Who is My Neighbor?

In divisive days, missionaries need to relearn the biblical teaching on relationships—starting with the very word “neighbor.”

There’s an expression that rings true for many North Americans—good fences make good neighbors.

But in an increasingly polarized country like the U.S., fences have evolved into barricades that prevent dialogue among parties of diverse worldviews, making the missionary’s work to establish relationships all the more difficult.

It’s time to start building bridges. Good bridges make better neighbors. And the blueprint for successful construction comes from one of Jesus’ most famous teachings: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).

However, like many well-known precepts, true meaning of this golden rule has been flattened and thinned out due to overuse and empty lip service. Unfortunately, Christians have narrowed Jesus’ original use of the word “neighbor” to refer to only those who share interests, political views and religious beliefs. We have been swept up in the culture’s wave of hypersensitivity, quick to demonize and slow to demonstrate grace toward those who hold contrary opinions.

The ancient world struggled with a similar problem. The people of its time were reluctant to offer compassion outside their own circles and to others of a different race.

Ethnicity was a fundamental layer of one’s identity, often interwoven with a person’s religion and social status. This was especially true for Jesus’ audience; the Jews, as the biological offspring of Abraham, were the chosen people of God. However, this honored status created a superiority complex within Jews to the degree that they viewed other people groups as subservient.

Aware of man’s evil and selfish prejudices, Jesus admonished people to treat their neighbors with respect and dignity. And although this edict to love one’s neighbor appears throughout the gospels, only one occasion is accompanied by a telling image of how the action is manifested: the parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable’s timeless appeal resides within its countercultural theme.

The account in the book of Luke is prefaced by a conversation between Jesus and an expert in Mosaic Law. The lawyer intends to test Jesus because many in the educated Jewish community (e.g. the Pharisees) thought he held an erroneous view of the law, since he claimed to be God (cf. John 5:18). So, the man asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life, perhaps expecting Jesus to ignore the Law and propose some other method. Instead, Jesus flips it around and inquires as to the lawyer’s opinion, who responds by confidently summarizing the law with the greatest commandment—to love God and your neighbor (Luke 10:27).

To the lawyer’s chagrin, Jesus agrees with his answer, but the clever man of law couldn’t resist one last effort to trip Jesus by pressuring him to give specific parameters on the following question: who, then, is my neighbor?

The calculated quip was an attempt to lessen the extent of his failures. The man recognized his many shortcomings in behaving unselfishly toward foreigners. By having Jesus give a definition for “neighbor” that was tethered to race, likeness, and proximity, the lawyer thought he could maintain his self-righteous attitude without conceding his inability to obey these laws and accepting Jesus as his only hope for salvation.

But Jesus’ reply penetrates past the semantics, driving straight toward where our deepest and most sensitive convictions dwell—the heart. He begins relating a short story whose moral ramifications forever radicalized the understanding of human altruism.

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, 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.” (Luke 10:30-32)

Priests and Levites were cultural elites in Jewish society. Highly trained in the Old Testament, these distinguished figures knew the law better than most. Their status made them role models within their communities, adding to the disturbing neglectfulness to help a dying Jew.

But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:33-37)

A longstanding animosity divided Jews and Samaritans. Indeed, the hatred was so deep that Jewish officials accused Jesus of being a Samaritan, the lowest and most degrading insult (John 8:48). According to Josephus, a group of Samaritans had once defiled the temple in Jerusalem by scattering human remains in it. This atrocity occurred in the early days of Jesus, and so the grotesque and sore memory would be fresh in the minds of Jesus’ listeners. At the story’s conclusion, the disarmed lawyer can’t bring himself to utter the name “Samaritan,” and instead chooses to lamentably say “the one who showed him mercy” in a sigh of defeat.

The Samaritan was under no obligation to care for the Jew. To pass him would have been regarded as customary behavior. But by championing the Samaritan as the hero of the story, Jesus challenged the cultural narrative with a simple but clear message: everyone is a neighbor.

This central doctrine of Christian love motivates the missionary to build bridges not just with the like-minded friend, but also the very different stranger.