Thursday, June 13, 2013

Who Is My Neighbor?

I got into a small conversation (really not much of a conversation actually) at Justin Taylor's blog, challenging the unchallenged notion that Christians are to give their resources (mainly financial) to unbelievers.
Of course, Christians are to love unbelievers by giving them the spiritual resource of the gospel. Once they enter into the kingdom, they have access to its resources provided by its covenant members; but to do this beforehand is to convey to them a false gospel, much like not disciplining professed Christians in sin conveys a false gospel to them (i.e., you can still have the benefits of the kingdom without repentance and coming to obey the Son).

Perhaps, one of the most misused passages in the Bible is that of the parable of the Good Samaritan. This becomes a great lesson for us, however, in contrasting American folk religion with biblical Christianity, so let's look at the way the passage is sloppily understood by the social gospel that is so prevalent within our popular religion and then read the passage in context.

The passage appears in Luke 10:25-37:

And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”
So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’
And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”
But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.  
Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”
And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The very first thing we need to note about the parable is that it is given in response to a question that asks, What should I do to inherit eternal life? Christ answers that one must love God with his whole being and his neighbor as himself. This leads the man to ask, Who is my neighbor?

So Jesus is identifying for this religious Jew, per a command given to the covenant people to love their neighbor, who the neighbor of the covenant individual is. In other words, this is asking who the neighbor of the believer is. It is not a general command to all people in the world, regardless of whether they are believers. 

The second thing we need to take note of, however, and probably the biggest slight of hand that our folk religion makes with this passage is that the question at the end of the parable is not whether the Jewish man who is hurt is the neighbor, and therefore, anyone in need is your neighbor, but rather which one of the passersby's is the hurt covenant member's neighbor. The answer isn't, EVERYONE!

Notice what Jesus says: So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” The answer is that the Samaritan man is the neighbor. He proves himself to be a fellow believer. The priest and the Levite are not said to be neighbors. Instead, they prove themselves to be false believers. So the answer is not that everyone in need is your neighbor, nor is it that everyone is your neighbor. The answer is that those who have eternal life love God and their fellow believers and they prove themselves to be believers when they take care of other believers. That is a central message in Jesus' earthly teaching (indeed, even in His heavenly teaching through His apostles). 

So the passage itself is an argument that one needs to be concerned with being a neighbor to his fellow believers. The Samaritan is the only one who is. Hence, the only neighbor here is the Samaritan. The neighbor is not the hurt Jewish man. The neighbors are not the priest and the Levite. The neighbor to the covenant believer is the Samaritan. 

There is no way, therefore, to get from that that everyone in need is your neighbor, or everyone in general is your neighbor. This is, as is consistent in Jesus' message, the same thing that the Gospels have been teaching throughout: that true believers show themselves to be true believers by their love for God and one another. By this (i.e., your love for one another) you prove to be His disciples (John 13:34-35). It is by doing these things to the least of these brothers of His (Matt 10:42; 25; Luke 9:48). It is the seeing of your brother in need and giving to him that is the working out of our faith (James 2:14-17) and the manifestation of the love of God within the true believer (1 John 3:13-17).

Hence, one inherits eternal life through his relationship with God and His children, not through his relationship with the world. This text simply has nothing to do with unbelievers. Will proper contextual exegesis convince those entrenched in folk religion? Probably not. People still like to envision the angels singing to the shepherds long after they are told that the passage says nothing about that. The problem with the Good Samaritan passage is not only that it doesn't say what the social gospel wants it to say, but it actually says the exact opposite (i.e., that not everyone is a neighbor to the believer). There are a host of evils performed, however, in twisting this passage, and that is the truly sad thing about it.


  1. So charity should only be extended to believers? How does this play out in practical terms?

    Well, you'd have to stop donating to most charities (since they don't make belief a criteria for aid). You'd have to actually ask people what their beliefs are before giving them assistance, and even then, there's no guarantee that they'll pass someone's litmus test for what constitutes "saving faith". What if they're Catholic, or Pentecostal? What if they're part of the "Word Faith" movement? Depending on who you ask, they should be a Calvinist (or not).

    I'm not suggesting that we knowingly provide handouts to unethical people (who do obviously exist), but I think quizzing people on their theology is taking it a bit far.

  2. The criteria isn't merely quizzing people about their beliefs. Anyone can claim to be a Christian and give pat answers to questions. The criteria Paul gives for widows who are to be cared for financially is that they are known by the ecclesiastical community as genuine Christians by their good works.

    Why would the church be obligated to give money to someone who has not served Christ through His people himself? The Church is actually capable of loving in deed this way because it has the resources to care for this smaller group of people. Spreading it out amongst a vast, innumerable amount of people who do not serve Christ is not what the commandments of the NT call us to do. That all sounds great in theory, but in practice, it just dilutes any help that anyone receives, so that it is really not much help at all. Imagine our needing to care for a widow, but because we send so much money elsewhere, we can only afford to give her a couple of grocery bags or a small amount of money each month that doesn't pay her bills. What good is that? It makes us feel good, but we are not fulfilling our duty to her at all (all in the name of charity to others).

    I'm not saying that one should never give to other charities, even if secular, because many Christians are helped through them as well. But the fulfillment of the Christian obligation to care for "one another" is in the local body of believers who are known to one another by their confession and service to other Christians.

  3. I think you're suggesting that we should we should consider whether those who ask for assistance actually merit what we would give them. I'm not disagreeing with that entirely. I just don't think that only Christians exhibit ethical behavior.

    The other thing to consider is that sometimes our help may inspire people to work to actually "deserve" that help(even if they do not at the time). Generosity and good will have the power to change hearts for the better.

  4. No, I'm not saying that we give to those who we think "deserve" help as much as I am saying that Christians are to give to other Christians who are identified as Christians by their service to Christ through other Christians. So it's a matter of identification via confession and deeds, rather than just confession or lack thereof. By this, Christians are identified that they are disciples of Christ, not because they give to charity in general (atheists give to charity and are not Christ's disciples), but because they give to Christ through those who truly represent Him in their midst.