The question comes from a lawyer, an expert in the Jewish law. And it’s a follow-up question. The original inquiry was, “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?”
“What does the Bible say?” Jesus asks. (Note how he answers the question with another question. Jesus loved to do that.)
The lawyer answers by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18: Love God with all you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus replies with something like, “Great job! You already knew the answer.” If I were the lawyer, I’d be a little irritated. You wouldn’t need to be an expert to know the verses he just quoted; they are as familiar to those of the Jewish faith as John 3:16 is to those of the Christian faith. The lawyer is trying to test Jesus, and Jesus is not only turning the test back around on the lawyer, but he’s pointing to really simple answers. So the lawyer tries to complicate things with another question:
“And who is my neighbor?”
This question begs for boundaries, demographics, restrictions. In grammatical terms, if “neighbor” is a noun, then the answer should be a noun supplemented by some descriptors. “Your neighbor is someone who lives near you.” “Your neighbor is someone of the same race as you.” “Your neighbor is someone of the same faith as you.”
Instead of an answer anything like that, Jesus starts by telling a story. You probably know it well: the one about the infamously good Samaritan who helps the half-dead man that the priest and Levite ignore. At the end he asks, “Who acts like a neighbor here?” The lawyer admits it reluctantly, without identifying the race and religion of the Samaritan: “The one who had mercy on the hurt man.”
Then Jesus gives his final answer.
But first, remember the question:
“Who is my neighbor?”
And now the answer:
“Go and do likewise.”
“Neighbor” isn’t who we are, it’s what we do.
“Neighbor” isn’t who someone else is, it’s what we do.
When we show mercy like the Samaritan did, we make someone our neighbor.*
So go, and do likewise.
Go and neighbor.
* Credit to Eugene Peterson’s “Tell it Slant” (chapter 2, “The Neighbor).