Who is my neighbour? I have always been taught that my neighbour is everyone in the world. But if that is the case, then how can it even be theoretically possible for anyone of us to love our neighbours as ourselves (e.g., Mt 22:39)?
I think you are right that if my neighbour refers to every person in the world, then it is indeed impossible, even theoretically, for anyone of us to love our neighbours as ourselves. The fact is that nowhere in the Scripture is the term “neighbour” ever used to describe everyone in the world.
In Luke 10, a certain lawyer (expert of the Jewish laws) asked the Lord: “Who is my neighbour?” (v. 29), as in the commandment “Love thy neighbour as thyself” (Lev 19:18; Mt 19:19, etc.). The Lord responded by relating the parable of the Good Samaritan. But contrary to popular exposition, the Lord did not answer the question, “who is my neighbour?” Instead, after He had presented the parable, He asked the lawyer: “Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?” (Lk 10:36). If the Lord were answering the lawyer’s question, he would want to point out that the man who fell among the thieves is the neighbour of the Priest, Levites and Samaritan. Instead, the Lord asks: “Who… was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?” (v. 36).
When the lawyer answered: “He that shewed mercy to him,” the Lord replied: “Go, and do thou likewise!” The Lord did not answer the lawyer’s question: “Who is my neighbour?” Instead He told him to be the neighbour! Anyone whom you come across who needs help, you be the neighbour! In this way, the Lord was teaching the lawyer that he was asking the wrong question. He should be asking how he can be a neighbour, rather than who are his neighbours.
In some ways that should suffice us. We should be content with being a neighbour to anyone in need rather than seeking an exact definition of who are our neighbours. In fact, it may partly be because it is not only unprofitable, but nearly impossible to come out with a precise answer to the question, that the Lord answered in the way that He did to the lawyer.
So if that suffice you, then in my judgment there is no need to read further on this article. But if you have had thought about this issue and have struggled with cases of conscience and intellectual knots with regards to your question, then let us explore the question a little to see the difficulties and perhaps to answer some questions which you may have in your minds.
Firstly, we should realise that when the Lord teaches us that we should be a neighbour to anyone who is in need, who comes into our contact, He is also in a way affirming that technically not everyone in the world is our neighbour. As you pointed out, if our neighbour is everyone, then it becomes impossible to keep the second great commandment, for then it will require us to seek out everyone in the world who needs help in one way or another and to provide help. The Lord does not teach this absurdity. He teaches that we should render help when we come into contact with anyone needing help when it is within our capacity to do so (Gal 6:10a).
Secondly, we should note that in the Scriptures, a neighbour is distinguished from an enemy. The word translated “neighbour” in the Old Testament is a Hebrew word (rea) which means “friend,” “companion” or “fellow.” In the New Testament, the word (plêsion) is a little more ambiguous and means “the one who is near or close by” (BAGD). The Lord does not teach us to love our enemies as ourselves. He says, “love thy neighbour as thyself”; never “love thy enemy as thyself.” Yes, the Lord does teach us: “love your enemies” (Mt 5:44), but never does He require us to love our enemies as ourselves. We have not answered the question of whether, as Christians, we should have any enemies, but it remains a fact there will be people who will regard us as enemies corporately or individually, whether we like it or not. If you are to love your enemies as yourself, then you must love a stranger who is seeking to murder you, in the same way that you love your spouse and children. I find this to be practically and honestly impossible even if we speak of different degrees of love. So again it cannot be that everyone is our neighbour.
Now, thirdly, consider how we should love our enemies. The Lord teaches us:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust (Mt 5:43–45).
Notice the Lord’s specific instruction on what we should do for our enemies. Notice also the rationale that the Lord gives us, namely that we are to imitate our heavenly Father. He makes the sun to rise on all, and the rain to fall on everyone without distinction. This does not mean that God loves everyone equally and desires all to be saved, as Arminians and Amyraldians will have us believe. Rather, it refers to His benevolence towards all His creatures, which include the reprobates. God has a complacent love for His elect, which He does not have for the reprobate. While God’s benevolence is based on His goodwill without regards to the recipients, God’s complacent love is a love which is based on some qualities in the recipients. Now, the elect have nothing lovable in themselves. They are beloved complacently because of their union with Christ. This is why the Lord Jesus, in His high priestly prayer, speaks of the Father loving us with the same love with which He loves His Son (see John 17:26).
In other words, the Lord is teaching us that we ought to be benevolent to all without distinction. We should have a loving and benevolent disposition, which is not dependent on our outward circumstances. It is this disposition that makes us like the Good Samaritan, ready to do good or to be a neighbour to anyone we meet, who is in need of help.
Now, the command “Love thy neighbour as thyself” appear to speak of complacent love (cf. Eph 5:28), rather than merely benevolence. So it appears that the term “neighbour” may more closely approximate our friends, family members, relatives and fellow believers, or, in other words, those whom we have at least some acquaintance or connection with in one way or another. How do we square this idea with what the Lord was teaching in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where He is clearly expounding on loving our neighbours as ourselves. Well, in the first place, He is teaching us that we must not think that our responsibility to be helpful ends with those whom we may regard as our neighbours. In the second place, I believe the Lord is also showing us that when providence leads us into contact with someone who is in need, then that person, in some ways, becomes our neighbour and therefore we ought to love and help the person as a friend. In other words, whether a person is our neighbour or not, in regards to the second great commandment, is dynamic rather than static. During a situation of war, it would be quite impossible to love your enemy with whom you are exchanging fire, but if your enemy is wounded and falls into your hand, then in some sense he becomes your neighbour and you must render help.
Having said all these, however, we must admit that the question is still not answered completely. Think of the Ninth and Tenth Commandments. The Ninth Commandment is a little easier, for the Scripture does appear to sanction the use of deception in wartime situations. But what about the Tenth Commandment. Is not coveting always sin? Think about it. Unless we are prepared to say that the Tenth Commandment does not forbid coveting our enemy’s wife and property (which is at least to me unthinkable), then we must say that the word “neighbour” does not exclude our enemies, at least not in the Tenth Commandment. But what about the summary of the second table of the Law: “love thy neighbour as thyself”? Could it be that the word “neighbour” is used in a non-technical sense in the Tenth Commandment, whereas it is used technically in the other cases? It may be. I have no answer.
We are back to square one. All we can say definitively is that although it is clear in Scriptures that it is not our duty to love our enemies as ourselves, it is also clear that we have to do good to all when we have the opportunity to do so, regardless of what our definition of “neighbour” is. Think about this for a moment: What implication does this doctrine have on our responsibility to be witnesses for Christ?
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