Once a lawyer, in an attempt to rationalize his own racial prejudice, asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" ( Luke 10:29 ). This lawyer-scribe unknowingly expresses a fundamental issue in all of ethics: For whom are we responsible in issues of justice and mercy? Jesus' answer was the parable of the Good Samaritan and the fundamental ideas of the parable find their roots in both Old Testament and Jewish soil.
The problem of "neighborliness" was acute in Judaism because of the people's self-consciousness of being the chosen people ( Gen 12:1-3 ; 15:1-6 ; 17:1-8 ), sealed in the rite of circumcision ( 17:9-14 ). Election set Israel apart, made the people particularly loyal to their own kind (cf. Matt 5:43-48 ) and, at the same time, permitted the tendency to neglect, even condemn, those who were not Israelites. With such tendencies, it is not surprising that legislation had to be given to Israel to encourage compassion and justice for the non-Jew. Thus, Moses prescribes rites of conversion for the foreigner who wants to eat Passover with Israel ( Exod 12:43-49 ) and, even more, prohibits the reaping of the crops entirely; instead, some crops were to be left "for the poor and the alien" ( Lev 19:9-10 ; cf. Deut 24:19-22 ) and every third year a tithe was to be shared with the sojourners ( Deut 14:29 ; 26:12-13 ). The fundamental basis for this is that at one time Israel was also a sojourner while in Egypt; therefore, Israel is to treat its sojourners with compassion and justice ( Lev 19:33-34 ; Deut 10:19 ; 24:22 ). Essentially, then, the Mosaic laws demand both compassion and justice to be guaranteed for the foreigner because God loves the sojourner ( Deut 10:18 ). It is impossible for us to know just how Israel treated the foreigner who decided to live with, or near, them. The records show both slave labor ( 1 Chron 22:2 ; 2 Chron 2:17-18 ) and inclusion among the people ( 2 Chron 30:25 ).
In spite of this insistence of the law that Israel was to be kind to foreigners and treat them with compassion and justice, the preponderance of emphasis is on the "neighborliness" to be shown to fellow members of the covenant with Israel. We ought to see this as special benevolence among Israelites; it did, however, develop at times into racial favoritism and discrimination. In fact, to be a "neighbor" was to be a "brother" (cf. Jer 31:34 ): at the end of seven years release was granted from debts owed to a "neighbor-brother" but this same privilege of release was not granted to foreigners ( Deut 15:2-3 ). Thus, when the Old Testament prescribes treating one's neighbor as oneself ( Lev 19:18 b), we are to envisage how Israel was to treat fellow Israelites ( Lev 19:17-18 a) and, only by extension, Gentiles. There developed then an entire network of legal prescriptions and prohibitions about dealings with one's neighbors, including attitudes and actions like adultery and business relations. The vision of Zechariah for the final days included the refreshing fellowship of neighborliness ( 3:10 ).
Thus, when we enter into the New Testament period we are to understand the biblical laws of the Old Testament that speak of neighborliness as injunctions for special treatment of fellow Jews. Jews showed special love for fellow Jews because they were covenantally and racially bound together. The social realities of Jewish history, with the constant battering of the people of Israel by other nations, also inclined the Jewish people to favor their own. Social realities also reveal that Jews were kind to Gentiles in general and for those Jews who lived in the diaspora there was also a general social friendliness to be observed. Early Christianity showed a similar kind of "prejudiced love" ( Gal 6:10 ) and it would be wrong to vilify either Jews or Christians for their "prejudiced love" unless that love becomes neglect, or even contempt, of outsiders in need.
Jesus sought to expand the concept of "neighbor" to include non-Jews; while this is not contrary to Jewish law or to Jewish practice, it clearly was challenging to many in Judaism. Jewish practice had come to the general conviction that a "neighbor, " in purely legal terms, was a Jew or proselyte to Judaism. For Jesus, a neighbor was anyone with whom you came into contactwhether Jew, Samaritan, or Gentile ( Luke 10:25-37 ). In fact, this focus on an expanding definition led to the breaking down of Jewish barriers that were constructed around the traditional interpretations of cleanness and uncleanness. At the time of Jesus, various restricting movements, like the Pharisees and Essenes at Qumran, naturally tended to show favoritism to members of their own social groups. While the War Scroll at Qumran may be from one extreme end of the evidence, its emphasis on hating all those who were sons of darkness (non-Essenes) illustrates the point being made. Thus, we are to understand the parable of the good Samaritan as addressing the issue of the "limits" of one's responsibility and we are to see Jesus saying that there are no limits; one cannot exclusively exercise compassion or justice for one's own kind.
This profound parable of Jesus, with its teaching on the importance of showing love for anyone within one's reach, along with Jesus' command to love one's enemies ( Matt 5:43-48 ) and his overt friendliness to Gentiles become foundational for the early church's missionary efforts and for interpersonal relationships within the largely Gentile churches of Paul. Paul urges the Galatians to love their neighbors as themselves and here the implication is that it involved both Jewish and Gentile Christians ( Gal 5:14 ) and we find in Matthew an emphasis on loving one's enemy (=Gentile Matt 5:43-48 ). Once again, while this idea is not new to Judaism, the emphasis of seeing neighbors as Gentiles as well clearly expanded the Jewish horizons.
It is also clear that the early churches found a special love for one another and addressed themselves as neighbors. Paul can say that one is to do good especially to other believers ( Gal 6:10 ) and James can see the principle of Leviticus 19:18 applying to what was probably Jewish Christians ( 2:1-14 ). Furthermore, Paul urges his congregations to be neighborly, and we are probably justified in seeing such exhortations applying primarily to Christian fellowship ( Rom 13:8-10 ; 1 Cor 10:24 ; Eph 4:25 ).
Bibliography. J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus' Call to Discipleship; H. Greeven and J. Fichtner, TDNT, 6:311-15; W. Gnther, U. Falkenroth, and D. A. Carson, NIDNTT, 1:254-60; J. J. Hughes and N. J. Opperwall, ISBE, 3:517-18; S. McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, pp. 259-65; idem, A Light among the Gentiles: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period; E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Neighbor'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".