Suppose my house is in a remote area with no one in sight to call my neighbor. Or that my neighborhood is spread over a wide metropolitan area. Would one living two miles away from my house be less my neighbor than my next-door neighbor? Jesus commanded us, You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, etc.). But who is really my neighbor?
This question echoes what an expert of the Jewish law posed to Jesus during a dialogue he was having with Him in public: And who is my neighbor? the man asked sanctimoniously (Luke 10:29), at which point the Master responded in the form of the parable of the good Samaritan. At the end of the parable, Jesus asked the law expert which of the three men in the story had been neighborly to the victim in need, and the law expert pointed out the Samaritan. Jesus commended him for responding correctly and advised him to follow the Samaritan’s example (Luke 10:37).
But the question Jesus asked of the law expert had nothing whatsoever to do with one’s house being near or far from a neighbor’s house. So how can we know how the law expert perceived Jesus’ use of the Greek term for neighbor ? For that, we need to examine two key parts of the Greek text that contain that term (given below in bold print):
1. Jesus’ challenger asks, Καὶ τίς ἐστί μου πλησίον; And who is near me? (Luke 10:29b).
2. At the end of the parable, Jesus asks, Τίς οὖν τούτων τῶν τριῶν δοκεῖ σοι πλησίον γεγονέναι; Which then of these three do you consider to have become near? (Luke 10:36).
Greek πλησίον [plision] near is an adverb that is commonly translated neighbor, a noun. It is a form of the adjective πλησίος (-α, -ον) which means one near, one close by. Though indeclinable, this adverb may be used with the definite article substantivally in reference to a person, e.g., τοῦ πλησίον (Eph. 4:25), τῷ πλησίον Rom. 3:10), τὸν πλησίον (Jam. 2:8), meaning the (one) near, nearby—that is, the near for short.
Like the law expert, we hear the Master say that nearness and proximity to another person is relevant only in terms of the action we take in the face of that person’s need. Jesus’ question was not whether the victim was near the three men passing by, but rather which of the three had become near to him (Luke 10:36). The Samaritan saw the victim and ἐσπλαχνίσθη [esplahnisthi] was moved by compassion (Luke 10:33). That means that we become near the moment we act with compassion toward anyone in need whom we accost in our daily path regardless of where we are or where we live.
The good Samaritan is in harmony with the Golden Rule (albeit this name is not in the Bible): Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12); and with James’ Royal Law: If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well (James 2:8). Collectively, these and a good number of other scripture references both in the New and in the Old Testament portray a panoramic view of neighbor as one who, moved by compassion, pleases heaven by becoming near to someone in need.
Incidentally, Greek for neighbor is γείτων [yiton] one living in the same land (Luke 14:12, 15:6, 9; John 9:8) or περίοικος [periikos] one dwelling around (Luke 1:58, 65). Today these three New Testament words—πλησίον, γείτων, περίοικος—are spelled, used, and according to historical evidence pronounced the same way in Modern Greek.
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