Narrowing ‘Love Thy Neighbor’

Many Christians claim a personal relationship with Jesus but show little regard for his commandments to serve the poor and love thy neighbor. Some conceal these contradictions by narrowing the definition of “neighbor,” as Rev. Howard Bess explains.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

Jesus set his ethical agenda in a conversation with a Scribe, who asked Jesus about the greatest of commandments. Jesus responded with not one but two: “You shall love God with heart, mind, strength and soul” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus’s response is recorded in Mark 12:28ff, and similar statements are found in the Matthew and Luke gospels. Since then, Christians have never disputed his standards; however, over the centuries Christians have argued over who constitutes a neighbor.

"The Parable of the Good Samaritan" by Jan Wijnants (16321684)

The vast majority of Christians over the past 2,000 years have conveniently avoided including all human beings in the embrace of a loving God.

And Christians have lots of company in this selectivity. Ancient Israelites had the same problem. Indeed, when Jesus recited his “love your neighbor” commandment, he was not cutting an entirely new path. He was quoting Leviticus 19:18. However, put into the context of the larger Leviticus passage, neighbor went no further than members of one’s own family and clan or tribe.

The story of limiting the meaning of neighbor has a long history among the Israelites.  According to these historical traditions, Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, delivered them from slavery and gave them a great leader in the person of Moses. With the aid of a series of miracles, Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, with their first significant stop at Mount Sinai, where God gave Moses the laws by which Israelites were to live.

But Sinai was not their destiny. They were headed toward a land of their own, what we call Palestine. There was a problem, however. The land was already occupied by coalitions of tribes that were ready to fight for what they had.

Scholars, using both Biblical and non-Biblical sources, have pieced together the story of how the Israelites came to control the entire Palestinian area. These Israelites were not a peace-loving people. They had experienced many cruelties in Egypt and were not about to submit easily to the tyranny of another powerful ruler.

In their view, Yahweh had freed them from slavery in Egypt, and it was Yahweh, who would keep the dream of a new life in a new land alive. To the careful reader, the nature of their God is found embedded in their tradition. Exodus 15:3 states “Yahweh is a man of war. Yahweh is his name.” The Israelite God was not a peace lover, and neither were the Israelites.

In their wilderness wanderings, the Israelites made contact with another wandering, landless tribe, the Habiru, whose name is related to the word Hebrew. The word habiru can properly be translated “outlaw.”

The Habiru’s existence is well established by Near East documents, though they existed outside the social and political structures of the era. They were a tribe skilled in war and often hired themselves out as mercenaries. Scholars today believe the Habiru and the Israelites joined forces and became a lethal war machine.

In forming the partnership, the requirement of the Israelites was that the Habiru had to submit to the Israelite God, Yahweh, making the Habiru a part of the Israelite clan.  Under loyalty to Yahweh, the two groups became kin, family and neighbors.

The new Israelite war machine systematically conquered the coalition tribes that controlled Palestine. The Israelites were ruthless, requiring that the tribes that occupied Palestine bow down to Yahweh (the war God) or be killed. Those who did not were slaughtered without mercy.  However, most chose to bow down to Yahweh and also became neighbors worthy of the love and courtesies of the growing Israelite clan.

Old Testament law makes it very clear that love was reserved for people, who embraced Yahweh as their God and who were thus absorbed into the Israelite nation.   This was the dominant definition of neighbor in Israelite history and tradition. But it was not unchallenged.

During the entire history of the Israelites, special people, called prophets, appeared to critique the behavior of leaders, whether kings or priests. Prophets seemed to appear from out of nowhere. They might be farmers, poets or actors. But the position was not inherited, nor were they elected. They were not controlled by leaders.

The word “prophet” can be translated as “delegated messenger” or “one who is called.”  But their weapon was the simple phrase: “thus says the Lord.” The Old Testament prophets can best be understood as protesters who contested the standards and actions of those in power. It was the prophets, who had differing opinions about the definition of the neighbor, who was to be loved.

Jesus from Nazareth lived and taught in the tradition of the protesting prophet. A lawyer once asked Jesus “and who is my neighbor?”  Jesus did not give a direct answer but rather told the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus was including the Samaritan, though coming from a despised group, as a neighbor.

My argument with most of my Christian brothers and sisters is that they have abandoned the Jesus expansion of the definition of neighbor. Indeed, Jesus’s definition of neighbor made him the unique person that he was.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is [email protected]


7 comments for “Narrowing ‘Love Thy Neighbor’

  1. September 14, 2012 at 17:22

    It’s actually a cool and useful piece of information. I’m satisfied that you shared this useful information with us. Please stay us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Larry G
    September 8, 2012 at 12:47

    It’s time for a rapprochement between liberal nonbelievers and liberal Christians. As we duke it out, right-wingers laugh all the way to the White House and the Supreme Court.

    Thomas Jefferson reminded us that Jesus was a key figure in the evolution of social ethics.

    The most important point of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is that Samaritans were the hated “others.” To make this parable meaningful today, it would be helpful to insert the word “Christian” for those who passed by without offering help and insert the word “Muslim” or “atheist” for “Samaritan.”

    It is good Christian theology to say that sometimes nonbelievers do the will of God while believers sometimes do the opposite.

    From an atheistic or agnostic point of view it is rude and intolerant to lump all Christians in the right-wing crowd who worship the Chamber-of-Commerce Jesus rather than the Jesus described in the Gospels.

    We must hang together in our pursuit of social justice. Otherwise we will hang separately.

  3. Bill Jones
    September 7, 2012 at 17:41

    What sort of buffoon believes the cobbled together plagiarized drivel of the bible?

    • incontinent reader
      September 7, 2012 at 18:28

      Bill, this article, while citing biblical text, goes beyond any rigid theological interpretation- it is as much or more of a discussion of ethical humanism and its values.

      • Hillary
        September 8, 2012 at 05:35

        The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska and has a “different” line in pushing propaganda or insidious proselytising to convert dumbed down people to join the Christian Religion.

        To believe in a non existent daddy & mommy who inhabit a non existent place called heaven and who “sent” their imaginary only “begotten” son Jesus to visit with us on planet earth over 2,000 years ago to bring us all those lovely “original” platitudes.

        US president G.W.Bush admitted to being in contact with this daddy and mommy in heaven who told him to bring a holocaust ( crusade) to a country called Iraq.

        Peace loving Atheists were silent or silenced and Christian Religious nonsense enabled a Christian USA to carry out its Biblical ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ policy on Iraq ,calling it a Crusade or spreading “democracy” instead of the Holocaust that it really is/was.

  4. Bebe99
    September 7, 2012 at 17:13

    I like your article. I often hear people clarify that they only want their charity or tax dollars to go to those who ‘deserve’ assistance. This leaves a lot of latitude for the individual to make judgements about who is deserving. It is very, very easy, effortless to love people whom we consider our neighbors: family, friends, people whose misfortune seems accidental. It is much, much harder to love those whom we don’t know, come from a different background or whom we don’t like. We don’t need encouragement to love those whom we already love. It is the unloveable in whom we need to find brotherhood. To love only those whom we already love or in whom we see a reflection of ourselves is to ignore the teachings of Jesus.

    • Don Harris
      September 11, 2012 at 12:51

      No one is unlovable. He or she may do horrible things, but if one is coming from a place of unconditional love (as Jesus was), one sees them as acting our of ignorance and/or pathology, not evil.

Comments are closed.