Who Is My Neighbor?

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Luke 10:29-38

This year, I taught in a sixth-grade classroom that started the beginning of the year divided. Some of my students had spent the past few years in the same classrooms and the same schools, and some were new to the school or even the district. Immediately the conflict was felt in our learning community. It felt as though every few hours I was hosting discussions between groups of students, or even the whole class, about the conflict that was occurring. More often than not, when we got to the root of the problem it was, “They don’t know me, they aren’t one of us.” 

It would be an understatement to say the Jewish people and the Samaritan people had a contentious relationship. Going back to the divisions of the tribes of Israel, geopolitical differences divided the two peoples. This despite the fact that both came from the same people that wandered the desert together, claimed the same God as their Father, and were all children of Israel. Long after the Israelites had settled in the Promised land, Assyria conquered most of the Northern Kingdoms and proceeded to bring in people from other nations. This resulted in inter-marrying and children of mixed descent, which would become the Samaritan people. Shortly after this, the Jewish people were exiled from Judea courtesy of Nebuchadnezzar II. Upon returning to rebuild Jerusalem, an “Us vs. Them” mentality took hold for a variety of reasons. Sprinkle in some temple destruction and desecration, and you have yourself a full-blown feud. So when Jesus tells the “expert in the law” that a Samaritan is his neighbor to be loved as himself, it shakes his whole worldview.

The word “neighbor” had specific connotations to the Jewish people prior to this. When the expert in the law brings it up as an answer to how to receive eternal life (Luke 10:25-27), he is referencing one of the laws mentioned in Leviticus. Chapter 19, verse 18 states, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” The Hebrew word used for “neighbor” in this verse is rea, which many at the time interpreted to mean a neighbor that looks like you. More of a friend or someone you know than a stranger or someone just geographically close. It came to be interpreted that your rea was your fellow Israelite, not that guy you wave to when you take the trash out and have no other interaction with. The young lawyer would have assumed this definition when he asked Jesus who his neighbor was, and we can see that when the verse says “but he wanted to justify himself” at the beginning of his question. The lawyer had probably followed the letter of the law by treating his fellow Israelites well his whole life. The expert in the law assumed all he needed to do was treat well those who look like him, talk like him, and act like him in order to follow the law and therefore achieve salvation.

In one little parable, Jesus informs the lawyer and us that our neighbor, our rea, is not only those who are like us. The hatred between Jews and Samaritans was deep, even to the point of complete non-association (John 4:9 “...for Jews do not associate with Samaritans”). Jesus is sending a clear message by having an injured Jew on the road, and a Samaritan there to help him physically and financially without question of repayment. He is making it clear that no division can overcome loving your neighbor as yourself. 

I think it is safe to say that in today’s world this parable is just as applicable as it was 2,000 years ago. Whether between Republicans and Democrats or Vikings and Packers fans, there is so much division nowadays, it seems like there is a never-ending culture war raging in the hearts and minds of most of our society. People draw lines concerning who they support and who they despise quickly and without reservation. A single trip to a comment section on Facebook regarding anything political makes you feel as though you are wandering through a virtual battleground. Many times it breaks my heart to see Christians engaging in hostile rhetoric as though their lives depend on it. 

The fact of the matter is that Jesus aggressively challenged those within the church far more than those outside of it. He flipped tables in temples (Matt. 21:12) and confronted religious leaders (Luke 11:37–54, Matt. 23:1–39) when he saw those of faith doing what was antithetical to his word. Meanwhile, those who did not look like him, did not believe what he did, or were historically enemies of his nationality were treated gently. He has a conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4) and heals a Roman centurion’s servant (Luke 7) and a Samaritan leper (Luke 17). He heals a Canaanite woman’s daughter (Matt. 15), doesn’t condemn a woman about to be stoned (John 8), and so much more. Time after time, Jesus converses with those different from him and breaks down political, ethnic, cultural, and religious barriers using care, praise, and conversation. He does not condemn and rebuke those who have sinned, he does not throw Scripture at those who do not share his faith, he does not hate those who are different. He consistently meets people where they are and works on the relationship peacefully, calmly, and with love. 

Now, it might be easy to say, “Of course we would assist a bruised and bleeding man on the side of the road regardless of their political or religious beliefs.” Maybe I am being naive, but I believe most people would call an ambulance, wait with that person, and do what they could to keep them alive. Oddly enough, it might be harder for most of us to have a calm discussion about a variety of topics than to assist someone dying on the side of the road. 

I am just as guilty as the next person of choosing to love my neighbor, my rea, conditionally, choosing to throw stones at those across the divide from me on a given issue. Jesus, however, sets a clear example of what is expected. He builds bridges with the stones that might have been thrown, connects as people and not as enemies, and creates healthy and productive dialogue.

At the end of the day, it is not Donald Trump or Joe Biden whose loyalty you belong to. It is not a political party, a sports team, or a church building that defines how you treat others. It is Christ, who willingly got up on a cross for people who did not believe in him. For people who, when given the choice between freeing a murderer and the Son of God, let hate in their hearts demand that the greatest act of evil in human history should take place. Let us look toward the example of the bloody, beaten man carrying a cross up a hill to die, and not to the crowd demanding malice and retribution toward that which challenged their beliefs and comfort. 

Love thy neighbor, your rea. Love everyone you come in contact with like Jesus would have loved them.

About the Author

Thomas Beck is a middle school teacher in Michigan and is a member of the Christian Reformed Church.

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