Feast upon the Word Blog

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NT #14: Who is my neighbor?

Posted by Matthew on July 27, 2007

Help.

Is anyone else not really ready to leave the gospels behind yet? I can’t believe we’re already past them. There are several things I was meaning to figure out before we moved on… Well, better late than never.

What do you think about this question “who is my neighbor”? Luke 10:29

We’re told that the lawyer asking the question in Luke was doing so for a bad reason: because he wanted to justify his own failings. In what case would it be all right to ask this question?

I interpret Jesus’ response as saying don’t worry about your stupid legalistic question about who you have a responsibility to love, just go be a good person. Is that right?

Of course, one way to look at the commandments is to understand them as a way to help us understand what it means to be a good person. In a sense then the commandment is for the person who doesn’t know how to be a good person.

The lawyer in this case, evidently knew how to be a good person in this respect and simply wasn’t doing it. But, if you didn’t know how to be a good person related to loving your neighbor then it would be a legitimate question to ask “who is my neighbor?” That sort of makes sense to me in theory but I’m having trouble understanding in practice what person will be benefited by understanding who their neighbor is so they can obey this commandment.

Help please.

18 Responses to “NT #14: Who is my neighbor?”

  1. Robert C. said

    I remember reading some commentary on some passage in Leviticus about whether the code given there applied just to Israelites or to non-Israelites as well. That is, my sense is that it was probably not uncommon or unusual for someone to have a legitimate question as to whether or not “neighbor” included only Israelites or non-Israelites as well. But it seems becomes a pressing question especially if I am trying to justify/rationalize not loving someone who is a non-Israelite.

    More generally, I think we see questions pertaining to technical definitions at times we are tempted to rationalize something about which our conscience is bothering us, e.g. the law of chastity (how far is really too far?) or tithing (now, do I really have to pay tithing on X, Y, or Z?), etc. Along these lines, we might think of commandments as checks against our own temptation to rationalize something about which we should know better (i.e. we do know better deep down, but hide this from ourselves in self-deception…).

  2. Jim F. said

    I think that Robert is right, though I’m operating from memory too. If you live in a culture where the idea that you can truthfully say “X is not my neighbor” is a real possibility, then it is wholly appropriate to ask “Who is my neighbor.”

    I don’t think, however, that Jesus was just answering “Go and live a good life.” He was saying something like “The person you encounter is your neighbor, without other qualifications.” That was a radical claim under the circumstances.

    I think the question stays with us because it isn’t possible for everyone to be my neighbor. I cannot help everyone in the world who is in need–but I can help my neighbor if I can figure out who that is. Jesus gives an answer in the parable that is supposed to challenge me to think about the question, “Who is my neighbor?” as much as it is supposed to answer the question. I have to keep asking the question as I encounter people on the road.

  3. Matthew said

    Dad, Here’s the difficulty that I feel is unanswered. I’m fine with saying “the person you encounter is your neighbor, without other qualifications.” It would seem that the question of who is my neighbor is then answered: everyone you can help. But as you point out, the question remains. With some fear that I may be engaged in the same self-justification the lawyer was I say “but…we can’t help everyone so who is my neighbor?”

    Here’s the trouble I see…Why doesn’t Jesus hedge at all? Why doesn’t he add after the fact, like King Benjamin does, “of course you don’t have to run faster than you have strength.” (Mosiah 4:27).

    It seems almost that there is a pattern of not qualifying statements in the gospels where we may feel we need qualification. Take as another example “ask and you shall receive” (Matt 7:7; Luke 11:9). Compare for example this to the qualified versions in 3 Ne 27:28 and D&C 88:64. (And the versions in D&C 132:40, Moses 6:52, and D&C 101:27 also seem qualified though in a slightly less obvious way–because they seem to apply to a specific time or person).

    I think we could also talk about loving one’s enemies–and compare this to the other scriptures we discussed on Brianj’s post about seeking revenge. Again, the gospel version has no qualification. But we can find other scriptures that have qualification.

    There’s something odd I think going on in the fact that Jesus gives us these unqualified statements and then we have to re-evalute them with qualification which he doesn’t provide. It seems like a pattern that I’m not sure what to make of.

  4. robf said

    This is tough for me. We are told to love God. Then we are told to love our neighbor as ourselves. But apparently we mostly show love for God by loving our neighbor? And everyone is our neighbor? How are we to deal with this?

    This week I went to Brooklyn to look for a rare African heron that is showing up occasionally in a polluted creek behind a Home Depot near Coney Island. I spent six hours in the sun and didn’t see the heron, but in some way I saw God in the homeless mentally imbalanced woman bathing in the briny creek, the homeless Mexicans cooking on the shore, the topless sunbathing beauty, the surf fishermen on the beach. The teaming mass of humanity was unbearable. Somehow they were all my neighbors–and somehow they all stood for God. How was I to relate to them or help them? I was anxious to flee the scene as it was all so overwhelming. I’m still befuddled.

  5. cherylem said

    I posted a poem on the Girard discussion group that may pertain to this, in a small way.

    I remember feeling as you describe regarding the people around me . . . at certain points in our lives it seems as if the mask just drops, and we feel the weight of all the lost souls around us, and we feel our own imperfections beside. I wonder if that is something of what God feels, or Jesus feels, or felt. I wonder if this is what the Spirit feels.

    At that point, I think we understand our covenant a little more – we cannot do all things, but we can do one thing, even if that one thing is just to learn to be deeply kind in all we do, wherever we are, whatever our circumstances. And more than this too – we learn to recognize the need all around us, rather than turning away, and refusing to see anything.

    It is too bad you did not see your heron. I’ve noticed before that you’re a bird watcher – a fabulous thing to be.

  6. robf said

    Thanks Cherylem, I did feel like you described. And I’m still trying to figure out what to do about it. At one point with the imbalanced homeless woman screaming obscenities, I wondered what Jesus would do. I thought he would heal her, and it kind of tore me up inside because I didn’t think I could do that.

    I wonder how this relates to the Sons of Mosiah, who would quake at the thought of any soul suffering for their sins.

  7. Jim F. said

    Matthew: There’s something odd I think going on in the fact that Jesus gives us these unqualified statements and then we have to re-evalute them with qualification which he doesn’t provide. It seems like a pattern that I’m not sure what to make of.

    Isn’t it the pattern of genuine responsibility: There is something I must do, but I have to decide what it means to do that and I don’t have any further rule to fall back on.

    The rule says, “Love your neighbor.” I say, “Well, who is my neighbor?” Jesus says, “The person you encounter on the road.” The parable is extremely helpful because it reminds me that I have acted as a priest or a Levite, crossing to the other side of the road. It forces me to ask whether I have been a neighbor and to recognize that the answer has sometimes, perhaps even often, been no. But the parable doesn’t really decide the question, “Who is my neighbor?” I still have to figure that out. I still have that responsibility. I see the parable as a way in which Jesus gives us, or brings us to, our responsibility to find the neighbor rather than as an answer to the question.

  8. Jim F. said

    Robf, I think that the comparison to the sons of Mosiah’s response to sin is instructive. Perhaps we cannot do anything for our neighbor unless our soul quakes, recognizing their need, our incompetence, and the necessity of doing something.

    One of the most terrifying experiences I’ve had in my life was, I think, something like yours, when I saw someone in immediate and serious need and I had no idea what to do and, so, did nothing. It may be that nothing was all I could do, but I still mourn that I didn’t do something. I mourn my failure in that particular event and in doing so, I also mourn my finitude in the face of all suffering and injustice.

    Perhaps Alma’s “Oh that I were an angel” is relevant. Perhaps I sin in my wish to be able to do more than I have the ability to do.

  9. Matthew said

    rob, Christ would have healed her. I agree. Do you think you should have? I’m not sure.

    I do agree with Cheryl that we can’t ever stop noticing, or stop caring. This is hardest of all: to care when you can’t do something.

    I remember the temptation on my mission when you see people you love, who show promise, turn away and reject the gospel. The temptation is to say “it’s their salvation, what do I care.” It’s much harder to continue caring and know the life they could have had but now seem unlikely to have, and feel the sadness that comes with this.

  10. Matthew said

    Dad #7, as per our conversation, I still feel like there is something different going on in the gospels than what is true of other scriptures. The words of the gospels disproportionately seem to beg for ungiven qualifiers. Other scriptures seem to strike a more (cringe) practical tone. I feel as though I could have a whole post on any one of these topics I mentioned in #3. One more to add: divorce (Matt 19:9). (Of course, Jesus does give one qualification to that rule, but I think we all would agree that there are many justified examples of divorce where fornication was not involved, wouldn’t we?)

    My favorite though is ask and you shall receive. It is given as such a simple rule. But just adding a qualification like “if what you ask for is good for you” seems so important. I don’t understand why this qualification never comes up in the gospels? Just as I don’t understand why Jesus didn’t feel the need to add “you don’t need to run faster than you have strength” in talking about the good samaritan. Or, if your spouse is physically abusive, that’s also a good reason for divorce, when talking about divorce.

    My first inclination is to say that these seemingly universal statements (e.g., ask and you shall receive) weren’t really meant to be universal. But Luke 11:11 (following right on the heels of Luke 11:9 (ask and it shall be given)) would suggest otherwise.

  11. Robert C. said

    Matthew, I think this is a great question. I think 3 Nephi might be an esp. good place to take up this question. In 3 Ne 18:21, Christ says:

    [W]hatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you. . . .

    But in 3 Ne 27:29 Christ says, without qualification:

    Therefore, ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you; for he that asketh, receiveth; and unto him that knocketh, it shall be opened.

    One might be tempted to say that the believers had “proven themselves” in some way that removed the need for qualification in the later instance, but I think your point about how this occurs in the Gospels suggests we should look for a different kind of significance.

    Also, in comparing Christ’s appearance in the BOM with that in the New Testament, we have in the BOM a situation where the wicked were already destroyed. This would run counter to the kind of thinking above. So what else might be going on? Perhaps, somewhat counterintuitively but in accordance with I think the idea Jim F. is suggesting, the “greater revolution” that Christ was effecting in the Old World could more effectively be brought about by saying things without qualification. In a sense, the without-qualification statement is more controversial and requires more effort on the listener’s part to discern what it might and might not entail. I like this “greater responsibility” approach, but I’m not sure then why in 3 Nephi and the passages you quoted above that sometimes more qualification is given. I’m inclined to think that it’s related to the idea of why the Law of Moses was given, which had pros and cons associated with it, pros and cons which I think are ultimately rather intuitive (more detailed rules of conduct leave less room for bad interpretations of a more general principle, but also less room for good interpretations of a more general principle). Hmmm, lots to think about here….

  12. Jim F. said

    Matthew, as I understand your question, you want to know why, in the Gospels, Jesus seems to give us demands /commands and promises without qualifiers. When it comes to practice, we know that qualifiers are always needed, both for the demands and for the promises. Yet he doesn’t give any.

    I think that is an excellent question, though I don’t have much of an answer. Right now, the best I’ve got is what Robert C describes: statements without qualification make more of a demand on the reader and hearer.

  13. Matthew said

    I just posted some commentary on the wiki which is somewhat (though tangentially) related to this.

  14. Jim F. said

    Matthew, I like what you posted on the wiki, but I am having a difficult time seeing a connection, even a tangential one. I feel like I can almost see something, but not quite. Can you help me out?

  15. Matthew said

    I apologize for writing a post when my thinking is still so muddled around this whole topic. The question/confusion this post addresses (which itself is ill-defined) is mixed up with grace vs works (though I haven’t figured out how to respond to Robert’s posts yet) and the question earlier we had around the importance of one’s intentions in obeying (and I’d like to post on that but am still not ready). Hopefully, I’ll be able to pull it together at some point and connect what should be connected and disconnect what shouldn’t be.

    In the meantime, to answer your question specifically, I’m thinking there is maybe some hope in understanding these unqualified commands (e.g. love everyone as yourself, don’t take thought for material things) by understanding the unqualified promise of ask and you shall receive. If ask and you shall receive really has a lot of qualifiers that just aren’t given, then maybe these unqualified commands do too. On the other hand, if ask and receive means just what it says, then maybe these other commands really mean just what they say and when we attempt to place qualifications on them that aren’t given, we are simply trying to rationalize our lack of obedience.

    If we read D&C 42:44 with this in mind, we get an interpretation of ask and receive that does add some qualification (e.g. not appointed unto death) but by and large re-affirms the simple idea given in the gospels that those with faith will receive what they ask for.

  16. Matthew said

    In thinking about why “ask and receive” is not qualified in the gospels with “if you ask for something good” I have the following proposal.

    Maybe the assumptions that the gospels make is that a) the case where someone asks for something they know is not good is so obviously wrong that it isn’t even at issue, and b) by and large people know what is good. If we believe these two statements it makes sense to leave off the qualifier “when what you ask for is good” when saying “you’ll get what you ask for.” Under this assumption the qualifier “if you ask for something good” would distract from the real message: have faith, God WILL give you what you ask for.

    One implication is…
    Given that the phrase “thy will be done” only makes sense as a qualifier in asking for a blessing when faced with a situation where one believes one is likely not to know what is good, if we believe that not knowing what is good is exceptional, we should see the use of this phrase as exceptional as well. (Uggh. what an ugly sentence. I tried but couldn’t fix it. sorry.)

    Seeing the phrase “thy will be done” (see Matt 26:39) as exceptional follows the pattern set forth by Jesus. Note that we see no examples of Jesus failing to heal someone because he thinks that being sick is good for them. Except for the case before his suffering and crucification, we don’t see Jesus using this phrase in his prayers or blessings anywhere as a qualifier. Jesus uses himself as an example when telling us that we will receive what we ask for. Again, the implication is that in general we do know what is good.

    Whether we see ourselves as generally knowing what is good or not has important implications for how we think about prayer. Again return to the example of being sick. When we pray for someone to be healed, and they aren’t healed, we have to evaluate whether we lacked faith or whether God didn’t want to heal the person. The implication is that we should generally lean toward a lack of faith as the explanation. (My previous comment (#15) on explaining D&C 42:44 obviously ties into my thinking here as well.)

    I think there is something similar going on between intentions and actions in the gospels (or maybe the scriptures more generally). In general I would argue that the scriptures assume that intentions are obvious by works–they are not some hidden thing which only the actor and God have access to. But, that is another post. I think this has important implications for understanding how we think about our intentions and especially how we interpret those scriptures that tell us that good works only count if we do them with the right intentions.

  17. Robert C. said

    Matthew, fascinating. I’ve wondered about these or related issues quite a bit myself, but I can’t think of anything to add to your thinking. I look forward to hearing more as you continue to think about this, and I’ll try to think about it more myself to see if I can’t come up with something interesting to add….

  18. BrianJ said

    Matthew: I’ll sort of echo Robert’s comment, except that I’m just barely grasping what you’re describing (not because you don’t describe it well, but because it’s very new to me.)

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