“Who Is My Neighbor?”

By Akin Ojumu

When the lawyer got up to test Jesus by asking what he thought was a difficult question for a lowly son of a carpenter to answer, he didn’t expect the response he got. Here was a cocky religious scholar, vast in the Law of Moses, facing off with Jesus, son of Joseph, a carpenter from the backwoods of Galilee. 

To the onlooking crowd and the disciples present, it was not a fair match. The lawyer and everybody expected Jesus to say something stupid and incriminate Himself in the process.

“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25).

The lawyer wasn’t asking the question because he did not know the answer. Unlike Nicodemus who came to Jesus sincerely seeking salvation, this insolent braggart wasn’t seeking the road to Heaven. 

This was a self-righteous man trying to demonstrate his right standing with God because of his expertise in Mosaic Law. The man was simply showboating his uprightness in the eyes of the people. He was not a seeker of grace, but a zealot of works.

Having seen through his motive and knowing that his intentions were insincere, the Lord Jesus could have simply ignored his question altogether. But because of His compassion for him, Jesus decided to engage him with the hope of making him realize the futility of self-righteousness. By answering him, the Lord’s desire was that the lawyer would see the hopelessness in seeking eternal life through the Law.

That hubris, and not knowledge, was the lawyer’s problem quickly became evident. As far as he was concerned, he had always kept the Law. He most assuredly believed he loved God perfectly. And he entertained no doubt, whatsoever, in the perfect love he had for his neighbor either.

As an expert in the Law, he was righteously indignant that Jesus would dare counsel him to go and keep the law. He must have been thinking in his mind, “Who does this lowly peasant think he is to tell me about keeping the law?”

With blood boiling and in holy anger, he shot back at Jesus with sarcasm and cynicism.

“And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).

In the lawyer’s own estimation, he was right with God. Where God was concerned, everything was hunky dory. He loved God perfectly, consistently, and continuously. Although he knew deep down, he was lying to himself, he wanted everyone to believe that all was well between him and the Almighty God.

Then, the impertinent lawyer turned to the part about love for a neighbor. Turning the fire hose of self-righteous pride on the fire of guilt and conviction raging in his soul, the lawyer sought to assuage his burning conscience by asking Jesus to define who qualified to be a neighbor and deserving to be loved.

To understand why the lawyer asked Jesus the question, “Who is my neighbor?” We must first understand the prevailing religious context at the time. This man was probably a Pharisee. In their interpretation of the Torah, the Pharisees had a rather narrow definition of who qualified as a “neighbor.”

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:17-18).

In their misinterpretation of the above Scripture, the Pharisees believed only a Jew belonging to the same religious sect could be considered a “neighbor.” To them, a neighbor was someone with whom they shared the same view of the Torah. Anyone who believed what they believed and worshiped as they worshiped, was a neighbor. Everyone else outside this boundary was not considered a neighbor and did not deserve to be loved.

So, a typical Pharisee fervently believed he loved his neighbor perfectly. As far as the person fitted within their narrow definition of a neighbor, there was perfect love. To the extent that the person was not a hideous Samaritan, a godless gentile, or an Israelite of a different sect, he qualified to be a neighbor and deserved to be loved.

Everyone else who did not fit within this definition, he was free to hate. In fact, based on a misinterpretation of Psalm 139:21-22, the Pharisees believed it was their religious duty to hate anyone who did not fit within their circumscribed parameters of a neighbor.

It was with this definition of a “neighbor” in mind that the lawyer posed his question, “Who is my neighbor?” This was a question laden with contempt and an inquiry loaded with cynicism. His motive was to ridicule Jesus. His intent was to get the Lord to incriminate Himself by disagreeing with the religious establishment’s interpretation of a neighbor.

This lawyer was baiting Jesus into a trap, hoping to catch him saying something blasphemous. “You call yourself a Rabbi, don’t tell me you have a different interpretation of a neighbor. Or do you, Teacher?”

We’ll take it from here next time…


Popular posts from this blog