Properties of Blood I.4: Friends and Neighbors, Part E

Who Is My Neighbor?

For more than 100 years, some Christians have argued that Marxist socialism is the secular fulfillment of Our Lord's repeated warnings against the temptations of great wealth and His injunctions to practice charity.  Inevitably, the preachers of the "Social Gospel" or "Liberation Theology" will trot out the parable of the Good Samaritan as proof of their equation of Marxist principle with Christian (particularly Catholic) teaching.  Non-Marxist Catholics, perhaps uncomfortable with the apparently revolutionary tendencies in the Gospels, tend to dwell on the practical drawbacks of socialist experiments, and, while these critiques are certainly correct, they fail to address the main question posed by “Christian” socialism:  Is Marxism  compatible with—or even demanded by Christian moral teaching?  A careful examination of the parable, both within its immediate context and within the broader context of the Gospels, can make it quite plain that the socialist explanation not only leads to unfortunate consequences but—and this is really more important—is entirely false as an interpretation of Scripture and contrary to Christian moral theology.

The context alone should give honest Marxists pause.  Christ has commissioned the 70 and told them how to act on their missions.  The 70 return in joy to report of their miraculous powers, and Our Lord thanks the Father for the blessings his disciples have received and witnessed, adding rather ominously that prophets and kings had desired but failed to see and hear those things that his followers have experienced.  The implication is clear:  Even the greatest events in the Jewish tradition are being exceeded by the plain and ordinary people who have become Christ's disciples.  The question being raised is not our obligation to share the wealth but the break-through represented by the mission of Christ's followers.

At this point a “nomikos”—not a lawyer, as some translators make out,  but a man learned in the the Jewish Law of the Torah—asks him, “Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"   When Jesus replies by spelling out the two Great Commandments—to love God and love your neighbor—the finical expert, wanting to prove himself right, asks Him:  "And who is my neighbor?"

"And who is my neighbor?" Jesus' answer is the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story of a man, beaten and robbed, who had been ignored by a priest and a levite wh passed him by but cared for by a Samaritan, a mamber of a group despised as heretical mongrels by the Jewish religious establishment.

Samaritans were descendants of Jews in the northern Kingdom of Israel, who had stayed behind when some other Jews were being deported to Babylonia.  They were accused of having intermarried with gentiles and of having corrupted their religion.  Samaritans had their own story to tell, of the snobbery and discrimination to which they had been subjected by the returning Jews of Judaea, who inserted Scriptural passages (so Samaritans claimed) hostile to the northern kingdom.   Excluded from worship in the Temple in Jerusalem, they performed their national rituals on Mount Gerizim in Samaria, which they regarded as the original sacred place for the Children of Israel.  Jews were forbidden even to associate with each other, a prohibition illustrated by the story (in John 4) of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.


Before looking directly at the parable, we must pay still closer attention to the context.  Jesus had openly challenged the claims of the Jewish tradition, and a traditional scholar has tried to trap him by asking, in essence, what are those principles that He is making the basis of this new teaching that has been working wonders?  Christ's answer is to cite two unconnected pieces of the Torah, which He—but not the expert— understands.  In the subsequent exchange—the expert's question and the parable as answer—what is at stake, primarily, is the moral adequacy of the Jewish tradition.

The nomikos wants to put Jesus to the test—the verb ekpeirazein reminds us of the tests to which Satan subjected Him.  This requires a bit of explanation.  The verb—and its simpler uncompounded form (peirazein)—are typically translated by the English “tempt,” but the meaning of that word has changed so much since the early 17th century that it is quite misleading.  To “tempt,” in this an other passages including the Lord’s Prayer, is not to entice or trap but to put something or someone to the test in order to find out what they are.  A closer English word might be “assay,” as in “The chemist assayed the ore to determine whether it was gold or iron pyrite.”

Since He is dealing with an expert in the Torah, Jesus naturally gives him the Scriptural response from Leviticus about loving one's neighbor.  As it is set up, then, the parable of the Good Samaritan is designed to expose the hollowness of an official Judaism that was more concerned with outward observance of the law, and it may also be relevant that Jesus (John 8:48) was accused of being a Samaritan, presumably because he preached the inner meaning of the Law while not always observing every external rule.

This contrast between the Old and New Testaments is strongly emphasized in the traditional readings for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost where the story of  the Good Samaritan is paired with St. Paul’s explanation (II Cor. 3) that the letter of the Old is a condemnation to death, while the spirit of the New gives life.  A similar contrast is implied in the readings for the 13th Sunday that pairs the Samaritan leper who, alone of ten afflicted men healed by Jesus, returns to give thanks.  “Your faith, responds Jesus, “has made you whole”—a phrase that can be also be translated as “Your faith has saved you.”  In both stories, faith in Jesus and a willingness to follow the spirit—and not the letter—of the law brings salvation.

The story of the Good Samaritan is so familiar to all of us that we rarely pause to puzzle over the details.  That is why it is so easy for Christian Marxists to play it as their trump card.  Although, neither in this parable nor anywhere else in the New Testament, is there any reference to government intervention in the economy, much less to state socialism, socialists like John C. Cort have no trouble in invoking it in support of their ideology.  Indeed, Cort quotes triumphantly from a like-minded socialist ethicist: “Spontaneous, simple love, following the dictates of its own concern for persons in need, grows into concern for the formal structure of society”—a passage entirely devoted to social change without a hint of understanding of “biblical ethics.”

For socialists, Christian or not, the Samaritan and the robbery victim are universal everymen, which means that the entire planet is made of neighbors to whom we owe the same responsibilities.  If this had been the intention of the parable, it has been rather botched in the telling, because in that case we should have expected both the priest and the Levite, in contrast to the Samaritan, to be the victim's neighbors in the conventional sense that they lived nearby.

The expert's question is more complex question and a sharper challenge to Jesus than it might seem, because the Scriptures have two quite different words for "neighbor."  This distinction is made in the Hebrew and Septuagint Greek texts of the Old Testament, and in the Greek text of the New Testament and in the Vulgate.  Unfortunately, it has not been preserved in any English version with which I am familiar.  Let us look a little closer.

The ordinary English word "neighbor" is used, primarily, to refer to someone who lives next door or nearby.  There are passages in the New Testament in which the word for "neighbor" (geiton) is used in the ordinary Greek sense of people who live nearby and can be expected to help in an emergency or take part in a celebration as in the parable of the woman who lost a coin.  When she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together to rejoice with her.

This is not, however, the word used either in the New Testament nor in the Septuagint Greek text of Leviticus [19:18] that Jesus is citing.  In those and many other passages, the expression is ho plesion, Latin proximus, which mean, roughly, the one nearby or in colloquial English, "the next man"—as in, "I like a pedantic Greek exposition of Scripture as much as the next man."  While these words can be used to designate a neighbor, their eaning is generally more inclusive and, in Scriptural translations, more precise.  The phrase ho plesion is used consistently in the Septuagint Greek version of the OT to translate a Hebrew word rea  meaning, roughly, someone to whom one is morally attached, as in friend, husband, or (perhaps most commonly) fellow-Jew.  It does not refer to people who just happen to live nearby. The distinction is clear in Exodus, where Jewish women, on the eve of the great departure, are instructed to "borrow" valuable items from their Egyptian next-door neighbors in order to despoil them.  The expert in the Torah, then, thinks the neighbors he is supposed to love are made up exclusively of kinsmen, friends, and fellow-Jews: no Gentiles or Samaritans—or perhaps even Galileans--need apply.

Indeed, Jewish commentators on the Torah have consistently maintained that the Law, including the Ten Commandments, applies differently or not at all when a Jew is dealing with a Gentile.  On the first and most obvious level, then, the parable is aimed at refuting the Jewish moral double standard and prejudice against non-Jews, an argument anticipated in prophetic books such as Jonah and Job. The parable does not, however, instruct us to be indifferent to human differences.  The man helped by the Samaritan is not a criminal or an invading enemy.  He is only an ordinary decent person requiring assistance.  He is not Everyman around the globe but an unfortunate fellow human being whom our common humanity requires us to help when we see him in misfortune.

The Jewish and thus the Christian notion of neighbor (in its moral, non-geograpnical sense) is not a universal term nor does it refer to someone we accidentally live near: It is rather more precise and even restrictive.  It is a moral bond, like brotherhood and friendship, and it does not extend to people trying to harm us or our children or to hypothetical strangers who may live a thousand miles away.  If we live next door to an anti-Christian abortionist, he is not our neighbor in the Christian sense, while if someone living a Christian life lives across town, he (even if his views are heretical or he belongs to a Christian sect we happen to loathe), he has certain moral claims on our time, resources, and attention.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

9 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    Dr. Fleming, When the Israelites left Egypt and went into what is now Israel, apparently there were 10 tribes. The tribe of Judah settled in what is now Jerusalem. They were instructed not to mingle or associate with their neighbor not only so as not to lose their identity but also so as not to be influenced by the culture of the inhabitants. They originally came from Ur in what is now Iraq. Moses lead them to this land. He stayed behind though because of his age. The land really didn’t belong to them but they believed that God led them there. Aren’t the Muslims in a way doing the same thing? I have wondered about this and feel foolish asking this question.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The question to address first is how to treat the narrative, whether as literal history or a mythical retelling of many centuries later. To avoid scandalizing the weaker brethren, I won’t answer that one. The Jews did not come from Ur though Abraham is said to have left Ur to begin his wanderings. They were a West Semitic people, indistinguishable in language and culture from other peoples of Canaan, who were all closely related to the Phoenicians. Indeed, Canaan is the Phoenician word for themselves. They would have probably entered Egypt as part of the coalition of Hyksos–nomadic tribes that overthrew Egypt temporarily and ruled the Delta. The Egyptians, as so many later nations, say that they got fed up with the aliens in their midst,while the Israelites say they escaped–but only after robbing neighbors who were kind to them. In the Scriptural account of the return to the Promised Land, they slaughtered innocent populations and refused to intermarry with them, but in later generations they deal with the problem of mixed marriage. Unfortunately Biblical inerrantists take the Jewish account of their own behavior literally and use it as justification for the state of Israel’s oppression of Arabs, both Christians and Muslims. On the other hand, the Muslim response has been so terrifying evil that they forfeit all sympathy. I think the only sane way for Americans to view this conflict is by first stripping it of its religious claims and to condemn and shun anyone so-called Christian who justifies murder and oppression by claiming divine sanction. We might begin with our own history and tell the truth about the larcenous homicidal maniac John Brown whose crimes helped to spark a war.

  3. Dot says:

    Dr. Fleming, Thank you for your response.

  4. Richie Alexei N. says:

    Catholics hate the atheism of socialism and the failure of state socialism. Even almost all the Israeli kibbutzes went belly up. A Fourier socialist like Bernie Sanders is much more honest, but will fail as much as the phony Welsh Rodham. Did FDR save the country or destroy it? Trotskyites hated FDR, but so did old Conservatives.

  5. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Leviticus [19:18]. Leviticus [19:34] says you should love the resident alien as yourself.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Mr. Van Sant, thanks for redirecting attention to this text and correcting my numbers which somehow got reversed. It parallels other passages in which Jews are instructed not to harm sojourning strangers. The English “resident alien” has modern legal connotations which sometimes help to explain but as often hinder our understanding of the position of proselytes in Israel. It would certainly not be applicable when speaking of Samaritans or ethno-religious groups regarded as hostile to the Jewish people.

    With the help of concordances I have gone over every passage, looked at the contexts. and tried to come up with a coherent picture. That is the only method I know of that avoids the proof-texting method adopted by preachers with a ax to grind.

  7. Ben says:

    John Brown The Meteor of The War as per Melville (about the only thing I recall from the tax funded Ken Burns work, besides Foote of course). DrTJF I do hope you can expand on Brown in this space, I find him both fascinating and terrifying especially in the context of all these POB Friend chapters…

  8. Robert Reavis says:

    I appreciate Dr. Flemings efforts and always find something delightful in his contributions of place and time as well as the customs surrounding Holy Scriptures at the time they were first recorded and the etymology of certain words used at the time holy traditions were reduced to writing. If I were interested in Lectio Divina and its methods, which certainly do not exclude learned interpretations such as Dr. Flemings, I would want to be taught by some anonymous Carthusian who jotted down notes during a lifetime of study, teaching and reading. Or some older contemplative who was not concerned so much with reaching a large public audience as simply offering his own small account of the many graces received from a lifetime of study and prayer . Plato’s comment ” But this much at any rate I can affirm about any present or future writers who pretend to knowledge of the matters with which I concern myself, whether they claim to have been taught by me or by a third party or to have discovered the truth for themselves; in my judgment it is impossible that they should have any understanding of the subject. No treatise by me concerning it exists or ever will exist. It is not something that can be put into words like other branches of learning; only after long partnership in a common life devoted to this very thing does truth flash upon the soul, like a flame kindled by a leaping spark, and once it is born there it nourishes itself thereafter.” And let’s not forget Aristotle was quite familiar with ” the common life devoted to this very thing” This type of interpretation can lead to a kind of gnostic cult which reserves the love of God to a “select few” while the methods of the late Father Raymond Brown or Rudolf Bultmann tend to deconstruct pre history to the point that only a 19th or 20th century gentleman scholar could understand the real meaning of holy texts, which simply reveals a different but similar type of “pride and prejudice” from a very different direction. Myth and Traditions are valuable and capable of revealing holy realities for adults just as fairy tales told from memory or read aloud are so healthy for small children. Provided of course they are true fairy tales and real honest to goodness traditions.

  9. Charles L says:

    Ben, Clyde Wilson recommends The Secret Six: John Brown and the Abolitionist Movement by Otto Scott. Great read. Sorry for the digression.