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13. Who is my Neighbor?

– Chapter 13 –

Who is my Neighbor?

Revitalized by God’s word to become rivers of living water

We begin with a solemn warning by the Lord Jesus in John 12:48:

The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. (ESV)

Jesus personifies his word into an independent entity that will judge us on the last day. We will be judged by whether we have obeyed the word he has spoken. More generally we need to take heed in regard to any Bible teach­ing we receive, for we will be mea­sured by it, to see if our lives come close to what we have been taught. It is a dangerous thing to keep on listening to the Bible and not practice it.

On the positive side, if God’s word sparks a vision that blazes in our hearts, we won’t need to spend our whole lives worrying about whet­her we are fulfill­ing it. That is because we will be power­ful­ly motiv­ated to car­ry out the word, not from any fear of judg­ment but because God’s vision has taken root in our hearts. This positive, ener­gized and forward-looking spirit is captured in Isaiah 42:9:

The past events have indeed happened. Now I declare new events; I announce them to you before they occur. (HCSB)

God announces that new events will be coming. Yet at the same time we know that there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc.1:9) and that histo­ry repeats itself. While this is true in the human sphere, God now declares that new things will come. Indeed the next verse says, “Sing a new song to the Lord” (Isa.42:10). The newness and vibrancy of the spirit­ual life is captured one chapter later:

19 Look, I am about to do something new; even now it is coming. Do you not see it? Indeed, I will make a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert. 20 The animals of the field will honor Me, jackals and ostriches, because I provide water in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert, to give drink to My chosen people. 21 The people I formed for Myself will declare My praise. (Isaiah 43:19-21, HCSB)

Verse 19 speaks of “rivers in the desert” as does verse 20. What is spe­cial about these rivers? Just as rivers in the desert give water to jackals and ostriches, so spiritual rivers in the spiritual desert “give drink to My chosen people” (v.20), namely, God’s people whom He had formed to declare His praise (v.21). This brings to mind what Jesus says about the Spirit: “Who­ever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his inner­most being will flow rivers of living water.” (Jn.7:38) Rivers of living water in the spiritual desert! God’s people will praise Him, for they will drink from the rivers in the desert, and become rivers of living water by the Spirit.

True assurance is based on love for God’s people

The spiritual newness points to the new life. The true Christ­ian is one who has passed from death to life, and loves the brethren:

We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. (1Jn.3:14)

Love for the brethren is the way to know that we are saved and have passed from death to life. This is the biblical basis of assurance. Be­ware of any teaching of assurance such as “once saved, always saved” that bases the assurance of salvation not on obedience to God’s word but on a ver­bal or intellectual pro­fess­ion of faith. Many have been led into thinking that we are saved merely by saying “I believe in Jesus” even if our lives fail to measure up to what God requires. There is nothing wrong in seek­ing assurance but we must distin­guish true from false assurance. We know that we have passed from death to life if we love the brethren.

We previously saw the distinction between lim­ited and unlimited love. We can love our neigh­bor in a limited way, say, by giv­ing him two dollars, but the scriptural requirement is as your­self, which is un­limited love. We pass from death to life not because we have given two dollars to our neighbor, but because we love him as ourselves.

Two verses later John says, “We ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1Jn.3:16). Scripture gives us no option but to lay down our lives for the brethren. The word “ought” conveys a moral imperative but we ignore it because it threatens our very self.

When we read these two verses, v.14 and v.16, in combina­tion, we arrive at the result that we pass from death to life if we love the breth­ren as ourselves, even to the point of laying down our lives for them.

Sandwiched in between these two verses is v.15 which says, “Every­one who hates his brother is a murderer.” Note the strong word hates. The Bible is eminently practical; it doesn’t give lofty ideals that are ad­mired from a distance but are not carried out. Since proper exegesis requires us to interpret verse 15 with verse 14, we arrive at the import­ant principle that hate is simply the failure to love. The Bible doesn’t de­fine hate as an intense dislike but simply as the failure to love. This Johannine defin­ition is diff­erent from the usual understanding of hate as intense anti­pathy. In Scripture, the one does not love already abides in death, and the one who hates his brother is a murderer.

John’s statement may sound radical but there is a practical reason for it. In a love relationship, there is a deep sensitivity to the other per­son. Any­one who has been in love would know this. Take the case of someone you don’t love: If someone you don’t love says something rude to you, you get irritated, but you brush it off because he or she means nothing to you. But if someone you love says an unkind word to you, it will stab your heart like a knife.

Instead of strengthening a relationship, we often wreck it with care­less words and actions. The deepest relation­ship problems are often those in a marriage precisely because love is involved. One careless word causes hurt feelings. If all your enemies unite together to speak evil of you, that wouldn’t hurt half as much as one unkind word from your spouse. Hus­bands and wives often don’t real­ize this until they are at the receiving end of the insensitivity. We take the liberty to be rude to those famil­iar to us, but this will destroy the relation­ship in the end.

I used to wonder if the Lord Jesus was exaggerating in Mt.5:22, but when I understood his teaching better, I realized that he was not:

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, “Raca,” is answer­­able to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in dan­ger of the fire of hell. (Mt.5:22, NIV)

When I first read this, I thought Jesus was exaggerating or speak­ing in hyperbole. Will we really face the highest council just for calling some­one in church a fool or an idiot, especially if that seems to accur­ately describe someone who, in our view, has done something stupid or an­noying? But Jesus says we will face the highest court. He is not talking about the courts in Israel because calling someone a fool is not punish­able in the courts of Israel; he is talking about the spiritual tribunal before which we will stand. How many times have we said unkind words?

Anything that does not stem from love — any action or anger that negates love — will pave the way to a fearful judgment. That is because an action that does not stem from love kills. The failure to love already makes you a murderer. Your facial expression alone can hurt someone, for the one who sees it will wonder why you are angry with him. May­be you were deep in thought, so you unintentionally walked past him with­out greeting him. The Lord is being practical when he says that we must not say any­thing, or do anything, or show any expression, that is not of love.

1John 3:19 says, “We shall know (by loving the brethren) that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him.” The assur­ance mentioned here continues on in verses 20 and 21, in the state­ment that “our heart does not condemn us”. Many Christians seek the assur­ance of salvat­ion, but the way to assurance is clear: obey the com­mand to love, a com­mand that is repeated again and again in 1 John.

Verse 22 goes on: “Whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his command­ments and do what pleases him”. If our prayers are not heard, it is because we are not living by this primary com­mand of love. If we don’t love our neighbor as ourselves or are unwilling to lay down our lives for the brethren, we can pray all we want, but God won’t listen.

The parable of the good Samaritan: seven points

We now look further into “love your neighbor as your­self”. We have seen that this teaching was fulfilled in the relationship of Jonathan and David; it is also meant to be fulfilled in the hus­band-wife relationship. Loving your wife is like loving yourself, for your spouse is an extension of yourself (Eph.5:28-29).

I now draw seven points from the parable of the good Samar­itan which was given by Jesus in answer to a scribe’s question, “And who is my neighbor?” The following is the whole parable and its context:

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” 27 He ans­wered, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” 28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” 29 But he wanted to justify him­self, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jer­icho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he tra­veled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 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. 35 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.’ 36 Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37, NIV)

1. Seeking nothing in return

In a covenant relat­ionship such as that between husband and wife or between Jonathan and David, there is a reciprocity in which I give myself to you, and you give yourself to me. But in the parable, the Samaritan shows absolute love to the injured man without thinking of reciprocity. It doesn’t cross his mind to ask if the victim will return his love. It isn’t even certain that he will sur­vive, so reciprocity is irrelevant in the situat­ion. In loving our neighbor as ourselves, we seek nothing in return, so that our motives for loving the neighbor may remain pure.

2. Not natural affection

The next thing we learn from the parable is that loving the neighbor is not based on natural affection. In the parable it is a Samaritan who helps an injured Jew. Samar­itans have no natur­al affection for Jews. For many centuries they were despised by the Jews for various ethnic and relig­ious reas­ons, and in turn they dislike the Jews. To love a Jew at all, the Samari­tan has to overcome the insuperable obstacles in his own heart, including his natural dislike of Jews. There is nothing natural about loving your historic enemies.

3. Action rather than definition

The third point is that the meaning of neighbor is not a matter of definit­ion. Typical of scholars and learned people, the scribe asks Jesus to define neighbor (“who is my neighbor?”). A common logical fallacy in philosophy is to think we have arrived at an understand­ing of some­thing just because we can define it. Arriving at a definit­ion of neigh­bor doesn’t mean that we understand what a neighbor is. In Scripture, under­stand­ing is tied to experience.

In fact Jesus refuses to answer the scribe’s question with a definit­ion. We like to play intellectual games with definitions: “If you are my neigh­bor, it logically follows that I am your neighbor. Since the relat­ion­ship is commutative, I must love you, and you must love me.” Even worse, we manipulate God’s word to our advantage: “I am your neigh­bor, so you have to love me as your­self.”

The Lord Jesus doesn’t tell the scribe what a neighbor is, but how to be a neighbor. He turns nouns into verbs, and definit­ions into act­ions. At the end of the parable, he asks the scribe, “Who is neighbor to the injured man?” The scribe could only answer with a verb, “The one who showed him mercy” (v.37). The Lord rejects definitions that can be framed as nouns, but seeks actions that can be framed as verbs. He knows our hearts and how we juggle God’s word to suit our purposes, even making our­selves the center of neighborly love.

4. A neighbor is a person in urgent need

The fourth point: In the parable, the question of how Jews historically view Samaritans is irrelevant because it is a Jew who needs help from a Samaritan. The question is meaningless even to the dying man because his life is at the mercy of a Samarit­an. Perhaps more relevant is how Samar­itans look at Jews, but even this question isn’t going through the mind of the good Samaritan.

For him the urgent question is, “How can I help him? If I don’t help him, he will die!” He can tell the victim’s Jewish ethnicity by his clothes and appearance, but that is not important. His first concern is to treat his wounds and give him shelter for recovery. Jesus simply defines a neigh­bor as ­one who is in desperate need.

Jesus has a reason for using a Samaritan and a Jew as the main char­acters of the parable; it is so that we may see that natural affect­ion plays no role in the definition of neighbor. A neighbor is simply a per­son who is in need of love and care. He is in desperation and his survi­val depends on someone else’s mercy. He is poor in the sense of being helpless to help himself. He will surely die if he is left on the road. The striking thing is that his fellow Jews — a priest and a Levite — are willing to let him die, thinking that he is already dead or close to death.

5. The cost is total

This fifth point regarding total cost applies also to the rich young ruler (Mt.19:16-22). Many Christians reject the plain teaching of the story of the rich young ruler, as reflected in the often asked quest­ion: Is the require­ment of selling all your possessions specific to the rich young ruler, or does it apply to Christians in general?

That we could even ask such a question shows that we have not under­stood the command of lateral love. Is the rich young ruler the only one who loves riches? Since he is hardly alone in loving riches, why would giving up one’s possessions be specific to him? Are we say­ing that he loves riches more than anyone else? This cannot be proven exegetic­ally or in reality. More­over, Jesus says, “None of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his possess­ions” (Lk.14:33).

The rich young ruler is referring to the commandments, including that of loving the neigh­bor, when he says, “All these things I have kept. What do I still lack?” This shows that he doesn’t truly understand the com­mand of loving the neigh­bor. He thinks he has fulfilled it. He is probably not being insincere when he says he loves the neighbor, at least in the way he under­stands it.

But Jesus sees only one way for the rich young ruler to fulfill the second command: Give all his possess­ions to his poor neighbors and become poor himself. At that time, most people in Israel were truly poor in the sense of abject material poverty, not “poor” by the stand­ards of our mod­ern world. In North America today, the poor can have fried chicken and ice cream, but in Jesus’ day, the poor were truly poor as in the case of farmers who could not afford to have meat more than twice a year.

The rich young ruler says he has fulfilled the com­mand of loving the neighbor. We are confident that he gives to charity as is required of every Jew. He would have given tithes to the temple. He would give to the poor, probably substantially, yet without hurting his wealth. He must have done all this or he wouldn’t dare say he has fulfilled the com­mandments. He has fulfilled the moral teachings of the rabbis who taught the Jews to give to the poor, though not necessarily on the level of as yourself.

But the term as yourself changes the whole picture. The rich young ruler may have overlooked “as yourself” in Leviticus 19:18 but Jesus does not. He tells him that if he is to love the neighbor as him­self, per­fectly and absolutely, he must sell all his possessions and give to the poor. Then he will come down to their level and they be­come an exten­sion of him­self. And who are the poor and needy? They are the sick, the widowed, the orphaned, and above all the spiritually destit­ute. This was our condition before we came to know God.

The fifth point of this parable, then, is that loving the neighbor as yourself will cost you everything.

6. Not judging the neighbor, but meeting his needs

The sixth point: Since our neighbor is one who is in need, our res­ponse to his need should not be based on feelings of natural love. We don’t have to work up emotions to fulfill the com­mand of love. In loving yourself, do you have to work up feelings for yourself? When you need something, you simply do what is needed to meet your need. Love is based on practical reality, not feelings. The key question is: Since my neighbor is in need, what can I do to take care of him? I don’t need to have warm feel­ings towards him to help him.

Love does not judge. We must not judge ac­cording to our feel­ings for feelings are unreliable. We often don’t know the true sit­uation, so we shouldn’t let our feelings run loose and ruin the atmos­phere.

There is a true story of a person who was sitting in church. While the choir was singing, he focused his eyes on a particular choir mem­ber who was star­ing at the ceiling while singing, looking so smug and self-right­eous. This an­noyed the person who was watching him from the con­gregation. But when the service was over, he found out that the choir member was blind. So he felt ashamed that he had ruined his worship of God by a judgmen­tal attitude towards a brother whom he thought was a hypocrite.

7. The power to love by the Spirit

It is clear by now that vast spiritual resources are required to love your neighbor as yourself. These resources are made available to us:

“Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:38-39, ESV)

We often relate to people according to our feelings, so it is wonderful that the Holy Spirit is there to remind us not to judge. When the Spirit comes into our hearts, love flows again. God trans­forms us into people who function under the Spirit’s control and are empowered to give of ourselves to others.

How glorious the church will be when its members give of them­selves to one another, seeking nothing in return. We could start with a small group of people who are bonded together in covenant love. Then these few can expand into the core group of a vibrant church. This may seem like a dream but we have already seen that God can do marvel­ous things. He wants to do a new thing, namely, to create a new commun­ity that lives by the new covenant. We will strive with all the energy the Spirit inspires within us, to be not just hearers and declar­ers of the word, but also doers who live under the new covenant and bring into reality this new thing God has called into being.

(c) 2021 Christian Disciples Church