Who Is My Neighbor?

In Matthew 22, Jesus was asked, “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?” Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” These commands come from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, respectively. In Luke 10, Jesus gives his listeners greater clarity on the second of these commands when He is challenged by a Pharisee. 

Who Is My Neighbor?

Luke 10:25 tells us that a lawyer (meaning an expert in the law, not an attorney, like we think of today) tested Jesus by asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” First, notice that this man is not actually seeking to follow Christ. He is testing Jesus, wanting to see if Jesus’ requirements for eternal life line up with his. Jesus asks the expert in the Law what the Law says, and the lawyer responds with greatest and second-greatest commands.

“He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind;’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’”

Jesus affirms that the lawyer has correctly identified the two greatest commands from the Law and tells him, “Do this and you will live.” It’s important to note here that Jesus is not affirming a works-based righteousness. He is not telling this man that if he loves God enough, he will obtain eternal life. Instead, just as he did with the rich young ruler in Matthew 19, Jesus is showing the lawyer the impossibility of earning salvation. He knows that the lawyer can’t keep these laws perfectly. He can’t love God with all his heart, soul, and mind, because his sin nature prevents it. This lawyer, like all of us under the curse of sin, needs a personal encounter with Christ and a heart change to inherit eternal life.

The lawyer, perhaps feeling convicted and guilty because he knows he cannot keep the law perfectly, tries to justify himself to Jesus.

“But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”

Scripture tells us that Jesus “took up the question” and recounted the parable of the Good Samaritan to his listeners. You can read the parable here. At the end of the parable, in which a priest and a Levite passed by a gravely injured Jew, while a Samaritan stopped and gave him aid, we see the following exchange:

“‘Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

‘The one who showed mercy to him,’ he said.

Then Jesus told him, ‘Go and do the same.’”

In this moment, Jesus turns the question around. The lawyer wanted to know who his neighbors were because he did what so many of us so often do. We want to know what the bare minimum is. What’s the lowest threshold? What’s the least amount of “Christian” I can be and still be on God’s good side? I have students ask me things like, “Is it a sin for me to listen to this music? Is it a sin for me to go to this party? Is it a sin for me to take my relationship this far?” And my usual answer is that they are asking the wrong question. They are asking, “How far away can I go, God? How long is my leash?” when they should be asking, “How closely can I walk with you, God?” This lawyer is doing the same thing. He wants to know exactly who his “neighbors” are. He wants to know the minimum amount of love he has to give in order to inherit eternal life. Chances are, he felt convicted in the moment when Jesus told him, “Do this and you will live.” Scripture tells us plainly that his question was an attempt to justify himself. It was an attempt to lower the bar and retain his sense of self-righteousness. But rather than helping the lawyer lower the bar, Jesus raises it for his listeners and, by extension, for us.

Jesus reversed the lawyer’s emphasis on “neighbor.”  Instead of allowing him to place it on others, Jesus made him take it on himself. Where the lawyer wanted a narrower definition of “neighbor,” Jesus created a much broader one. As John MacArthur writes, “The lawyer assumed it was up to others to prove themselves neighbor to him. Jesus’ reply makes it clear that each has a responsibility to be a neighbor.” The lawyer wanted others to prove themselves worthy of his love and mercy. Jesus told the lawyer to “go and do the same” as the Samaritan in his parable. The message is this: Don’t wait for someone to prove themselves a neighbor to you before showing love, kindness, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Instead, be a neighbor to everyone, even those who are different from you, because all are created in God’s image.

Who Is Your Neighbor?

Who should receive your love, grace, forgiveness, or mercy? The short answer? Everyone. Your neighbor is everyone created in the image of God. Your neighbor is a different race. Your neighbor speaks a different language. Your neighbor dresses differently. Your neighbor practices a different religion. Your neighbor is on the other side of the political aisle. Your neighbor practices sinful behavior or a lifestyle that does not honor God. Your neighbor is annoying, mean, and difficult to get along with. And you should love your neighbor as yourself.

“But, how can someone who follows another religion be my neighbor?” you ask. “Do you know what that Democratic Party (or Republican Party) supports? Do you know how that person lives? I can’t love them. I don’t agree with them!” Unfortunately, many of us seem to have forgotten a simple truth: You can disagree with someone and still love them with the love of Christ. Love does not equal agreement with or condoning of someone’s actions. Love can say, “You’re wrong, but I still love you. I disagree with the things you support, I don’t condone the choices you make, I don’t believe your religion is true, but I love you.” It’s that love, the same love that Jesus spoke of, that leads others to the throne of God. Finger-pointing, shaming, making angry Facebook posts, reposting angry Facebook posts, wishing harm, even jokingly, on someone who votes differently than you (I wish I could say that was a fictional example…), and other things of that nature only serve to push people away from Christ and the church. Those responses do not honor God and they do not follow the command Jesus gave us.

Jesus’ message applies to us just as much as it did to the lawyer. Don’t show love only to the people in your circle. Don’t wait for someone to prove they belong in your neighborhood. Your responsibility is to be a neighbor to everyone. 

I’ll end with these words of wisdom from my six-year-old son. He’s homeschooling and at the end of a lesson, my wife asked, “How should we treat people who are different from us?” His response was something we should all remember: “We should be nice to them, because God loves them, no matter how different they are from us. And Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit love us, and we are WAY different from them.”

Who is your neighbor? Everyone.

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Jarrod Horne

Jarrod Horne is the Minister of Students and Discipleship at Sixth Street Baptist Church in Alexander City, Alabama. He is passionate about exalting Christ through preaching and teaching, equipping Christ-followers to grow and influence their environments, and encouraging people to explore the depths of the Gospel. Jarrod is pursuing his Master's in Preaching and Pastoral Ministry from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is a graduate of Auburn University. He and his wife, Amanda, are raising three children: Levi, Rachel, and Miriam.

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