Who Is My Neighbor?

Torah Portion: V’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)
Gospel Reading: Mark 12:29-33, Luke 10:30-37
Commentary by: Chris Mumford

Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scribe said to Him, “Right, Teacher; You have truly stated that He is One, and there is no one else besides Him; and to love Him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as himself, is much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (ark 12:29-33 NASB)

V’etchanan is a heavy portion regarding theological material. Moses is continuing his pep talk and stern warning before Israel enters the promised land. The parsha contains the Ten Commandments and the Shema. I want to contrast the stories of Yeshua’s teaching on the greatest commandments and the context from which the mitzvot are given. Yeshua had this portion in mind when he was asked what is the greatest commandment. What is intriguing about his connection of Leviticus 19:18 to this parsha is context of both. The word for neighbor in Hebrew is “rea,” literally reysh ayin, and the word from which Ruth’s name is derived. The word is actually pretty general and can take on meanings ranging from intimate friend to strangers. In Luke’s Gospel Yeshua is asked directly who is a neighbor. He responds with my favorite parable.

Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same”. (Luke 10:30-37 NASB)

Although the inquirer in Luke is testing Yeshua, the scribe is asking a legitimate Torah question. What does “neighbor” really mean? The verse Yeshua quotes in Leviticus literally contains the words, “sons of your people.” What is beautiful about this passage is that Yeshua uses a Samaritan as the hero. He takes the broader definition of neighbor. The Master highlights that outward appearances and religious expectations can often be misplaced. As is a common theme in the Gospels, the ways of God are hidden and mysterious. In his book “The Parables; Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation” Dr. Brad H. Young records a quote in which Josephus gives us an example of the disdain between Samaritans and Jews.

“But they [the Samaritans] must already have lost this right [access to the inner court of the Temple] some twelve years after Herod’s death when one Passover at the time of the Procurator Coponius (6-9 C.E.), some Samaritans strewed human bones in the Temple porches and all over the sanctuary in the middle of the night (Ant. 18.29f.). This was obviously an act of revenge for something about which Josephus is characteristically silent. This appalling defilement of the Temple, which probably interrupted the Passover feast, added fresh fuel to the old fires of hatred.” (Young)

Samaritans were hated by popular Judaism at the time of Yeshua’s teaching. Not only did they antagonize the Jews, they also sided with the Sadducees on the position of the Oral Law. To use a Samaritan as the example of Godly love towards one’s neighbor was radical. Yeshua is trying to get the point across that, to God, neighbor means anyone not just a person to whom we are close. The Samaritan saw the man and had compassion. His religion has significant differences than Yeshua’s. Yet Yeshua highlights the Samaritan to show that empathy is an essential quality of Godliness. What does this have to do with the parsha? The connection is the context of Yeshua’s foremost commands. In contrast to Yeshua’s use of a Samaritan as a protagonist, Moses is giving a speech before the military conquest of Canaan. If Israel maintains fidelity to the covenant, God will cause them to be victorious in displacing the inhabitants of the land through war; these people are their neighbors. In contrast to Yeshua’s broad definition of neighbors, the verse in Leviticus explicitly mentions, “sons of your people.” They are both talking about enemies. It’s a stretch to think that Yeshua was not aware of the context of these commands. So why would Yeshua use that passage? To initiate the next step in the reconciliation of God and humanity.

The superiority of the Messianic Kingdom is a catechism of the Gospels. The eye witnesses of Yeshua’s ministry, passion, and resurrection knew that something grand and mysterious was happening. They wrote inspired that God had brought them so close to final redemption that The King had been revealed. His kingdom is not in fortune, fame, or military might but in healing, peace, and Godliness. God is drawing us closer and closer to this great future hope. We must move with Him. I think of these Gospel stories as similar to those of the Sermon on the Mount when the Master states, “You have heard it said, but I tell you.” He knows Moses’ story and David’s, but He is trying to teach us what these stories mean. The first century teaching to love your neighbor and hate your enemy is not technically wrong according to the Torah. But the prophets were given a vision of a future to which we aspire and Yeshua is bringing near. Isaiah foretells that we will turn our weapons into tools of agriculture and nations will no longer war against each other. The Prince of Peace implores us to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and turn the other cheek. Pulling us nearer to the time when God and the Lamb are the Temple rather than a building, he informs us that in Him there is no slave or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile. In the Son of God all people have reached the pinnacle of personhood. With the Spirit of Messiah, we are all one. So when Yeshua expands the meaning of the Torah we move with Him. Ever forward, only then will His glory cover the earth as the water covers the seas. When we emulate the One who brought abundant life we can be confident that we too are bringing healing, peace, and Godliness.

In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12 NASB)