But Who is My Neighbor?

Preface: The link between our loving God and keeping of His commandments is stronger than we realize. We can love God because we live in a universe where love can exist, and it can exist because the universe is moral. That morality is based, at least for us as created beings, on God’s moral law.

A theologian wondered about the limits placed upon human kindness by the Law. Jesus saw through the self-delusion that leads pious people to express internalized racial and sociological hatred and prejudice. He exposed the underlying rationalizations whereby unethical decisions are made on the basis of the Bible’s arguably ambiguous record concerning individual responsibilities toward fellow human beings.

Priests shouldn’t handle dead bodies (Lev. 21:1–6, 8). “They present the offerings to the Lord by fire, the food of their God.” They were required to eat certain sacrifices (10:13–17; Num. 18:9), and distributed meat to worshipers who were to eat it before the hot desert environment rendered it unsafe (Lev. 7:15, 16; Deut. 12:11, 12, 17, 18; 16:11; 1 Sam. 2:13–17).

The Levite’s restrictions weren’t as severe. He was required to avoid defilement during worship. The road offered good visibility looking downhill. He probably knew the downhill-bound priest had refused to help (and would certainly have known if he himself were heading uphill). The Levite could have rendered aid and didn’t, a violation of Leviticus 19:16 if he suspected the victim were still alive.

Samaritans were likewise bound by the Law. In Judea the unidentifiable victim was presumably Jewish. Despite visceral hereditary enmities, the Samaritan was “moved to compassion” (splanchnizomai, gut-wrenching emotion). He refused to allow group-think to deviate from his moral compass (Exod. 23:2). Using common first-aid products (commonly offered in sacrifice), he “poured” them upon the wounds, reenacting imagery reminiscent of libations, paralleling Jeremiah 30:17 and Hosea 6:1–11.

Looking beyond ritual, he offered the sacrifice of unselfish love to an anonymous human being in need, without thought of any reward save the doing of the will of God, little knowing his solitary heroism, transcending race and culture, would live forever in the annals of salvation history, a glorious example of the only appropriate response to God’s generous gift (Micah 6:7, 8; Hosea 6:6; Matt. 9:13; 12:7; 20:28; Rom. 12:1; Phil. 2:17). Social inferiors led the mounts of the upper class (Esther 6:7–11). Whether the Samaritan led the donkey upon which he’d placed the dying man, the social ramifications of that simple act were extraordinary! He brooked no class distinctions, even though Jewish tradition forbade accepting oil and wine from Samaritans. He risked (irrational) revenge by the victim’s family for the attack upon their kinsman, a very real contingency which led to the establishment of cities of refuge.1 He even prepaid some 24 days’ worth of lodging.2 Otherwise the victim would be sold into slavery for failure to pay.

We divide ourselves into tribes, clans, special interests, races, us-versus-them. Zealots (siccarii, “dagger-men”) considered Roman legionnaires not “neighbors” but rather targets for assassination, a position disallowed by Jesus (Matt. 5:41), arguable precedents for hatred notwithstanding (Deut. 25:19; 23:2–8; 7:1–3; Gen. 27:46). He provided insightful, uncommon answers to common questions because He recognized the self-deception involved. Divisiveness has no defense under God. The lawyer sought to avoid accountability for the well-being of fellow human beings by appealing to an obscure point of Law. In an effort to avoid moral responsibility for some fellow human beings by subdividing humanity into categories, he sought the consent of rabbi Yeshua. Refusing to facilitate self-delusion, Jesus pointed out that by excluding those others from humane treatment, the lawyer was actually excluding himself from grace! (See also Matt. 25:31–46.)

All legal resident aliens enjoyed the protection of the Law (Lev. 19:33, 34). The Mishnah, comprising Jewish traditions interpreting the Law, regarded Jew and Gentile alike as “neighbor.” In a case similar to ours, even the high priest should defile himself, unless the victim is a Samaritan!3The Gemara argued only Jews were neighbors, doubtless due to intense persecution. Contemporary Judaism embraces the truth that humanity as a whole constitutes our neighbor under the Law.

Jesus opposed tradition when it conflicted with Scripture (Matt. 15:3; Mark 7:8–13), upholding the explicit primary intent of the original biblical authors, against other interpretations. On the hotly debated question concerning the authority of tradition relative to that of the Law, Jesus took a position acceptable to the Sadducees, who taught that the written Law was beyond tradition; opposing the Pharisees’ contention that oral tradition is a binding interpretation of the Law. Harsh penalties prescribed by the Law, however, were another matter. Jesus stood with Hillel against the Sadducees. Hillel was aware that if “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” were actually enforced, soon everyone would be blind! Jesus refused to sentence the woman caught in adultery to suffer the penalty prescribed by the Law (John 8:4–11), a strict sentence which would have conformed to Sadducee views. Concerning the resurrection, He agreed with the pharisees against the Sadducees (Matt. 22:23–32), so both parties ganged up on Him! (22:34–46). The truth may set you free (Luke, writing to Gentiles describing the cross-cultural appeal of Jesus, certainly thought so), but it won’t always make you popular!

REACT
1. How trustworthy was the Good Samaritan known to be?
2. What are the ethical implications of the parable for individuals involved in ethnocentric thinking or behaviors?
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1. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, pp. 48–52.
2. J. Jeremias, in Tasher, ed., Tyndale N.T. Commentaries, The Gospel According to Luke, p. 190.
3. Derrett, Law in the New Testament, 212 fn 5 cites Sanh. 57a.