When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment in the bible he replied with the greatest and the second greatest commandments. Last week I wrote about the Greatest Commandment, today I want to write about the second greatest commandment. That this command was viewed as important is shown from the fact that it is quoted by Paul, Gal. 5.14 and James, Jam. 2.8.
It is based on Deu. 6.5 and Lev. 19.18 "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD." It is a simple sounding command, but who is my neighbor? Is it the person living next to me, my family, my friends, or my nation? The man who asked Jesus the question felt he had to "justify" the way he treated other people. I assume he felt that people he treated badly were not his "neighbors," but who is my neighbor?
To answer the question of "who is my neighbor" Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. This parable is one of the most famous parables that Jesus taught; even people who don't attend church have heard of a "good Samaritan." We can't experience the same shock that his audiance would have felt the first time this parable was taught. For us the Samaritan is the hero and the Priest and Levite are the bad guys. For the Jews that Jesus was speaking to that would have been wrong; Samaritans were heretics, Jews had nothing to do with them, but Jesus made one the hero of the story. To give us a feel for what the story would have sounded like for them I am going to change a couple of people in the parable.
Jesus told the man that asked "who is my neighbor" that once there was a man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. It's about a 17 mile trip and a 3,500 foot drop in altitude. It was a dangerous journey in those days and this man was robbed of everything he had, beaten and left for dead. Along came an elder of the church. When he saw the dying man he got as far over as he could and passed by. A deacon came along and did the same thing. Often when people teach this parable we provide excuses for the people who pass by the man. We say they were in a hurry or they were concerned about their own safety. Jesus didn't give any excuses. These men saw someone who needed help and they walked on by; their reasons were not important.
After the elder and deacon had passed by an atheist came along. He saw the man and had pity on him. He tore-up his clothes to make bandages and used his oil and wine to clean the man's wounds. The atheist took him to a hotel and cared for him and the next day he paid the owner to care for him, and said he would pay for any extra costs when he came back. Now, Jesus asked the expert, who acted like a neighbor? "The one who had mercy," the man replied. Jesus said "Go and do likewise." Jesus never addressed the question of "who is my neighbor." He turned the question around and asked "who acts like a neighbor?"
Christians are to "Go and do likewise." Our concern is not with "who is my neighbor," but with "am I behaving like a neighbor." This is the concept behind many commands in the bible like "love your enemy" (Mat. 5.44), and "Do not judge, or you too will be judged," (Mat. 5.7). John, when he was discussing what love is, wrote "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him" (1John 3.17)?
I have heard people say that we only have to be kind to other Christians, our "brothers" as in the quote from 1John. Paul clearly shows who we are to be neighbors to with this statement: "Let us not become weary of doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers" (Gal. 6.9-10).