Saturday, July 16, 2016

Who Is My Neighbor?

There is a bit of confusion in English translations concerning who is identified as a believer’s neighbor. Unfortunately, completely different words that have no connection whatsoever in Greek are all translated as “neighbor.”

For instance, people who live in the vicinity of others are considered “neighbors” in the modern sense of the word. But this word, in the Greek is geitōn. Another Greek word is sometimes translated as “neighbor,” and can be seen as synonymous with geitōn, and that is perioikos “one who lives by another,” literally, “beside a house.” Neither one of these words is the word used when referring to people we are to love as ourselves, and to whom we ought to give kingdom resources.

Unfortunately, “neighbor” is really a poor translation of the word plēsion, the word that is used to refer to people for whom believers are responsible. It does not help that popular, yet outdated, sources, like Strong’s Concordance, give definitions of plēsion as follows:

1)a neighbour 1a) a friend 1b) any other person, and where two are concerned, the other (thy fellow man, thy neighbour), according to the Jews, any member of the Hebrew nation and commonwealth 1c) according to Christ, any other man irrespective of nation or religion with whom we live or whom we chance to meet

In all actuality, the New Testament never considers a plēsion as “any other person,” one’s “fellow man,” or “any other man irrespective of nation or religion with whom we live or whom we chance to meet.” Such definitions are more indicative of Strong’s theology than it is of anything an actual study of the word bears out.

When one looks at the word plēsion, in the New Testament, the word always evidences the meaning, “fellow member of the covenant community.” The problem is that we do not really have a word in English that fits this definition, and so translators merely look for the closest equivalency. Since the word in the LXX is used to refer both to fellow covenant members and those who are just “neighbors” in the modern sense of the word, it is assumed that the word “neighbor” is a good translation when it used.

What has happened, however, is that these two separate uses of the word in the Old Testament have become conflated. Hence, when the law speaks about loving one’s neighbor, it is assumed that this means anyone within the physical proximity of another person. What it actually refers to in those particular contexts, however, is strictly a fellow covenant community member. It may be that the concept even grew out of the literal neighbor idea, since the only neighbors to worshipers of YHWH in Israel were other worshipers of YHWH in Israel. Pagan worshipers were to be drive out of the land or executed according to the Law. Hence, a “friend/neighbor” in that context was a fellow covenant community member and one who lived in proximity to another.

However, any conflation is separated by the New Testament, which clearly distinguishes the plēsion “fellow covenant community member” from the geitōn and perioikos “ones who live in proximity or by the dwelling of another.”

In fact, it would be simply odd to take the term as referring to one’s fellow man regardless of religion or status when Jesus addresses the issue in the parable of the Good Samaritan. When asked the question, “Who is my neighbor” in Jesus’ explanation of the command, the correct answer is not “everyone,” or “your fellow man.” Instead, the parable indicates that only the one who takes care of a member of the covenant community is the true fellow covenant community member. In other words, by stating that only the Samaritan, a fellow worshiper of YHWH that the Jews saw as ethnically unclean, is the true neighbor of the Jewish man in trouble. The others were not, even though they had the greatest claim to the covenant community by virtue of their ethnicity and tribal/cultic status. Instead, only the one who proved his covenant status by providing for another fellow covenant member in need is said to be the neighbor. The others are not—thus showing that not everyone, in fact, is the neighbor. Indeed, Jesus Himself indicates that only one of the three is a neighbor to the covenant community member who is injured when He asks, tis toutōn tōn triōn “Which one out of the three” had become the plēsion “neighbor” of the injured man? The answer given, which Jesus also affirms, is not “all of them.” Instead, it is, “the one who showed mercy to him,” In other words, only one out of the three was the neighbor of the injured covenant community member, which corresponds with Luke’s message throughout his Gospel, i.e., the one who has mercy on a fellow covenant community member displays his true covenant status as opposed to the one who merely has that status by virtue of his riches or social and religious prestige.

If everyone is my neighbor, however, this parable is false. Jesus' entire point is that not everyone is the covenant community man's neighbor. That is the entire point of the story. It would, in fact, collapse the entire argument of the parable and the entire argument of Luke, who has been arguing that a major identity marker of one who is truly in the kingdom is how he takes care of fellow covenant community members. If everyone is a neighbor, then there is no way to use this marker to identify oneself as a "neighbor."

Throughout the Old Testament, the term refers to a fellow Israelite/follower of YHWH, and anyone who is a “friend.” But “friend,” although closer to what the term means can be a bit of a deceptive translation, especially in the New Testament, which uses the word philos to refer to a friend.
In the original Old Testament statement in Leviticus, from which the New Testament draws its concept of the plēsion, the “neighbor” refers to those belonging to the people of God, and this is made evident by the parallel between the sons of Israel and one's neighbor.

You must not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your people,
but you are to love your neighbor [LXX plēsion] as yourself. (Lev 19:18)

Notice that the “sons of your people” and “neighbor” are one in the same. If neighbor here meant “fellow man,” inclusive of unbelievers outside the covenant community, why does it limit the definition to just the “sons of your people”? The expression “sons of X” is a gentilic in the ancient Near East. Hence, “sons of your people” refers to fellow Israelites, although the phrase, “your people” likely expands it to anyone within the covenant community who is a worshiper of YHWH, whether ethnically Israelite or not. Clearly, however, only covenant members, and not pagans, are in view. Indeed, the whole passage addresses one’s treatment of a fellow member of the covenant community.

‘You must not deal unjustly in judgment: you must neither show partiality to the poor nor honor the rich. You must judge your fellow citizen fairly. You must not go about as a slanderer among your people. You must not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is at stake. I am the Lord. You must not hate your brother in your heart. You must surely reprove your fellow citizen so that you do not incur sin on account of him. You must not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your people, but you must love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. (19:15-18)

Paul draws from this passage in Romans 12-13, and argues that one ought not to seek out vengeance toward other believers, but instead, to have love for one another that is without hypocrisy (12:9-10), to minister to the needs of the saints (v. 13), and to bless those who treat them poorly (vv. 14-18). Paul states that they should not seek out vengeance on one another for three reasons: (1) the posture of non-retaliation toward a believer might cause that believer to repent (vv. 19-21); (2) the government has been set in place to take care of issues of injustice if a crime has been committed (13:1-7); and (3) to love one’s plēsion “fellow believer” is to fulfill the law.

This argument is one that Paul has made before, and gets from Jesus Himself. Christ argues that the entire Law and Prophets, i.e., the entirety of all Scripture has the two greatest commandments at its base. Again, in Galatians 5:13-15, Paul makes this statement.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom asan opportunity to indulge your flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, namely, You must love your neighbor as yourself.” However, if you continually bite and devour one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another.

This is an important argument for understanding who the neighbor is. The laws in the Old Testament do not command us to take care of the unbeliever. Instead, all of the laws have to do with preserving the life of one’s fellow covenant community member, doing what is just to one’s fellow covenant member, not defrauding one’s fellow covenant community member. The only thing the law commands about the unbeliever is to not adopt his ways, to reject his gods, and to drive him out of the land. If all of the law is fulfilled in loving the plēsion, however, this means that the plēsion does not include the unbeliever, but instead, only refers to the fellow community member.

Furthermore, this is made evident in the texts cited. Matthew is arguing that Jewish Christians ought to take care of Gentile Christians, as they are included in the “least of these brothers of Mine.” It is not about Christians giving some general welfare toward all men. Indeed, that would destroy Matthew’s point that to take care of the least of these is to take care of Christ Himself, since they are connected to Christ by following Him as their Lord.

Paul is also clear that these neighbors are believers by continually referring the command in Galatians to “one another,” rather than to the world in general. Again, the entire argument in Romans is that Gentile Christians are included in the covenant by faith and not by becoming Jewish. Hence, Jewish Christians ought to receive them as brothers, and vice versa. The concluding chapters of Romans do not change that subject. Chapters 12-15 are all about how fellow believers deal with one another.  

In Ephesians 4:25, Paul commands: Therefore, having laid aside falsehood, each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.” 

Again, plēsion references fellow Christians, not the world in general.

In James, we see that plēsion “neighbor” clearly refers to the fellow believer. Both in 2:1-12 and 4:11-12, it is the believers who are the neighbors of other believers and are told to fulfill the command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” by loving other believers.

My brothers and sisters, do not show prejudice if you possess faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if someone comes into your assembly wearing a gold ring and fine clothing, and a poor person enters in filthy clothes, do you pay attention to the one who is finely dressed and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and to the poor person, “You stand over there,” or “Sit on the floor?  If so, have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my dear brothers and sisters! Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom thathe promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor! Are not the rich oppressing you and dragging you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme the good name of the one you belong to? But if you fulfill the royal law as expressed in this scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show prejudice, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as violators. For the one who obeys the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.  For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a violator of the law. Speak and act as those who will be judged by a law that gives freedom. For judgment is merciless for the one who has shown no mercy. But mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:1-13)

Do not speak against one another, brothers and sisters. He who speaks against a fellow believer or judges a fellow believer speaks against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but its judge. But there is only one who is lawgiver and judge—the one who is able to save and destroy. On the other hand, who are you to judge your neighbor? (4:11-12)

The idea that everyone is the neighbor is a social gospel tradition that has invaded the modern church. The idea that everyone is not my brother, but everyone is my neighbor is a syncretism of the social gospel and orthodox Christianity. It simply is not what the New Testament teaches. This becomes important, of course, in understanding to whom Christians are obligated in terms of ministering with physical resources.


  1. Christians are priests, and the job of priests has always been to minister to non-priests.

    1. That doesn't negate anything above. I think you have the assumption there of what "ministering" means that the Bible does not share with you. Being a priest to the unbeliever is representing Christ and exclusivity to them. Giving them kingdom resources does the opposite of that. Instead, we invite them into the kingdom via the gospel. Kingdom resources belong to kingdom members because it all belongs to Christ, and only those who are in Him partake of His kingdom blessings.

  2. Why would Jesus use a Samaritan to try to illustrate that Jews should only minister and care for the needs of those within the covenant community?

    Lots of logical inconsistencies here.

    1. Actually, there isn't a single logical inconsistency here at all. I think you're stretching to find something.

      The Samaritan is used because he's the lowest on the social ladder within the covenant. He's ethnically impure and hated by the Jews, even though he is a worshiper of YHWH (if he isn't then you make this story about how to become a covenant member via good works apart from Christ or any covenant relationship with God). This makes the most sense in the story, which contrasts him with the highest and most prestigious men within the covenant, the Levite and the priest. It actually makes perfect logical sense. It also makes perfect logical sense within the overall argument of Luke's Gospel, which is using how one treats fellow Christians who are disadvantaged as a way of identifying whether one is a true member of the covenant.

    2. McGrath, as expected, is influenced more by his tradition than the text itself. It simply ignores what Luke is arguing throughout the Gospel. It also ignores the way the word plesion is used in the New Testament. The entire point of the parable is to argue that a true neighbor is one that treats A FELLOW COVENANT MEMBER, i.e., another true neighbor, who is in need. It is not a generic story teaching that Christians should do good to whomever needs help, regardless of covenant status. Where exactly would one get that implication from the text that is dealing with people in the covenant in the context of both the parable and the Gospel?

      And notice something very important. The two others are NOT neighbors. This means that everyone is not our neighbor, otherwise the two others would also be neighbors. And the neighbor is not anyone in need because the question is who became a neighbor to the covenant member in need. So how is everyone our neighbor according to the parable? How does Luke's audience become "fellow covenant community members" in his Gospel and the story? By taking care of other covenant community members. McGrath just wants this to be a different story and so it is warped into some general moral tale without any connection to Luke's overall argument or the specifics of the parable itself.

  3. "fellow covenant community members" is a bit of a mouthful, the word is "brothers" right? In a variety of senses, but Jesus taught against considering only the members of your in group for kindness.
    In fact, if this is advocacy for the ill-treatment of those who are not "fellow covenant members", and political advocacy, then it is anti-christian charlatanry.
    Another thing, why in the Torah are the covenant members commanded to love the stranger in statements such as; "Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt."(Deut 10:19) and more than 10 other similar statements. Who is the stranger? We might ask. Well it seems Jesus had this on his mind when he was asked "Who is my neighbour?" in Luke 10. Read the whole thing and its not hard to understand the context.

    1. 1. If by "kindness" you mean giving physical kingdom resources that belong to Christ to unbelievers, then He absolutely never taught any such thing. The verses used to establish that idea are taken out of context.

      2. It is not an advocating for the ill-treatment of anyone. It is actually advocating that the church, as its own nation, take care of its own people, as they represent Christ. The nations of the world need to take care of their poor. As Christians we must love the unbeliever by not giving him mixed signals in our communication of the gospel.

      3. If you want to know who the stranger is, here is a post on it.

      Apparently, it's very difficult to understand the context, since most don't seem to understand that Luke is talking to the covenant community about how they treat one another within the covenant community, not about how they treat unbelievers.