The View From Mars Hill, II: Christian Friendship

We have all heard the sermon on love, you know, the one that distinguishes between agape-love, eros-love, and philia love.  In some of the cruder versions, philia-love—that is friendship—is set to one side as an inferior, perhaps even pagan  kind of affection.  Preachers who make this argument either know a great deal more Greek than I do or else—and this seems to me most probable—they know none at all.

The Greek words philos and philia, as C.S. Lewis points out, refer to what is most essentially ours.  In Homer one can refer to one’s own body as philos, and in later Greek these words express a continuum that includes parents and siblings and gradually thins out to cover casual friendships.  While our Lord was still with us in human flesh, his followers called each other brothers or friends, and it was only when large numbers of Gentiles were converted that in Antioch they began to be known as Christians.  

Now, “brother” and “friend” are or at least used to be rather exclusive terms.  They did not refer to just anyone, much less everyone.  But, we are told by Progressive Christians and by the atheists who know what Christians are really supposed to believe, that true Christians have an undifferentiated love of all men.  After all we are called upon to love our enemy.  

Like most proof-texts taken out of context, this admonition is misleading.  For example, the Devil is often referred to as “the enemy.”  Are we supposed to love the devil?  What about his servants who do so much evil in the world?  If Atilla the Hun came rocking and rolling through our town, pillaging our homes and raping our wives, are we supposed to turn the other cheek and offer the Huns our daughters and sons?  Christian pacifists say, “Yes, of course!”

Much depends on a word, and the enemy our Lord, who is addressing Christian friends and brothers, asks us to love is an echthros, someone we are personally at odds with, not a polemios, a public enemy attacking our community, such as the Huns Turks or Mongols of the Middle Ages or street thugs today.   But, in answer, a Christian socialist or atheist will almost always invoke the story of the Good Samaritan, and draw the conclusion that we should concentrate our love not on our own families and communities but on the Third World.  This argument is in flat contradiction with the teachings of authentic Christianity which strongly emphasizes the particular duties enjoined on us toward family members, friends, and fellow-Christians.

Who Is My Neighbor?

The parable of the Good Samaritan is told after the 70 have returned from their mission and reported their miracles.  Our Lord thanks the Father for the blessings his disciples have received, adding that prophets and kings had desired but failed to see and hear those things that his followers have experienced.  So, even the greatest events in the Jewish tradition are being exceeded by the plain and ordinary people who have become Christ's disciples.   

At this point a “nomikos”—not a lawyer, but a man learned in the Torah—asks him what he should do to inherit eternal life.  When Jesus replies by spelling out the two Great Commandments—to love God and love your neighbor—the nit-picking nomikos, wanting to prove himself right, asks Him: "And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus' answer is the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Samaritans were despised by Jews who accused them of having intermarried with gentiles and of having corrupted their religion.  Jews and Samaritans 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. 

Then here is the situation: Jesus had openly challenged the claims of the Jewish tradition, and a traditional scholar has tried to trap him by asking Him to state the basic principles for a movement that traditional Jews see as a revolutionary challenge to Judaism.  What is at stake, in this interchange, is the moral adequacy of the Jewish tradition. 

For socialists, 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.  The legal expert's question is 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 also in the Latin Vulgate.  Unfortunately, it has not been preserved in any English version with which I am familiar, but my knowledge of translations is limited. 

The ordinary English word "neighbor" refers to someone who lives next door or nearby, German: nachbar, and in the New Testament it can be used to translate the Greek word for a "neighbor" (geiton), that is 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 finds a lost coin and calls her friends and neighbors together to rejoice with her.  

This is not, however, the word used either in Luke’s Gospel nor in the Septuagint Greek text of Leviticus [19:18] that Jesus is citing.  In those and many other passages, the Greek expression is ho plesion (Latin proximus), which mean, roughly, the one nearby. In colloquial English, we might say, "the next man"—as in, "I like a pedantic Greek exposition of Scripture as much as the next man."  The expression ho plesion is used in the Septuagint Greek version of the OT to translate a Hebrew word rea  which means, roughly, someone to whom one is morally obligated, as in friend, husband, or fellow-Jew.  It does not refer to people who just happen to reside in the vicinity, much less everyone on planet earth.  Indeed, it excludes Gentiles. 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 in an extreme case even Galileans--need apply. Remember Galilee lies beyond Samaria, and much of the territory was traded by Solomon to Hiram of Tyre in exchange for materials and craftsmen for the temple.  It was only reincorporated into the Jewish orbit by Aristoboulos about 103, roughly a hundred years before the birth of Christ.  This makes Nathaniel’s smart remark more intelligible: “Could any good thing come out of Nazareth?”  

The parable is aimed at refuting the Jewish moral double standard and prejudice against non-Jews, an argument anticipated in OT 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 respectable 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-geographical sense) is not a universal term nor does it refer to someone who accidentally lives nearby: It is rather more precise and more 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 of someone to whom we are attached morally, 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.  Ordinary people have limited resources for charity and, as the Church Fathers have taught, we must first take care of people to whom we are obliged by nature, as in members of our families, and then our obligation is to friends and brothers in the faith.

Christ was not reluctant to call his disciples his friends nor to describe his voluntary submission to torture and death as the action of a friend: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.  [John 15:13]  It is friendship and not the abstractions of atheist philosophers that is the foundation of Christian morality.

Friendship, which may exist at the lowly level of fishing buddies and brothers who have grown apart but continue to do favors for each other, may rise, as we mature, to a self-sacrificing love that brings us closer and closer to God.  Greater even than faith and hope, this concrete and pragmatic love of the other--and not any abstract conception of duty, rights, or equality--lies at the heart of the two Great Commandments enjoined by Jesus Christ.

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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

4 Responses

  1. Joshua Smith says:

    The annual Voltaire homily…even the good priests succumb.

  2. Harry Colin says:

    Excellent. So many lame sermons/homilies have poured forth from the mouths of clergy who know a whole lot less Greek than Dr. Fleming, and indeed, struggle enough with English.

    Facebook is a perfect illustration of what “friends” has come to mean in today’s America. An acquaintance, connected with over a thousand friends, recently appealed for help for her husband who was stricken at an early age with an aggressive cancer. Now whatever we might feel about crowd- funding, the fact that fewer than a dozen people have responded indicates the true value of all these “friends.” A modern illusion.

    As for ill-used quotations, I’ve long believed the adage, “text without context is pretext.”

  3. Brent says:

    Thank you for this cogent, helpful talk on a much abused passage of Scripture. What significance do you find in the fact that the question which prompts the telling of the parable is “Who is my neighbor?” gets flipped at the end, “Which of these three proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    First, it is our Lord’s rabbinical manner of asking a question as a response, but it shows us that the real topic is the moral inadequacy of the Jewish hierarchy and how to move beyond it. As the context of the passage shows, Jesus is redefining a Jewish moral term for the nomikos.