Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Who is My Neighbour?

Since we are to love our neighbours as ourselves, let’s be sure we know who they are.

ὁ δὲ θέλων δικαιοῦν ἑαυτὸν εἶπεν πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν Καὶ τίς ἐστίν μου πλησίον.
Luke 10:29

The word “neighbour” comes from an Old English word meaning “near farmer”; referring to the “occupant of an adjacent farm”. As we all know, it now refers to anyone who lives nearby, or within the same neighbourhood. It can also have a narrower or wider application, depending on context. It could either refer to someone sitting beside another, or someone living in an adjacent county or state. In either case, however, the focus of the English word “neighbour” is on geographical proximity, more than it is on familial or nationalistic proximity.

Just what is He selling?

This is a problem for us modern English-speaking Christians because none of the original Bible languages are English and none of the cultures that those languages express were Anglo-Saxon in origin. The two main languages of the Bible are Hebrew and Hebraized Greek; the primary culture is ancient Judaic. When God spoke to ancient Israelites about “neighbours”, He spoke in their language and in terms they understood. It is unwise for us to assume these terms are entirely transferable to our language.

So, if we want to make sure we know what God meant when He commanded us to love our neighbours as ourselves, it would be a good idea to first see what He actually said, then find out what ideas these words actually expressed to those hearing them. To do this, we have to examine the actual words written down by His ancient, inspired, non-English-speaking amanuenses.

It might surprise you to learn that the Evangelist Luke gives us three different Greek words that have been translated “neighbour” in the Bible. Each of these words does mean neighbour, but each captures a different and distinct aspect of the wider concept of the word. With regards to language study, it is significant that it is Luke who gives us these three words, since, of all the Gospel writers, his is the more adept Greek:
And her neighbours and her cousins heard how the Lord had shewed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her. (Luke 1:58)
Here the word for neighbour is περίοικος [perioikos]. This is a compound of the preposition περί [peri], meaning “around” (as in the English cognate “perimeter”) and οἶκος [oikos], meaning “house”. This is the NT Greek word that is closest to the literal meaning of the English word “neighbour”; someone living in relatively close proximity to one’s own home.
Then said he also to him that bade him, When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor [thy] rich neighbours; lest they also bid thee again , and a recompence be made thee.
(Luke 14:12. See also Luke 15:6 & 9; John 9:8)
The word translated neighbour here is γείτων [geiton], meaning “those of the same country (or land)”; The root of geiton is γῆ [ge], meaning “country, land or ground (earth)”. This word is closer in meaning to the English word “countryman” and, to the ones to whom the Lord is speaking, this would be any other Judean.
But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?
(Luke 10:29)
The word here is πλησίον [plesion], “one nearby”. Plesion is the neuter form of a derivative of πέλας [pelas], meaning “near or hard by”. It is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word רע [rea], that appears in Leviticus 19:18:
Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I [am] the LORD.
The word rea is one of five different Hebrew words translated neighbour. It comes from רעה [ra’ah], a primitive root meaning “to pasture, tend, graze or feed”; the noun form meaning “a shepherd or herdsman”. So the sense of this Hebrew word for “neighbour” (rea) is really of a “fellow shepherd”.

Also, the first clause in Lev 19:18 shows us that there is a familial relationship to the word. This verse is a typical example of OT duplication, whereby the same thing is expressed in two different ways. Therefore “children of thy people” is equivalent to “neighbour”. So, the Hebrew word for neighbour, as far as the neighbour we are to love as ourselves is concerned, expresses familial, or kinship, proximity, rather than geographical proximity, as the English word neighbour implies.

As for the Greek word plesion, this too must imply the same familial nearness, because it is the word Jesus used to cite and explain, through the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the OT commandment to love thy neighbour (Luke 10:27-37).1

1st Century Jewish culture was a product of 2,000 years of kinship-based exclusivity. Only Jews, sons of the same forefathers, could be related, and only relatives were to be loved. Because of this, the Pharisees taught that only proselytes, converts to Judaism, could be considered neighbours worthy of love. The parable of the Good Samaritan was revelatory to Jesus’ audience because the idea of a non-Jew being a neighbour was theretofore unthinkable. The Samaritans were geographically close, but the Jewish cultural concept of “neighbour” had nothing to do with spatial relationships. If it did, Jesus wouldn’t have needed to supply a parable, He would’ve just replied, “The Samaritans are your neighbour” (or the Egyptians, or Romans living in Jerusalem, etc).

This is a fundamental concept to grasp, if we Christians are to fully understand the commandment to love the neighbour. The Samaritan of the parable was a neighbour because he treated the injured man like a close relative (who must have been a Jew, because if he wasn’t, Jesus would’ve had to mention it. He was illustrating a principle for Jews that only applied to Jews; every one of His hearers would’ve assumed the man was one of them.); closer even than the priest or Pharisee that walked by. In other words, he treated the injured “sheep” like a “fellow shepherd of the same extended family” would have. His actions showed that his internal character was familial, even though his external character was not. All good things come from God (James 1:17), so only someone with God inside them can do good works:
For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves.
(Romans 2:14)
So that is the neighbour whom we Christians have to love like ourselves: the ones who are in the same spiritual family, evidenced by their treatment of Christians. It is not anyone and everyone who just happens to live, stand or sit beside us.


1. Cf Acts 7:27 & Exodus 2:13. In Stephen's account he uses the Greek plesion (KJV: neighbour), as does the LXX, where the OT Hebrew is rea (KJV: fellow), further proof that these words are equivalent. Note that the "neighbours" are both Hebrews and that the Egyptian is not considered a neighbour.

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