And who is my neighbor?



There are a lot of things I’ll miss next year: big things—like the weekend
retreat I usually enjoy with some of my closest friends at the start of the fall
or cramming into a packed lecture hall for a physics colloquium—but also
the little things—catching up with an old friend over lunch or running
through campus on cool fall evenings. We all have our own collections of
this sort. They’re far from the greatest casualties of the pandemic, and
we’re right to give them up for a time for the sake of those more vulnerable
than ourselves. But I suspect they’re more important than we often
acknowledge. They’re part of what keeps me grounded and sane in the
pressure-cooker of Duke University.

We should expect our lives on and off campus to be more challenging and
unpredictable than the ones we left, particularly for those who struggle with
mental health and anxiety, incoming freshmen who haven’t yet found their
communities, or those who easily get overwhelmed with work and
responsibilities. So, at a time when the pressure of college life is necessarily
increasing, and when many of the encouraging things about it have to be
set aside, it’s worth considering: how can we truly support one another?

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”1

The lawyer answers Jesus’ first question much as we’d expect. In fact, he was just quoting something Jesus had already said. His Great Commandments—the dual imperatives to love God and love others—are among the most treasured of His teachings and have taken on a life of their own in human history. Two millennia of theologians and moral philosophers have picked over them, and Jews have been praying the first twice a day 2 for hundreds of years more. The problem arises only with the lawyer’s final challenge: “Who counts?”

At first glance, this question seems perfectly reasonable and its answer equally obvious. The Greek word underneath “neighbor” literally means “the near one,” so my neighbor is anyone who is close to me, wherever I happen to be.3  So Jesus could have responded “anyone and everyone you come near”—and in a way He will—but like any good rabbi, He never gave a straight answer if He could avoid it. He apparently felt it more important to point out that we’re asking the wrong question. He chooses to tell us not who our neighbors are but what a neighbor is. In doing so, He calls all generations to the kind of love He showed in His own life.

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’”5

What is it about our Samaritan that we should take as an example? In what sense was he a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers? “He went to him,” while the Priest and the Levite passed by on the other side (keeping 6 feet apart, I hope). He chose to make a neighbor of the man because of his compassion, being totally disinterested in himself and totally invested in his fellow man. The details of his act paint an image of altruism—of total, self-giving love. 

He was actively looking for a neighbor and prepared to help the one he found. One can imagine him searching around his home, finding the oil and the wine and whatever small sum of money he could sacrifice, and setting off. He knew the road from Jerusalem to Jericho to be so dangerous that he would almost certainly find someone who needed them more than himself. And when he was proven right, he chose not to ask “‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’” but “‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”

If the Samaritan had not come near the man, would he have been obligated to help? Could he not have passed by in the same manner as the Priest and the Levite? But Jesus always refuses to answer such questions. By asking them, we assume certain people could not be our neighbors and therefore do not deserve our love. We imagine that love is subsequent to neighborliness, that Jesus’ mandate only comes into force once the neighbor is made. But Jesus wants us to see through the Samaritan that neighborliness “is not a quality in other people, it is simply their claim on ourselves. Every moment and every situation challenges us to action and to obedience. We have literally no time to sit down and ask whether so-and-so is our neighbor or not.”6 The difference between the passersby and the Samaritan wasn’t obligation—it was compassion. The Samaritan already loved the man before he was his neighbor.

One could write many volumes on the nature of love, and many of my betters already have. Suffice it to say that the Biblical authors didn’t think of it merely as a feeling as we do today but rather as a selfless act for the good of others—service for those who cannot serve us, sacrifice for those who can in no way repay us. And the only way to serve someone is to first draw near to them. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, He wants us to see that it’s an act of love merely to make them our neighbors in the first place. Asked which comes first, the love or the neighbor, I suspect He would answer “yes.” Love creates neighbors and neighbors demand love, and that process forms a positive feedback loop in the soul and writes a new law on the heart. 

This, it seems, is the sanctification Christ has promised us: “You who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”7 The love we show our neighbors makes us more compassionate and generous people: it makes us better off, just as the love we show others makes them better off. Someone more eloquent than me said it like this:

The quality of mercy is not strained. 

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: 

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest

But someone more succinct than me said it even better: “Love loves to love love.”

“Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”10 

Let’s reframe our dilemma. We’re now starting a semester where our being neighbors to each other is both more important and more difficult than ever before.  In light of that challenge, Jesus asks us not to wonder who are our neighbors, but how we can be neighbors; not who we are obligated to love, but in what ways we can practice love—radical, self-sacrificial love. 

Finally, we have the right question! At this point, one may wonder why Jesus is so focused on changing the way we think about the problem, and yet never seems to give us an answer. The story ends with “You go, and do likewise.” 

Right, but, how should I begin?

This is the most subtle and yet powerful point of Jesus’ reproof: the question He gives about love is one that only Love Himself can answer. This question of how we ought to love our neighbors is answered in the story of Jesus’ life and His act of redemption; He told us about the Samaritan in order to tell us about Himself. Christ identified with our nature—He made neighbors of us—in order that we would be the objects of divine love, and so too its subjects. By “you go and do likewise,” Jesus means “follow me.”

We do that by learning about Him “through his story as we find it in the Gospel and as we see it lived in the lives of others.”11 The more we see Him at work in those places, the more He is able to work in us. Understanding the ways that Christ loved us and taught us how to love is a lifelong project, but I’ve collected a few of the things that I think stand out from His life and teaching. They’re ways of making neighbors just as much as ways of loving the neighbors we have and practical exercises in abolishing the distinction altogether.

Empathy — “Understand as you wish to be understood.” In the Incarnation we find the greatest possible act of empathy. Jesus was fully God and fully man and addressed the sin in our hearts by taking that sin into Himself on the Cross. Understanding eliminates distance and makes neighbors. When I feel what someone else is feeling, I learn to treat him as I would treat myself. He has become my neighbor, because his wellbeing has quite literally become my wellbeing. He “is a part of me and I am a part of him. His agony diminishes me and his salvation enlarges me.”12

Prayer — “Pray as you wish to be prayed for.” I cannot be angry with someone I am praying for. The act itself forces me to leave behind any pretense of superiority or ill will. It brings about, in a spiritual sense, the closeness required of a neighbor. Prayer compels me to compassion, and compassion insists that I pray, most of all for those who would think it unconscionable to pray for me. Our model for this? Jesus prayed for the men who were putting Him to death, as they were putting Him to death. 

Sacrifice — “Serve as you wish to be served.” We noticed earlier that the Biblical authors would not let love begin and end with a feeling, but that it is made complete in service and sacrifice. Through it we are compelled to give freely of whatever has been given us in Christ. This is pure altruism, from the level of some small, pedestrian kindness up to the good we do through our professions and lifelong ambitions. It requires us to step outside of ourselves and towards the other, considering what would truly benefit them.

Reconciliation — “Forgive as you wish to be forgiven.” This is perhaps the most exceptional thing we can do for each other. The victim of sin has no reason a priori to forgive the perpetrator, but that she herself has been forgiven. In Christ’s life and death, we find the humility to admit we have done wrong and the strength to forgive the wrong done to us. Those acts let us carry out in microcosm the story of redemption, making neighbors of others as Christ made neighbors of us. “My brother’s burden which I must bear is…quite literally his sin. And the only way to bear that sin is by forgiving it in the power of the cross of Christ in which I now share.”13

We can see these things most immediately in the written accounts of the Gospels, but the richness of the revelation we’ve been given is hardly exhausted therein. Just as Jesus made neighbors of us twenty centuries ago, He makes neighbors of us this very day through one another. For “his presence here on earth never becomes a thing of the past, and thus does not become more and more distant— that is, if faith is at all to be found upon the earth.”14 Whatever I understand about forgiveness, I understand because of those who have forgiven me, Christ most of all. And whatever I know of sacrifice, I know because of the sacrifices that have been made for me, the Crucifixion most of all. And on down the list.

So when we ask what we can do to make neighbors of each other in this new semester, our answers are found in what Christ did for us and what He is doing to us. As to the practicalities, they’re perhaps best worked out in prayerful contemplation. At Duke at least, we have plenty to think about: in the last few weeks alone, upperclassmen were denied housing, all students denied roommates, schedules scrambled, and long term plans eviscerated. Unfortunately, we may not be through the worst of it yet. Unusual and unprecedented times call for creative solutions; difficult circumstances demand joint effort. On campus or off, we’re each uniquely positioned to help and support one another—maybe not in person for the time being, but nevertheless in full measure of heart and soul and strength and mind—as we daily ask of ourselves and our communities: How can we love our neighbors? 

  1. Jemima McEvoy, “Harvard, Princeton Will Bring Some Students On-Campus In Fall—But
    It Won’t Look Anything Like Before” Forbes, 6 July 2020. ↩︎
  2. Luke 10:25-29, ESV ↩︎
  3. Matthew 22:35-40 and Mark 12:28-34 ↩︎
  4. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 ↩︎
  5. “Neighbor” is from the greek πλησίον (plēsion), which is a nominal adjective from
    πλησίος (plēsios = close to). ↩︎
  6. Luke 10:30-35, ESV ↩︎
  7. Martin Luther King Jr. “On Being a Good Neighbor” (King) ↩︎
  8. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. Simon & Schuster, 2018. p. 78 (Bonhoeffer)
  9. Jeremiah 31:31-34 ↩︎
  10. Romans 6:17-18, ESV ↩︎
  11. William Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, l. 173-177. ↩︎
  12. Luke 10:36-37, ESV ↩︎
  13. Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: toward a constructive christian social
    ethic. University of Notre Dame Press, 1981. p. 44 ↩︎
  14. King ↩︎
  15. Bonhoeffer p. 90 ↩︎
  16. Soren Kierkegaard. Practice in Christianity. Princeton University Press, 1991. p. 9 ↩︎

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