Who Is My Neighbor? (Sept – Oct 1996)

By Matt Dabbs

by Mike Cope
September – October, 1996

24“And who is my neighbor?” a legal attorney wanted to know. An innocent enough question. A simple quest for clarification. Jesus had just told him that the focus of God’s word is on loving God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind and on loving our neighbor as ourselves.

But the question isn’t as eager and innocent as it first might seem. For the desire to define “neighbor” is an attempt to limit it. Presumably, the expert in the law wanted a response something like this (according to Frederick Buechner):

A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.

What is the scope of “neighbor”? How far do my responsibilities extend? And when do they end? These are the questions he was subtly asking.

But Jesus refuses even to answer his question. He knows that the lawyer’s quiz implies limits to compassion. It hints at a line that may be drawn with God’s approval to distinguish between those who deserve my mercy and those who don’t.

Jesus is interested not in “Who is my neighbor?” but in the question “When am I a true neighbor?” He knows that the moment you start stapling exceptions to the second great commandment you aren’t much interested in obeying it. For love is the spontaneous overflow of a heart that forgets itself in the face of human need. It is the gracious response of a person who has already experienced the forgiveness and compassion of God through Jesus Christ.

Rather than define the borders of “neighborness,” Jesus told a story. The story has lost a bit of its zip because we’ve spoiled some of its surprise by calling it “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” We give the punch line before the set-up! Those who listened to Jesus likely weren’t expecting a scum-eating, half-breed Samaritan to be the model of godly action. And yet, he is the only one who offers true compassion. He doesn’t just love with his head, analyzing the tragedy before him; nor does he love with his heart alone, weeping over the plight of the poor traveler. He shows God’s true compassion. And what did his compassion look like? It was:

1) Unrestricted. After all, what less likely candidate was there for a Samaritan to help? He didn’t interview the man to make sure he was worthy of help. He didn’t question the man’s judgment in traveling on that road.

2) Translated into action. Fortunately for the man who’d been beaten, the Samaritan didn’t just pray for him and promise to call 911. He rolled up his sleeves, pulled out his wallet, and helped.

3) Costly. “Look after him, and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have,” he told the motel manager.

It’s a story that takes on a whole new life on these in-your-face, Rush-is-right, none-of-this-victimization-crap days. It isn’t driven by political rhetoric from the left or the right. Rather, it is the heart of God—a God who is often described in Scripture as “full of compassion.”

The story of the Good Samaritan is ultimately the story of Jesus Christ whose compassion was poured out on all those around him: on untouchable lepers, on the hungry and poor, on the half-blind disciples, even on the straight-as-an-arrow religious leaders. His compassion didn’t limit “neighbor” by color, gender, income, health, or moral history. His compassion didn’t just pity. Nor did it endorse sinfulness or foolish choices.

Compassion is a learned behavior that comes from setting our compasses on Jesus Christ. It is a way of looking at faces, seeing both the many destructive forces that have worked on them and the ever-present love of God that has pursued them. It is a way of remembering—that everyone we encounter is made in God’s image. It is a way of confessing—that our salvation is a gift of God and not a well-earned perk.

But is we don’t define neighbor, then how will we know whom we’re to show compassion to? By glancing in the ditches once in a while. That’s what the Samaritan did. And Jesus’ response echoes centuries later: “Go and do likewise.”Wineskins Magazine

Mike CopeMike is the preaching minister for the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas. He and his wife Diane have two sons, Matt and Chris; their daughter Megan perished at age nine. Chris survived an automobile accident, with serious injuries, in 2004. Mike has written a number of books, teaches Bible at Abilene Christian University. and is a frequent speaker and guest lecturer. [Mike Cope’s Blog]

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1579 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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