Called to Be Neighbors

Scripture: Exodus 22:21-27, Matthew 22:34-40

The teaching of the Great Commandment is very familiar. In the gospel of Matthew a lawyer, who is also a Pharisee, asks Jesus, "What is the greatest commandment in the [Jewish] law?" Jesus answers by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, and these two passages have been transmitted to us through the New Testament as the commandment to love God and our neighbors.

The gospels of Matthew and Luke present an edited version of this teaching, which modify the story as it was first rendered in the gospel of Mark. So, it is worth considering how the earlier story has been changed in these later gospels. In Mark 12:28-34 the question is asked by a scribe. Jesus answers, as in the gospel of Matthew, but then the scribe agrees with Jesus, who responds by saying that the scribe has answered wisely. The gospel of Matthew omits the statement by the scribe, who is identified as a Pharisee, and thus also deletes the statement by Jesus that he has spoken wisely.

In Luke 10:25-28 a lawyer, who is not identified either as a scribe or Pharisee, asks Jesus, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" The author of this gospel has changed the question, so that it is not directly about commandments in the law of Moses. Moreover, in this version of the story Jesus does not answer, but instead asks the lawyer how he interprets the commandments of Jewish law. After the lawyer quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, Jesus agrees with him and adds: "do this, and you will live."

In the gospel of Matthew there is no indication that the lawyer, who asks the question, knows the answer to his question or even accepts what Jesus says. The lawyer represents the Pharisees, who are the antagonists of Jesus in the drama of the gospel. In the gospels of Mark and Luke, however, the questioner and Jesus agree on the answer given by one or the other, and in these gospels the questioner is not identified as a Pharisee.

In the gospel of Luke this passage serves as a preface for the parable of the Good Samaritan, a teaching that is not included in the other New Testament gospels. To clarify the limits of his duty the lawyer asks Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" In fact, the parable of the Good Samaritan doesn't actually answer that question, because it concludes with Jesus asking the lawyer which of the three travelers proved to be a neighbor to the injured Jew. When the lawyer answers, "The one who showed mercy on him," Jesus responds, "Go and do likewise."

In the gospel of Mark, the story teaches that devotion to God and charity are more important than "burnt offerings and sacrifices." In the gospel of Matthew, the story confirms the authority and wisdom of Jesus, who emphasizes the spirit of the law of Moses rather than its letter. In the gospel of Luke, the moral of the story is being a good neighbor.

Paul presents a similar understanding of the law of Moses in his letter to the Galatians. "For the whole law," he writes, "is fulfilled in one word, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Gal. 5:14) Again, in his letter to the church in Rome, Paul proclaims: "he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law" and that the commandments "are summed up in this sentence, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Romans 13:8-10) Many Christians assume that Paul is merely teaching what is in the gospels, but Paul doesn’t say he is quoting Jesus or is relying on a written gospel.

Paul is taking the more liberal side in an argument among first-generation Christians concerning Jewish law and its observance in the church. The fact that Paul asserts this position on his own authority, rather than quoting from the gospels we find in the New Testament, is evidence that these gospels have not yet been written. And because Paul does not refer to Jesus as the source of this teaching about loving God and our neighbors, it seems unlikely that Paul received this teaching from the disciples of Jesus. 

The lectionary, which suggests readings for the Christian year, pairs the scripture about the Great Commandment with a passage from Exodus that serves to illustrate the deficiencies of the law of Moses. In this section of Exodus, after communicating the Ten Commandments to Moses, the LORD spells out additional obligations. These commandments include not oppressing strangers, not afflicting widows or orphans, not charging interest on a loan given to another Israelite, and not keeping overnight a neighbor's garment taken to secure a loan. The passage read from Exodus begins with God reminding the Israelites that they were strangers in the land of Egypt, before God liberated them, and that God is compassionate and will hear the cry of those who they wrong.

This is all very legalistic, and Christians are quick to proclaim that the ethic of love in the New Testament is obviously superior to the law of the Old Testament. Yet, we should be reminded that Paul, the gospel authors, Jesus, and all his disciples were Jews. The understanding that the law is fulfilled or summed up in the commandments to love God and our neighbors is a Jewish understanding that at the time of Jesus had support within at least one school of Pharisees, who followed the teachings of the famous rabbi, Hillel. Giving greater weight to the spirit of the law, rather than simply enforcing the letter of the law, is Jewish wisdom before it is Christian scripture.

The gospels of the New Testament were written at a time when churches and synagogues were both emulating each other and competing for the allegiance of Jews and Gentiles. As churches gave less importance to the law, synagogues demanded strict observance. As Christians wrote gospels and letters that were later to be authorized as scripture, Jews selected from the compendium of Israelite writings what was to be read as scripture in the synagogues. In the 40s and the 50s, Paul spoke for a minority in the church when he resisted the imposition of Jewish law on Gentile members. After the Jewish revolt in Palestine that lasted from 66 to 70, Gentile Christians were more numerous that Jewish Christians in the church and did not want to be identified with Jewish rebellion. This was the soil in which the seeds of Christian anti-Semitism were sown.

There is no dispute today among Christians that scripture calls us to be good neighbors. Yet, we use the word "love" too easily to identify what the church stands for. Yes, we are to love our neighbors, as we love ourselves. This is a wonderful teaching, but we rarely live up to it. We, who are so critical of Jewish law in the Old Testament, actually live by unwritten "laws" that limit our obligations to others. At most, we are to tithe to the church, or to other charitable organizations. To avoid giving money to those who may not deserve charity, or who may waste money on drink or drugs, we give through organizations that we believe will use our money with some accountability.

We justify our restrictive version of the Great Commandment with words about teaching the hungry to fish rather than giving them fish to eat, or we speak confidently of our "tough" love. Perhaps I should say I do this, because I don't know what you do. This may not be your sin, but it is mine.

Thirty-five years ago, as a well-read theological student, I concluded that love required giving freely, not just giving. I decided that if I felt suspicious or manipulated, I would not give. That wouldn't be love, for I would simply be giving because I felt guilty or was motivated to prove how good I was. If, however, I felt I could give freely — with joy and without pride — then I would give. This was the "unwritten law" that I appended to the Great Commandment.

Soon, I was put to the test by an old man on the street who asked for a dime to buy a cup of coffee. (This was, after all, thirty-five years ago!) I felt loving, so I dug in my pocket, came out with a quarter, and gave it to him. As I began to walk away, he took my sleeve and said he wanted to tell me a story. Reluctantly, I listened, as he told me of an orphan girl, who kept sneaking out of school to go into the playground, despite being repeatedly punished for her misbehavior. One day the principal saw the girl go out and put something in the hollow of a tree. So, the principal hurried outside, reached into the hollow of the tree, and pulled out a piece of paper. When she opened the paper, she found just three words written on it: "I love you." After he said these words to me, the old man turned and walked away.

Two weeks ago my faith was again put to the test, when a man came to the church seeking assistance. I invited him into the pastor's office and began to ask him questions. He said he’d been robbed and needed money to go back home to New York, where he had a job waiting for him. I tried to steer him to a local agency for assistance, but he explained that he had to be in New York immediately to keep his job and couldn't wait for the paperwork to be processed. When I asked for a phone number to call his employer, he told me that he would be humiliated if I made such a call.

He wanted a bus ticket and a few additional dollars to cover meals on the way. Sitting in the pastor's study, I suddenly realized that my feelings about him and giving him money were irrelevant. I was judging him, but he was also judging me. And he was right. As a Christian, I am commanded to show mercy. So, I gave him the money he needed to go to New York. He thanked me and said he would write. I have yet to hear from him, but why should I expect him to report back to me? He knew, as well as I did, that I didn’t deserve to be thanked.

The Great Commandment is to love God and our neighbors. The story of the Good Samaritan in the gospel of Luke answers the lawyer's question, "Who is my neighbor?" The parable tells us nothing about the Samaritan's intentions or feelings. We hear only that unlike two others, who ignored the needs of the injured man, the Samaritan stopped and helped him. At the end of the story Jesus asks the lawyer, "Who proved neighbor to the one who fell among the robbers?" When the lawyer replies, "The one who showed mercy on him," Jesus says, "Go and do likewise." © Robert Traer 2016