Saturday, February 2, 2013

Who Is My Neighbor? A Theological Approach to Socio-Economic Issues

1.  Introduction
Today we are bombarded with the needs of others around the world. We are even prone to what experts call “compassion fatigue,” because we see so many needs, and we cannot begin to meet those needs. As followers of Jesus Christ, we want to know whom we need to love. Who should have the priority for our time, our energy, and our money? If our Lord Jesus Christ requires us to love our neighbor then we must ask, “What does it mean to love someone?” and “Who is my neighbor?”

Two thousand years ago a young Jewish lawyer raised these same questions with our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan. In order to understand Jesus Christ’s answer, we must first understand the context of the question and the cultural dynamics involved in Jesus Christ’s answer.

2.  The Context of The Scripture
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), our Lord Jesus Christ emphasizes that inherent in true saving faith and true obedience is compassion for those who are in needs. The call to love God is a call to love others. In answering this question, Jesus Christ revealed the love of God found throughout the Scripture,

“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life? “What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"  He answered "'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, “Love your neighbor as yourself."  "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."  But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"  (Luke 10:25-29 NIV).

The context of the story of the Good Samaritan is a conversation between Jesus Christ and a lawyer, in some translations “an expert in the law.”   Many Bible scholars view the lawyer’s initial question as a challenge to Jesus Christ, experts in the law continually tested his orthodoxy. However, some scholars also see this encounter as a challenge to Jesus Christ’s authority as a teacher.  

The question the lawyer asked, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” should be interpreted from within the orthodoxy of Jewish faith. As Darrell L. Bock has explains, eternal life was the technical expression for the eschatological blessings of righteousness, so the question is probably best interpreted to mean “What must be done to participate in the future world of God’s blessing?”  

Surprisingly, our Lord Jesus does not answer the lawyer’s question! Instead Jesus Christ asks the lawyer a counter-question, “What is written in the law?”  This confirms Jesus’ own orthodoxy, since he defers to the authority of God reflected in the Torah. What does God require? The lawyer responds with two familiar passages from the Torah.

The First is Deuteronomy 6:5, which is part of the Shema that is recited twice a day. The Second is Leviticus 19:18, the context of several tangible ways in which people are to love their neighbor. The lawyer answered correctly that people are created in God’s image and loving God means that we must also love our fellow human beings.

Joel Green notes the impact of this answer. The lawyer answer reflects the Shema (Deut. 6:5) a passage that was fundamental to Jewish life and worship in the home, the synagogue, and the temple. To the Shema, the lawyer attaches, inexorably, the law of neighbor-love found in Lev.19:18. In its co-text in Leviticus love of neighbor is a disposition of the heart expressed in tangible behaviors related, for example, to a neighbor’s honor and possession. 

Jesus concurred with his answer. The lawyer’s answer was in agreement with Jesus’ teaching that love for God is reflected in how people treat others. Throughout the New Testament, love for one’s neighbor is linked to devotion to God. Jesus commends the lawyer to go and do what he has answered. The verb in the present in Greek translates as continuing action. He is not to love just once, but love is an action to be done on an on-going basis.

2.1.  The Question: Who is My Neighbor?
The lawyer then asks, “Who is my neighbor?” This question is not extraordinary. We are not given the reason he asked the question, but he, like many others, sought to exploit the ambiguity of the passage.  The lawyer wants to justify himself by limiting the extent to which he had to love, or perhaps he wants to justify his past actions. By quoting Leviticus 19:18 in his answer, he opens the door for carrying out the actions within its context.

Among the tangible ways Leviticus 19 outlines to love neighbors are to not steal, cheat, lie, or rob. It also states people are not take advantage of the weak; but they are to pay workers promptly, to treat the deaf and blind with respect, and to not show favoritism to the rich. Leviticus 19 also exhorts Israelites not to exploit foreigners in the land, since they too were considered neighbors.

Many of us ask the same question when faced with the tremendous needs in the world. We ask if we should give priority to our family. We wonder if a Darfur refugee or an HIV/AIDS infected child in Asia is as much our neighbor as the person down the street. Our natural tendency is to limit the answer to our “in-group” of our family, our friends, and perhaps even our nation, Jesus Christ’s answer to the question was extraordinary.

2.2.  The Answer : Responding the Needs of Others
While Jesus’ answer to the lawyer’s question is perhaps one of the most well-known parables, it is often misunderstood or allegorized.  The Parable, however was set in a “real life” context. The audience would have understood the full impact of the story within their social and cultural setting.

Jesus starts his parable with an ambiguous “certain man.” The man is anonymous and cannot be identified in any particular category. The lawyer and Jesus’ audience cannot automatically justify the actions of the priest and the Levite because they were just following a socially acceptable form of action.  Joel Green has rightly pointed out by saying, “The impossibility of classifying this person as either friend or foe immediately subverts any interest in a question of this nature.”

Priest and Levites shared high status in the community of God’s people on account of ascription that is not because they trained or were chosen to be priest but because they were born into priestly families. They participated in and were legitimated by the world of the temple, with its circumspect boundaries between clean and unclean, including clean and unclean people. They epitomize a worldview of tribal consciousness concerned with relative status and us-them cataloguing.

Jesus does not briefly mention the Samaritan and then end his story. He elaborates and prolongs the story to reinforce his message. The Samaritan takes six concrete actions:

(1). He comes up to the man on the road,
(2). Binds his wounds,
(3). Anoints him with oil and wine,
(4). Loads him on a mule,
(5). Takes him to an inn, and
(6). Provides for his care.

In contrast to the two Jews, the Samaritan gave generously and did everything he could to take care of this unknown man. The most interesting thing is, Jesus’ counter-question is not who is my neighbor, but who acted like a neighbor, or in the Greek, “Who became the neighbor?”  The implication is that neither geographic, nor social, nor familial ties define a neighbor; rather a neighbor is defined in terms of the one who has a need. The one who showed compassion and met the need became a neighbor. Jesus turned the discussion from the meaning of neighbor to the meaning of Love.

As found in the story, Jesus takes away the limits of our love and responsibility to our fellow man. We are no longer able to quibble over who is our neighbor or where does our responsibility lie. We can no longer say we are responsible only for our family, friends and nation. Jesus does not give guidance on prioritizing to whom we should be a neighbor. The man in Jesus’ parable did not have an identity. His ethnicity, his geographical hometown, and his religion all remain unknown in his anonymity. He simply was someone who needed a neighbor.

Dallas Willard says, “We don’t first define a class of people who will be our neighbors and select only them as objects of our love, leaving the rest to lie where they fall. Jesus deftly rejects the question ‘who is my neighbor?’ and substitutes the only question really relevant here: ‘To whom will I be a neighbor?”
Darrell L. Bock also supports Willard and says, “Love no longer has boundaries. Neighborliness is not found in a racial bond, nationality, color, gender, proximity, or by living in a certain neighborhood. We become a neighbor by responding sensitively to the needs of others.”    In the same thought, Robert H. Stein also says, “Jesus sought to illustrate that the love of one’s neighbor must transcend all natural or human boundaries such as race, nationality, religion, social and economic or educational status.”

For those of us living in the twenty-first century, it is increasingly more difficult to remain ignorant of the people in need around the world. Modern communication technology is bringing us face to face like never before with people in need in our new global community. Globalization has radically changed who is our neighbor. Although the scope of our awareness has changed, those in need have not changed since biblical times. Our neighbors are still the most vulnerable and powerless of society.

In Leviticus 19 the most vulnerable and powerless are foreigners, hired workers, the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and Deuteronomy 24 adds widows and orphans. The key characteristic is that they cannot work and therefore need a social system to take care of them. According to Craig L. Blomberg, “The poor here refers not to the majority of the people eking out a subsistence-level income, but those who were utterly destitute.” 

The same categories still apply today but to a greater degree. Our neighbors are those like the “certain man” in Jesus’ Parable. They are hopeless, anonymous, naked, and abandoned. They are the most vulnerable in society, the sick, refugees, orphans, and widows. They are those who no longer have a social safety net of kin or government to ensure their survival. They are  –

POOR: The 3 billion people who live on fewer than two dollars a day, and the 1 billion people who live on less the one dollar.

CHILDREN: The 130 million who do not read, the 250 million who go to work instead of school; the 20 million children kidnapped or sold to brothels in the global sex trade, the 200,000 boys who serve as soldiers, the 150 million children who live on the streets.

ORPHANS: The 15 million children who are orphaned because of AIDS.

SICK: The 11 million children who will die of preventable diseases, the 120 to 150 million children who suffer from disabilities, the 40 million people infected with HIV.

WOMEN: The workers who comprise half the global work force but consistently work no longer hours and receive lower pay.

FOREIGNERS: The 6 million immigrants, the 15 million refugees, the 42 million labor migrants who often live and work in harsh conditions for little pay.

3.  How Do We Become a Neighbor?
Given this broadened definition of neighbor, what does it mean to be a neighbor? First, we must recognize that we are different, being a neighbor does not mean we will be the same economically, culturally, socially, or ideologically as those we help. The Scripture recognizes an unequal distribution of wealth. With wealth there is s greater responsibility to others, since wealth provides the resources that can meet the needs of others. Three principles can be drawn from Scripture for being a neighbor in today’s global world.

3.1.   Treat Every Human as a Person Made in the Image of God
The very foundation for loving others is based on the fact that God created us in his own image (Gen. 1:26). If we say that we love God, we must also love the one who is created in his image (1 John 4:19-21).  Every human is a unique reflection of the image of God. In economic relationships we often reduce people to “consumers” or “laborers” making it easy to dehumanize individuals and no longer acknowledge our responsibility to our fellow humans. We tend to categorize people into statistics – the AIDS orphans, the refugees, the poor etc.

It is must easier to ignore statistics. It is much easier to exploit labor. It is much easier to sell unneeded products to consumers. Every number in a statistic has a face. Every person who works is part of a family. Every orphan has a story. When Jesus says to love our neighbor as ourselves, he is requiring us to treat others as people we know. We need to ask, “Would I want my daughter to buy my product?” “Would I want my son to work at my company for the wages I pay my workers?” “What would I do if it were my brother who was infected with HIV?” Until we personalize and humanize statistics, we will never be good neighbors.

3.2.  Do not Exploit Others
The second principle is that the wealthy are not to use their power to exploit or dominant others. The Old Testament has much to say about labor relations and powerful people who exploit their position at the expense of their workers. The wealthy are to pay their workers promptly, and they are not to oppress their workers (Lev. 19:13). They are to neither rob the poor nor exploit them in court (Prov. 22). Using power to oppress the poor is a direct offends to God. Proverbs 14:31 says, “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but helping the poor honors him.” 

The Old Testament repeatedly warns the rich and powerful not to exploit the poor. There are two striking incidents in the Old Testament of kings using their power to exploit the less power. The first is David stealing Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. Many interpret David’s sin as adultery. However, if Nathan’s rebuke is examined closely, it is about the rich using power to exploit the poor (2 Sam. 12:1-4).

Another instance of a king abusing his power is Ahab trying to acquire the field of Naboth. Naboth acts righteously by refusing to sell the land of his ancestors, which makes Ahab angry. Though it was king Ahab’s responsibility to protect the poor, his wife Jezebel proceeds to send false witnesses against Naboth, and he is stoned to death (1 Kings 21:7-19). The Lord responds by sending Elijah to tell Ahab, “Wasn’t enough that you killed Naboth? Must you rob him, too?”

The New Testament writings also demonstrate that those in a position of wealth and power are not to exploit others. The Corinthians are rebuked when the rich eat dinner while the poor have nothing, thus humiliating the poor (1 Cor.11:17-22). The Church is not to show favoritism to the rich over the poor (James 2:8-9). Scripture is clear that those with wealth and power are to use it for others, not just for their own interests (Phil.2:3-4). Those with resources are not to use them to dominate others, but to serve others.

Developed countries and large trans-national companies are not to rule over or exploit the poor. The church should advocate for fair trade rules that look out for the interests of others, not just for a nation’s narrowly defined self-interest. This may mean small developing countries should be allowed to play by a different set of rules than developed countries. Just as a poor man has little he can risk, smaller developing countries should be able to enter into trade agreements that limit their risk in proportion to what they can afford.

3.3.  Do Good To Others
The final principle is to not refrain from doing good or from doing what you want others to do for you. The wealthy and powerful are not only to refrain from exploiting the vulnerable but they are also expected to protect and do good to them. The utterly destitute are under special protection of the Lord. As the Psalmist says, the Lord himself is a father to the fatherless and a defender of widows, and he rescues the poor and helpless (Ps. 68:5, 72:12).

In the Old Testament, wealth is considered a gift from the Lord, so those are given the means are expected to act as God’s agents in protecting the well-being of the vulnerable (Lev. 19:9-10, Prov. 3:27-28, 11:24-25).  The powerful are not only to hgelp the poor but they are also to defend them from others who would cause them harm. The righteous are to defend the cause of the fatherless, the rights of the poor and oppressed, and rescue the weak and needy from the wicked (Ps. 82:3-4, Prov. 29:7, Jer. 5:28, Amos 4:1, Ezek. 16:49).

In the New Testament, the same concern for the poor is found in the early church when it cared for widows and the poor (Acts 6). The wealthy contributed to the church by selling some of their possessions to be used by the church, and often they offered their house as a place for the church to meet (Acts 4:32-36). In the New Testament, Loving people is the direct outcome of loving God. Doing good to someone in need is the outcome of someone’s faith. James clearly says that salvation results in doing good to others (cf. James 2:14-17, 20-25).

We have a choice. Do we respond as did the Priest and Levite, who saw but passed by on the road? Or do we respond to the person in need, generously out of compassion, and become a neighbor? The following suggests a few ways in which we as part of the wealthy minority might become a neighbor to those in need.

Professing Christians today who have a surplus income (i.e. a considerable majority of believers in the Western world) who are aware of the desperate human needs locally an globally, not least within the Christian community ( a situation almost impossible to be unaware of, given our barrage of media coverage), and who give none of their income, either through church or other Christian organizations, to help the materially destitute of the world, ought to ask themselves whether any claims of faith they might make could stand up before God’s bar judgment.

Doing good means making sure the social needs and environmental concerns are given the same weight as economic issues. Policy makers should seek to ensure that the benefits of globalization reach all segments of society, particularly the most marginalized – the poor, the women, and the ill.

As participants in the Lord’s ministry, we are individually responsible for not dominating, for doing good, and for being good neighbor. Being a good neighbor involves more than making a deliberate effort to improve the economic situation of others, a good neighbor also values and respects the social, cultural, and environmental resources of others.   

4.  Conclusion
Who is our neighbor? Sometimes the Lord surprises us with his answer. You may need to help someone you never knew just by counting some bucks. We do not get to choose who our neighbors are or whom to help; we just need to respond when God brings them our way. Why? Simply because it is the right thing to do. We do not have to look far to make choices that will contribute to the common good.

Globalization has changed the definition of who our neighbor is. It has also empowered us as individuals to treat as neighbors those we previously had little contact with or no knowledge about them. Although few of us are in positions to make economic policy or manage a multi-national corporation, we can all promote justice through our lives and encourage those who are in such positions.

However, with globalization, we also have the opportunity to do great evil by increasing inequalities, assimilating cultures, and destroying the environment. As we learn in the parable of the good Samaritan, it is not enough to refrain from making things worse and from doing harm, as important as those things are. As good neighbors we should, as it is in Jeremiah 29, actively seek the welfare of the city, where “city” is now the globe. Thus, through our inter-connected world one person really can make a difference.  

Beyer, Peter. Religion and Globalization. London: Sage Publications, 1994.
Blight, Richard C. An Exegetical Summary of Luke 1-11. Dallas: SIL, 2007.
Blomberg, Craig L. Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions. Leicester,
UK: Appollos, 1999.
Bock, Darrell L. Luke 9:51-24:53. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1996.
De Vries, Barend A. Champions of the Poor. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press,
Green, Joel. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997.
Lewellen, Ted C. The Anthropolgy of Globalization. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 2002.
Sernau, Scott. Global Problems. Boston: Pearson, 2006.
Stein, Robert H. Luke, The New American Commentary. Vol. 24. Nashville: Boardman Press,
UNICEF. “The State of the World’s Children.” New York: UNICEF.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy. San Francisco, Harper, 1998.
World Bank. “Global Monitoring Report.” Washington DC: World Bank.                            


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