Who Is My Neighbor?
He approached the controversial, itinerant rabbi seeking validation. He’d lived an outwardly observant life, adhering strictly to the Torah, so his question to Jesus wasn’t really a question. What would it take for this seemingly righteous man to inherit eternal life, he queried. What he hoped Jesus would say or rather, assumed Jesus would say, is You’ve kept the law faithfully. You are in (Luke 10).
Jesus asked the lawyer a lawyerly question: “What’s in the law?” Jesus didn’t ask this because he was ignorant of Moses’ words. Jesus, the Son of God, was present at the writing down of the commandments and, through the Holy Spirit, inspired this Word of God.
No, Jesus was trying the lawyer by his own self-justifying grid. He was standing before a judgment seat and didn’t know it. The lawyer repeated what he repeated every morning: Love the Lord thy God with all of my heart, soul, and mind and love my neighbor as myself.
Good, Jesus commends, “do this and you will live.” But suddenly the lawyer began to tremble. Deep down he knew that as much as he followed the law externally, in his own heart he had violated the law. He had not always loved his neighbor as much as he loved himself. So he asked a qualifying, self-justifying question: Who is my neighbor?
This question was not a question of curiosity, but a question in search of loopholes in the command to apply the law of God to our interactions with our neighbors. It’s a question that continues to be asked today. All of us know we haven’t loved our neighbors as ourselves. And, like the lawyer, we are exposed before a righteous God.
To Love Is to See Dignity
Why is this commandment so important? It’s important on two levels. Because every human being—every neighbor of ours—is an image-bearer knit and sculpted with care by a loving God, we demonstrate our love for God by our love for fellow humans in our world.
But this commandment is also important because it is the aspect of the law that reveals our inability, since Eden, to obey God. Righteousness before God is not just vertical piety. It is also horizontal love. But sin has corrupted our humanity, and we attempt to usurp God by preying upon, in big and small ways, our fellow humans.
To love people as ourselves is to see that other human being as . . . well, human. Not an obstacle. Not an animal. Not a god to be worshipped. Inherent in The Great Commandment is the Bible’s rich and unique vision for human dignity.
Your neighbor is not a mere object to be lusted after, murdered, or stolen from. He or she is your fellow image-bearer. This lawyer thought he was okay until the piercing eyes of the only One who has ever fully and perfectly loved His neighbor revealed the depravity of his heart. Jesus does this to this outwardly religious man by telling a story about the vulnerable and the pious.
Jesus answers his question “Who is my neighbor” by saying that your neighbor is that person you are most likely to pass by on the road to Jericho, the person or people group that you, because of your tribal affiliations or personal biases, consider less than human.
The lawyer was not as righteous as he thought he was because he doesn’t always love his neighbor as himself. And neither are we. But there is good news for less-than-neighborly lawyers and 21st Century passers-by like me. Where we have violated God’s law of love, Jesus has perfectly fulfilled it.
Jesus Restores Human Dignity
Those violations of the Great Commandment should keep us from inheriting eternal life, but Jesus, the one who refused to pass us by in our vulnerable, sinful state, took the punishment we should have suffered for disobeying God’s law.
This is how the Great Commandment and the Great Commission fit together and help us see fully what it means to be truly human. Because Jesus defeated the corruption that keeps us walking by on our roads to Jericho, we can be restored to our original image-bearing purposes.
Obeying Jesus means proclaiming to the spiritually vulnerable that they were created by a Creator in His image, have been alienated by their Creator because of sin and can now be reconciled to God through Christ. And obeying Jesus means, like Jesus, loving our neighbors as ourselves by entering into their suffering, advocating for the vulnerable, and showing the world a glimpse of the new kingdom of God.
To read more on this topic, see Daniel Darling’s book The Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity.