Some time ago, I was reading through the parable of the good Samaritan, and asking much the same question as the certain lawyer who prompted the parable: “who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-37). The parable itself makes this answer pretty clear, but I still decided to look up the Greek word for “neighbor,” just to see if there was something I might have missed.
The word is plesion (G4139). It means generally the same thing as our English word “neighbor,” someone who lives near us. Even so, I found the way Zodhiates phrases the definition in my study Bible worth sharing:
It means neighbor, fellow man or fellow creature, indicating primarily an outward nearness or proximity. Occurs in Luke 10:29, the parable of the Good Samaritan, which teaches that he who is outwardly near us should be the object of our concern in spite of the fact that there are no ties of kindred or nation between us.
Other words, if someone is anywhere near you — if you can see, hear, or know of them — they are your neighbor and you have a responsibility to them.
Love Your Neighbor
Thinking about this fact has made me feel guilty on numerous occasions. For example, I had classes with some people I disagreed with and flat-out didn’t like, but at least for the four hours a week that we were in the same classroom, they were my neighbors.
Jesus Christ said, “the first and great commandment” is to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” The second commandemnt “is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 37-40). The commands to love sum up a main message of the Bible.
Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)
It is vitally important that we learn to love our neighbors. And not just the ones we like, because the same word for love — agape — is used when Jesus tells us, “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44).
Learning to Love
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis said, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” Acting as if we love a person is a better first step than trying to develop warm fuzzy feelings for someone we don’t like. The feelings we usually associate with love are optional, caring about the person’s well-being is not.
Agape (G26) and its root word agapao (G25) are best defined as “affectionate regard, good will, benevolence.” They indicate “a direction of the will” and differ “from phileo (5368), to love, indicating feelings, warm affection” (Zodhiates). The agape kind of love can involve emotions, and frequently does, but it is more concerned with an active decision to care about the well being of another person. Love is a choice, and if we want to become like God, it is a choice we must learn to make.