as what the law says. The legal expert, according to Jesus, is right to focus on this passage: “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.”

Now we come to a most surprising element of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus is asked “And who is my neighbor?” But the parable that follows refuses to answer this question. Rather, Jesus explains what it means to be a good neighbor. In effect, Jesus answers the question “who is my neighbor” by asking, “to whom have you shown mercy?” The implication here is that followers of Jesus must ask themselves a better question, “Am I the neighbor?” Here comes the hard part: according to Jesus, salvation hinges on the way that this question is answered.

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