A perennial question: who is my neighbour?

A perennial question: who is my neighbour?

The Venerable Dr Colleen O'Reilly  AM , Co-chair of the CCJ (VIC) shares her thoughts on a recent presentation to the Council by renowned American bible scholar, Professor Amy-Jill Levine.

A perennial question: who is my neighbour?

It seems that the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ is one that is asked time and time again whenever, and wherever people live together in communities of any size. Who do we have a duty to care for? Is it just the people in our family, small or large? Is it just the people with whom we share ethnicity or religion? Is it just the people in our town or city? Is it just the ones we judge to be deserving of our care, while others have lost that by being homeless, or addicted, or convicted of a crime?  Can neighbours be peoples of other nations?  Or do foreigners only become neighbours when they migrate to live where we are?  It’s a complex question.

World events have made this question sharper than ever as news headlines are daily filled with stories from places of conflict, including the current situation in Israel, Gaza, and the ongoing conflict in the West Bank.

The liberal minded westerner may say the rest of the world’s people are our neighbours, as well as all those within our national borders. That answer reminds me of Linus in the Peanuts cartoon who said, “I love mankind… it’s people I can’t stand.”[i]  It is far easier to care about others when all we are asked to do is donate to a fund to deal with their needs or pray for their welfare without doing more. However, I assume readers of this publication believe more is required of us, but how much more and for whom?

In a lecture given recently on Zoom and co-sponsored by the Council of Christians and Jews Professor Amy-Jill Levine, a well-known and respected Jewish scholar of Jewish and New Testament Studies, explored various texts found in the Hebrew scriptures that direct our thinking about this lively question. She began by considering the Hebrew terms used to refer to neighbours, immigrants, and strangers, before unpacking a story told by Jesus in the Christian gospel told by Luke.

Levine cited texts which use different Hebrew words when instructing us how to behave towards others. In Leviticus it is written,

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.[ii]

Here neighbours are those of the same ethnicity, language and legal system. Later in the same chapter, it is says, 

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.[iii]

The same care that a neighbour deserves is to be extended to an alien residing in Israel, even though they may not share ethnicity or any other characteristics.  Professor Levine cited many other texts in the Torah that support this stance towards others, including remembrance that the Israelites had been strangers in Egypt, and that Abraham described himself as a ‘stranger and an alien residing among you’[iv] when requesting land in Hebron to bury Sarah his dead wife.

Abraham’s request conveys a sense of his vulnerability to rejection and denial of hospitality in a time of great distress. Ironically, Abraham’s own inner consciousness is of the land being given to him and his seed.

Turning to the story known as The Good Samaritan, told only in Luke,[v] Professor Levine’s knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and the first century context of the gospel provided rich insights into a test very familiar to Christians. The story goes like this: a lawyer, an expert in Torah interpretation, asked Jesus a hostile question to test him, asking what must he do, what one good deed carry out, to inherit eternal life? Jesus asked the lawyer what was written in Torah, what do you read?   The reply came that it is written that we are to love God… and our neighbour as ourselves. Correct, Jesus replied. So, being a lawyer, the lawyer asked a further question about what is meant by a neighbour, who would that be?

Jesus rose to the moment and told a story about a man who was travelling from down from Jerusalem to Jericho, was attacked by bandits, stripped,  beaten and left for dead beside the road.  A priest travelling the same road saw the man and passed by on the other side. So, also a Levite ignored the man.  A third man, ‘a certain Samaritan’ saw the situation and felt compassion for the half dead Jewish traveller. He bandaged the mans’ wounds, pouring oil and wine on them, put the man on his own beast, took the injured man to an inn and giving the inn keeper two silver pieces said when he returned he would pay any additional expenses.

Jesus, though not a lawyer, then asked his own question as to who turned out to be a neighbour to the beaten-up traveller.  The response is, of course, that the one who treated him with mercy proved to be his neighbour. As this dawned upon the world view of the lawyer, Jesus told him to be like that Samaritan[vi], be a person of compassion to anyone in need, no matter their identity. 

The shock in the story is that the compassionate man was the one not expected to care since he did not share the wounded man’s community. Professor Levine then explored the various ways and times that the commandment to love God and love our neighbours as ourselves is said to be the whole law in summary. Jesus alone among religious teachers said that we are to love our enemies. [vii]

These are most challenging words. The universal stance towards enemies is that they are to be opposed when they threaten and punished when they harm. Occasionally someone will come along and advocate non-violent resistance to violence, as did Mahatma Ghandi but such radical vulnerability is inevitably rejected; its proponents often themselves becoming the victims of violence.

Is it possible to love beyond our familiar worlds?   Can we truly embrace as neighbour those of other religions, races, or values? It seems we sometimes manage it for a while and peace prevails but soon breaks down into old, familiar patterns of separation and even enmity.

Amy-Jill Levine opened the resources of scripture in her lecture, challenging Jews and Christians alike to ponder again this ancient question. While it is easy enough to have an intellectual response, and even an emotional warmth towards to the idea of loving all as neighbours, the realities of living together in the same street, or the same world bring us back to the complexity of enacting a commandment that trips of the tongue so readily but eludes the dark recesses of our hearts.  We read scripture, and scripture reads us and challenges us every time we open its pages or  take out its scrolls.




[i] This line was spoken by Linus Van Pelt in the November 12,1959 comic strip of Peanuts, written and drawn by Charles Schulz (1950-2000). Accessed 27 May 2023.

[ii] Leviticus 19.18.

[iii] Leviticus 19.33-34.

[iv] Genesis 23.4 

[v] Luke 10. 25-37.

[vi] For more information about who the Samaritans were read Apple, Raymond, New Testament People. A Rabbi’s Notes. (UK: Author House, 2016) pp 176-77. Samaritans continue to live on Mt Gerizim today.  I have once been taken to visit them and was shown around their synagogue and the area where they slaughter sheep at Passover. 

[vii] I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Matthew 5.44.

I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Luke 6.27.

Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Luke 6.35.


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