Defining “neighbour”

The parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 is well known to us all. The Lord followed the practice of the day using questions to draw out his challenger and set up the point he wished to make. What was the issue? In response to Christ, the lawyer gave the standard response of the Shema from Deut 6:5 but merges it with Lev 19:8 – something the Lord approved. Having a knowledge of the truth requires a response. Loving God means expressing that love to others – otherwise it is not real love 1 John 4:20.

This blunted the lawyer’s challenge, so he seeks to justify himself with the further question “who is my neighbour?” The challenge the lawyer really faced here is a very human one. If the requirement of the law can be narrowed, i.e. neighbour defined narrowly, it becomes easier to keep.

The Pharisees viewed the general population as accursed – apart from the law John 7:49. Similarly the Essene community didn’t extend love to anyone else at all.[1]

The lawyer quoted Lev 19:18 (NET) in full says,

You must not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your people, but you must love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.

This provides some apparent support to limiting the definition of neighbor to Israelites only. However there is more context which contradicts this narrow reading.

Lev19:34 (NET) provides a basis to understand a broader meaning of neighbour:

The foreigner who resides with you must be to you like a native citizen among you; so you must love him as yourself, because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.

I.e. anyone around you should be treated the same – regardless of their formal affiliation/classification.

Our Lord directly tackles the narrow definition of neighbour. The construction of his parable builds the challenge. The victim is a common Jew, not an elite. The priest and Levite as social elites fail to act. The Lord picks a highly offensive hero for the story – a despised Samaritan. Interestingly the Lord had been on the end of Samaritan prejudice recently in Luke 9:52-53, they reciprocated the Jewish dislike. The lawyer seemingly didn’t want to even acknowledge the Samaritan’s neighbourly behaviour in v37. Christ’s concluding instruction is to do likewise – i.e. extend love and charity beyond normal bounds.

The scope of God’s charity is our standard

That God demonstrates His goodness to the good and evil through the general cycle of life Matt 5:44-45 is tendered by Christ as evidence we should love and pray for our enemies. The quality of the Father’s love is not academic but practical. So our love should be seen in practice as well. Otherwise we will only display love to our brothers – like anyone else, which is the Lord’s next warning in v46-47. This principle is obvious but can be overlooked if we focus on a narrow range of passages about doing good to others.

Psa 68:5 (NET) describes our God as “a father to the fatherless and an advocate for widows”. In Deut 10:18-19 (NET) God declares He is a God who “justly treats the orphan and widow, and who loves resident foreigners, giving them food and clothing.” This then forms the basis of the instruction in v19 to “love the resident foreigner because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt”. This is a broad and demanding standard. We cannot limit the love of God and therefore our own actions in showing love to those in need. The scope is specifically wider than the covenant community as it explicitly includes resident foreigners – non Jews.

While we do not take up a role in politics, being citizens of Zion, God commands the faithful in Isa 1:17 (NET) to,

Learn to do what is right! Promote justice! Give the oppressed reason to celebrate! Take up the cause of the orphan! Defend the rights of the widow!

Are we known in our broader community as faithful to this calling? Individually and as ecclesias would people perceive us this way?

Gal 6v10 is rightly raised in the context “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who belong to the family of faith.” The proposition is sometimes put that we should focus our charity on the ecclesia in line with this passage. This is a misreading no different in effect to the quoting of Lev 19:18 by the lawyer and ignoring the broader reading in v34. We can use Galatians to limit the scope of our charity. This is inconsistent with the character of our God and the broader context of Scripture. Paul is saying the ecclesia is a priority but it is not the exclusive domain of our charity.

Indeed a broad scope for our charity is specifically commanded by Paul when he says to not “neglect hospitality, because through it some have entertained angels without knowing it” Heb 13:2 (NET). So we should “entertain strangers” per the KJV. If, as is likely, the allusion is to Abraham in Gen 18 or Lot in Gen 19 then both were absolutely extending hospitality to unknowns – the widest possible definition of a neighbour.

The record of history

There exist some interesting records of the behavior of the early believers which reflect the application of these principles. We are familiar with the generosity in early Acts and the collection for the poor in Jerusalem. History records this continued at least for a time.

Firstly of internal charity, in the early 100s the so called Shepherd of Hermas recommended fasting to fund charity saying,

in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind[2]

A little later in AD 130 in the apology of Aristides the philosopher,

if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food[3]

Of external charity the truth of 1 Pet 2:12 is attested by the writing of Julian the Apostate to Arsacius, High-priest of Galatia in AD 362 complaining that “it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us”.[4]

Even as the integrity of doctrine was seriously compromised, there was maintained this powerful external witness of doing good to all men, especially but not only to those in the faith.

Our community, flashing forward many centuries, has achieved some fantastic examples of loving our neighbours near and far. From the Kindertransport involvement, Meal a Day fund, orphanages in India, schools in Vanuatu through to making mission halls community cyclone shelters in Vanuatu, we have reached out and extended the love of our Father.

So what then?

Individually and ecclesially we need to adopt and strengthen the broad application of love resisted by the lawyer. We have to avoid the temptation to limit the scope of charity and our social concerns and accept the challenge issued by our God in Isaiah 1. No we don’t and won’t become members of social justice organisations. We belong to a supra political movement – the kingdom of God. Our king expects us to implement his policies now as best we can without being entangled in the NGOs of this age. In recent time, despite some positive examples, we have too frequently limited our external focus and activities.

The demonstration of charity can and should form part of our witness – letting our good works shine before man (1 Pet 2:12). Some simple easy opportunities which both individuals and ecclesias can drive (apart from mere financial contributions) include:

  • Agape in Action
  • Mission field charity initiatives
  • Homeless meals and soup kitchens
  • Volunteer work for charities

This work is a sometimes neglected part of our worship. James 1:27 is explicit –

Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Like the lawyer we need perhaps to broaden our definition of who should receive charity. Our God shows His love widely and we should challenge ourselves to change and do the same.


  1. Stein, R. H. (1992). Luke(Vol. 24, p. 316). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers. Referencing (1QS 1:9–10)
  2. Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (Eds.). (1885). The Pastor of Hermas. In F. Crombie (Trans.),Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire)(Vol. 2, p. 34). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.
  3. Aristides of Athens. (1897). The Apology of Aristides. In A. Menzies (Ed.), D. M. Kay (Trans.), The Gospel of Peter, the Diatessaron of Tatian, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Visio Pauli, the Apocalypses of the Virgil and Sedrach, the Testament of Abraham, the Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena, the Narrative of Zosimus, the Apology of Aristides, the Epistles of Clement (Complete Text), Origen’s Commentary on John, Books I-X, and Commentary on Matthew, Books I, II, and X-XIV(Vol. 9, p. 277). New York: Christian Literature Company.
  4.  visited on 29 May 2016

Author: Daniel Edgecombe