Following · Frienemies · Qur'an/Bible

Who Is My Neighbor?

There is a rather famous story that comes from the Gospels in which Jesus tells a parable about a good Samaritan.  This story has taken on a sort of mythical quality, being used as both a mascot for hospitals and a derogatory comment made about a ‘do-gooder’.  The story itself is told, however, in the context of a conversation – one that is only recorded in Luke’s Gospel.

Here’s the situation:  A Jewish law-keeper comes to Jesus and asks him what he says is the greatest commandment in all of the Scriptures.  Instead of answering him, Jesus asks the same question back to the man.  The law-keeper then quotes from Deuteronomy 6 (part of the Jewish statement of faith or shahada) saying that you shall love YHWH God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and then he quotes from Leviticus 19 saying that you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself (a common law to Jews, Muslims, and Christians).  Upon hearing this, Jesus affirms his answer, saying, “Do this and live”.  In the other Gospels, Jesus says that all the Law and all of the prophets hang upon these two commands.

But here, at this point in the conversation, the law-keeper issues a challenge to Jesus, which is several millennia old in Judaism: “Who is my neighbor?”  Within this question is another question: Are we to love just our people, or all people?

Throughout Jewish history, Rabbis have tried to answer this question.  Ultimately, they noticed that a similar command is given in Leviticus 19: “You shall love the stranger as yourself”.  The Rabbis came to the conclusion that, whether we think the first command (love your neighbor) means to love only Jews, the second command (love the stranger) means that we are to love the people who are not Jews who live among us.  In other words, God’s command to the Jewish people is to love all people as we love ourselves.

Interestingly, Jesus teaches the same thing here in Luke.  In telling the story of the good Samaritan, he tells the law-keeper that our neighbor is the stranger in our midst.  He tells him that we are to love all people as we love ourselves.

But, there is even more to the story.  Samaritans were half-breed Jews who were completely avoided and viewed as evil second-cousins by the Jews.  In using the Samaritan as the hero of the story, Jesus also tells the law-keeper (and all of us) that our neighbor is the stranger and our enemy.  ‘Living’ then, according to the way Jesus answers the question from the law-keeper, is loving God and loving neighbors, strangers, and enemies.

When the Torah refers to the stranger that is to live among you and says that you should love him as yourself, just as it was commanded to the people of Israel to “love your neighbor as yourself,”so the Jewish people is commanded to ‘love him [the stranger] as yourself because you were strangers in Egypt.’ You should know this well from your own experience of being strangers, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Sifrei K’doshim, chapter 8, section 3)

All of us have our own Samaritans.  For Jews, Christians and Muslims may be the new Samaritans.  For Muslims, Jews and Christians may be the new Samaritans.  For Christians, Muslims and Jews may be the new Samaritans.  We all have our stranger/enemies.  What we are called into as People of the Book is to love our stranger/enemies like we love ourselves.  The whole Torah, the whole Book of Moses, the whole Law hangs upon this command.

Our faith is only valuable when it translates to new ways of living our lives.  For Muslims, Christians, and Jews, the commands that are found in Leviticus matter.  The command to love our neighbors and love strangers as we love ourselves matters.  The only way we can see our faiths make a difference in the way the world looks is for us to take these commands seriously and look for new ways that we can live lovingly towards even the people we hate, disagree with, or don’t understand.

I invite you, my fellow humans, to take a step towards love.  Look for ways to get to know one of your own ‘Samaritans’.  Listen to their story.  Learn from them.  Open yourself up to be changed into a better version of yourself in the process.  Here, in these commands, is the way of truth that leads to life.


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