who is my neighbour?

In chapter 10 of his gospel (or not far into the Jerusalem journey narrative as he would have seen it – he didn’t divide his gospel into ‘chapter and verse’), Luke presents an exchange between an expert in the Law (of Moses – i.e. Torah) and Jesus.  The lawyer is first trying to ‘test’ Jesus, and uses a fairly standard question of the day to do so.

Both Matthew and Mark also record this question asked of Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

I don’t want to bother with the whole discussion of what this question means and what it doesn’t mean (suffice to say that it does not mean ‘how moral must I be to get into heaven after I die’).  I’m more interested in how Jesus answers this “law expert”.

Jesus’ initial response is very rabbinic (or Socratic) in that he answers the question with a question.  His responding question assumes that ‘eternal life’ (literally: “the life belonging to the age to come”) has to do with… well… doing life the way God wants; in other words, doing what the Law says.  Luke doesn’t need to spell this out, even for his Greek audience (‘Theophilus’); everyone knew that Jews were people of Torah.

Anyway, Jesus’ responding question is also a demonstration of the non-shocking fact that first century Jews had differing understandings of their Scriptures in general and the Law (Torah) in particular.  His response is this: “What does the Law say?  How do you read it?”

Again, every Jew would have known the general assumed answer to the question.  If you want to attain to the eternal kind of life, then (duh!) do what God says in the Torah.  The real question-behind-the-question, however, is what does the Torah (and thus God) require of us?  So Jesus’ initial response turns the question back onto this Law expert, essentially saying, “Well, what do you think?  What do you think the Law says we must do?  What is your interpretation?”

The man’s response is spot-on: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength; and Love your neighbour as yourself.”

Jesus responds approvingly: “You have answered correctly.  Do this and you will live.” He essentially says, “That’s it.  That’s the correct summary of the whole thing.  That is what the Law/Torah is all about.”

Now, the conversation could have been over with at that point.  But then…

“And who is my neighbour?” This was a question which was perhaps common.  Where is the line between ‘neighbour’ and ‘enemy’; just how far do we have to take this command!?  But Luke specifically also tells us that the man’s respose was in attempt to justify himself.  The tighter the boundary for ‘neighbour’ the better for this Law Expert.

In response to the ‘who is my neighbour’ question, Jesus then tells the story of what we know as the ‘Good Samaritan’, who has compassion on a man left ‘half dead’ by robbers, bandaging him, pouring oil/wine on the wounds, taking him to an inn, staying with him the rest of the day and that night, and giving the innkeeper enough money for weeks of care for the man, and a promise to return and pay any extra charges.  Amazing.  And of course, Jesus is being very provocative and offensive by casting a Samaritan as the hero and examplary character in the story (to say Jews disliked Samaritans puts it mildly); and casting the Priest and the Levite as the scumbags.

It’s a moving story.  One of the most humane stories known to humanity.  It contrasts utter selfishness with total selflessness.

But what I think is brilliant is the way Jesus uses this story.

He finishes it up by putting a question to the Law Expert, “Now, which one of the three was a neighbour to the man?”

The man (Jew thick and through) cannot even say the word ‘Samaritan’, so he simply says the obvious answer, “The one who had mercy on him.”

But wait.  Jesus has also done something else…

The man’s question had been ‘who is my neighbour’.  Jesus has just asked ‘which one was a neighbour to him’.  Jesus refuses to give the ‘who is my neighbour’ question the dignity of a response.

The Law Expert’s summary of the Torah was brilliant –  Love God, Love neighbour – but his ‘justifying’ question about who his neighbour was had essentially robbed his accurate summary of it’s relevance (what good is a command to Love Neighbour, if you’re confused about who your neighbour is?).  Jesus has reframed the question; and has put the emphasis back on the imperative to Love.  The implication is this: it doesn’t matter who the person is, love them as yourself. Don’t worry about who your neighbour is, just be a loving neighbour.

This, after all, is what the Law, the Torah, was all about.  This is what the eternal kind of life is all about.

Love.  This is Jesus’ answer to the ‘what must I do’ question.  Which is why Jesus wraps up the conversation saying, “Go, and do likewise.”

5 thoughts on “who is my neighbour?”

  1. I love it how Luke knew that the expert in the Law sought to justify himself. Gospel writers are afforded wonderful knowledge, aren’t they! Lol.

    It seems obvious to me that any expert in the Law would know that he is opening a can of worms by asking “Who is my neighbour”. I doubt this part of the conversation actually happened.

  2. Simon,
    My understanding is that discussions about which persons constituted a ‘neighbour’ are well documented for that period, so it’s not only plausible, but almost unavoidable – given that Jesus was a well-known teacher (could a well-known teacher avoid common issues of the day?). He was not only opening a can of worms, he would have been opening it on purpose! I’m quite surprised you’d doubt that this conversation took place?

    As for Luke’s perspective as to the motivation of the expert in the Law, we should understand Luke as both a historian and a theologian. He certainly has his own perspective, his own case to make, and is handling the tradition(s) which he has received in his Luke-ish way. But quite apart from all this, it’s quite a basic thing to say, isn’t it? Judging people’s motivations isn’t exactly a rare thing, is it?

  3. Okay, I accept that this neighbour conversation would have been going on quite a lot back then. But again, what would the expert in the Law have to gain by bringing this up? ( Jesus didn’t bring it up, the expert did by continuing and asking “And who is my neighbour?” ) What answer was he hoping that Jesus would give?

  4. Well, Luke is suggesting that the lawyer was hoping for an answer from Jesus which would leave him ‘justified’. Presumably, the law expert would have preferred a narrow (and less demanding) definition of ‘neighbour’.

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