The Biblical Definition of Our Neighbor
and Our Responsibility to Help Him
Contrary to what you may have been led to believe: (1) the Bible does not teach that everyone in the entire world is our neighbor; (2) the Bible does teach that our duty to assist strangers is a limited one; and (3) the Bible teaches that our responsibilities to those nearest us in kinship must be our priority.
by Stuart DiNenno
In our ever-increasingly socialized and egalitarian society, we are constantly being bombarded with messages from many sources, both within and without the churches, telling us of our responsibility to help the foreigner in the distant land and to care for the poor stranger in our own country, either with our own money or our own labor. Whether it is hungry African children, poor Jews in Ukraine, or immigrants and refugees being brought into our own land, the message is the same — we must do something to provide for these people. Whoever they are and wherever they are, we have a responsibility to help them, or so we are told.
However, before we leap into action based on a reflexive response to these tugs on our heartstrings, it is wise to stop and consider what our responsibilities are in the sight of God. In particular, because we are told to love our neighbor, we need to know the biblical definition of a neighbor and we need to know what is our duty toward that neighbor when he is in need.
Although many of the people who promote charitable giving to foreigners and strangers may appear to have the best of intentions, and may indeed believe themselves to be acting only out of benevolence, one important point to bear in mind whenever we hear any message asking us to do something based on our brotherhood toward all men, is this: the apostate world, just as in the days of the tower of Babel, is constantly pushing for the unification of all mankind. In the Babel account (Genesis 11:1-9), “lest we be scattered” was the worst thing they believed could happen to them. And so it is today. As 20th century theologian R. J. Rushdoony said, “They seek to create an order, not one that deals with moral evil and depravity, but simply with the face of disunity. Let us bring all nations together in our tower of Babel, let us bring all races and peoples and languages and tongues together and integrate them. Let us integrate all churches and all religions, let us make all one, that we may overcome this, the greatest of evils: ‘lest we be scattered‘.”
This has always been the aim of the ungodly as we see in atheistic Marxism: “…Marxism advances internationalism, the amalgamation of all nations into a higher unity.” “The aim of socialism is not only to abolish the present division of mankind into small states and end all national isolation; not only to bring the nations closer together, but to merge them…” (V. I. Lenin). Naturally, to accomplish their end of unification, they must convince us that every man in the world is our neighbor, therefore, we all have a duty to help everyone else. The message we constantly hear from such people is that we are all one, we are all equal, and we all share the same world; so we need to put aside our divisions, love one another, and help one another.
Messages such as this, to the undiscerning listener, sound much like a Christian message. Like every other good lie pertaining to religion, there is a certain amount of truth contained in these statements, and there is some correlation between them and the Christian message. The Bible teaches that every man is related, all being descended from the first man Adam. We are all the offspring of him who was created in the image of God, and we have all inherited the corruption that came with his fall from grace. Therefore, there is a sense in which we are all brothers and it naturally follows that there is a sense in which we are all to love one another. We are unified by a common humanity and a necessary consequence of this fact is that we have certain responsibilities to help all men.
But it is also true that within our common humanity, God has ordained that there be divisions. National divisions, which have always been based on the blood relationship of the ethnic group, are not merely something that sinful men instituted. (Note: the word “nation” in our English Bibles is a translation of the Greek word “ethnos” from which ethnic is derived). These national divisions were instituted by God and then later enforced by the confusion of tongues at Babel. Rebellious mankind was forcibly divided by God through the means of differences created in language.
Contrary to what is often taught today in the churches — whose teaching is at variance on this point with what was taught by the Reformed Church in the past — the New Testament does not abolish such national divisions. This is seen most clearly in the story of the pouring out of the Spirit of God upon the apostles assembled in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). The miracle was that the Jews in attendance from all nations heard the message each one in his own native language, because the Spirit miraculously caused the apostles to speak the word of God in the native tongues of the hearers. If the national divisions that were enforced at Babel were to be undone at that time, and they were to come together as one nation, then why did God maintain the language divisions? Keep in mind, He could just as easily have made them all understand one language. But every man heard in his own distinct language and every man returned to his own separate nation.
Acts 17:26 gives us a very clear and concise definition of “the one and the many” nature of mankind. It tells us that God “…hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.” Note that we are said to be one blood yet many nations, and that God has set the boundaries of our habitations. So there is a sense in which we are one and united with all men everywhere, but there is a sense in which we are many and separated from others — first at the national level, and then within that division, we are further divided by blood loyalties into what could be called the extended family (which we may call our tribe) and then, of course, the immediate family, which is the basic building block of society.
So we need to recognize that we have both a commonality with, and a duty to, all men everywhere, and a more particular loyalty and responsibility to those more closely related to us. As Christian theologian Francis Nigel Lee said: “…we should preserve our kinship and our nationality, while also recognizing our common humanity with people of different kindreds and of different nations.”
And, of course, we would put ourselves under an impossible burden if we were to try to help everyone in the world because we are limited by space and time. It is true that we have certain responsibilities to help our fellow man but this must necessarily have limitations due to our own limitations. We cannot universalize this responsibility; it must, out of necessity, be applied particularly and it is best done in person locally, rather than over a long distance through an intermediary.
But despite whatever restrictions we may have, there is no denying that we have a duty to love our neighbor. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is a fundamental part of the law of God. And if we are to properly observe this law, then we must answer two questions for ourselves according to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures: Who is our neighbor? And how are we to love him? These questions are addressed in the parable of the Good Samaritan contained in Luke 10:30-36.
The context in which the parable was given is a conversation between a self-righteous lawyer and Jesus Christ. The lawyer had just asked Jesus, “Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Rather than answering, Christ put the question back on the lawyer with His own questions, “What is written in the law? how readest thou?” He correctly answers, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.” Jesus commends the lawyer for answering correctly and then tells him that doing these things are the way to life. “But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?” Christ then answers him with the illustrative story of the Good Samaritan.
The Good Samaritan was a traveler and he happened upon a man who had been beaten by thieves and then left by the roadside. Most likely the injured man was an Israelite because he had been traveling between Jerusalem and Jericho, two Israelite cities not far apart. Two men of the Israelite religious ministry, a levite and a priest, whom one would expect to be the examples of mercy to someone in need, had previously seen the injured man but ignored him. The Samaritan, however, although he was a stranger himself of a different ethnic group, took the injured man to an inn, tended to his wounds, and took care of him overnight. Then before leaving the next day, he paid the innkeeper enough so that the man could remain there, and be provided for, until he had recovered from his injuries. He showed great kindness and compassion. But notice that the Samaritan is not said to have taken the ailing stranger back to the Samaritan’s home, nor did he devote a large amount of his time attending to the stranger. In fact, he did nothing beyond temporarily helping the man to heal before going back to his usual affairs. We can also observe that the Samaritan was not out looking for people to help at the time he found this wounded stranger, nor was he going at all out of the way of his normal business when he happened upon the injured man.
Our neighbor, according to the parable, is any man in dire need of help whom we encounter during the general course of our lives. The story teaches that we are obliged to assist such a person, according to our ability, as God gives us opportunity. Whether he be of our own nationality, or a stranger and foreigner, he is to us, at least during such emergency circumstances, a neighbor. If we were to find an injured man on the side of the road, that would not be the time to inquire into his religious opinions, political views, or citizenship status. As biblical commentator Matthew Henry says in his exposition on this passage: “…show mercy to those that need thy help, and do it freely, and with concern and compassion, though they be not of thy own nation and thy own profession…” However, it is important to note that the parable teaches nothing beyond assisting during a temporary emergency as the opportunity to do so providentially arises. It does not — nor does any other passage in the Bible — require us to sacrifice our lives to the service of the poor; it does not require us to relinquish our property, or the use of it, to strangers; and it does not require us to go out of our way looking for the victims of crime or of any other calamity.
Of course, the example in the story also does not bar us from doing any of these things. We may voluntarily choose to make such sacrifices to help others. If we desire to go to Africa and help drill wells in drought-stricken communities so that the people there can have clean water, we may do so, although we need to be preaching the gospel to the people there as well as providing temporal assistance. If we want to donate money to help starving children somewhere, we may do so, although all such giving should be done through the church. And if we want to help refugees from war-torn countries, we may do so, if they truly are fleeing destruction and not just here trying to take advantage of our generous social welfare system. These can be good works, and those who wish to do them, should not be discouraged from doing them. And, of course, there are those who are sent out by the church to preach the gospel and make disciples in foreign lands, and part of their work can be providing assistance to the local people with their temporal needs. But we need to understand that God does not require everyone to devote his life to such missionary work, nor does He require all of us to sacrifice our lives in order to provide for strangers and foreigners, and we should not feel guilty if we are doing no more than what is exemplified in the behavior of the Samaritan.
Seeing that the limit of our responsibility toward strangers in need is to help them when they are encountered during the course of our everyday lives, and to provide them assistance temporarily according to our ability to do so, then we can surely discern that, although we may voluntarily choose to do more than the Samaritan did, we are not compelled by duty to do anything beyond his example, and we most certainly are never required to do things that are destructive to ourselves or our families for the sake of benefiting strangers. To do this latter thing would, in fact, be sin because the Bible teaches that our primary duty is to our nearest kin, and that those who fail to provide for their own family members are worse than infidels (1 Timothy 5:8). An example to illustrate: If a Christian who is sexually continent chooses to remain single and devote his life to helping the poor, then that may be a good work. But if a married man and woman with children choose to do the same, and their ministry to strangers takes away from their children’s welfare, then they are not doing a good work. Their primary ministry must be to the children that God has given them and any neglect of that, even if it is done in the name of Christian charity, is sin.
Likewise, if we work to help strangers, but in so doing we are causing detriment to our own people in our local communities or our nations, then we are also sinning. An example of this may be seen in the invasion that we have been experiencing in modern America during recent decades, which is euphemistically called immigration. We have had an enormous number of foreigners come into our land over the last fifty years. And many would have us begin by asking ourselves what our responsibility is to these people. But prior to this, we must first determine what is our responsibility to our own people. We have concentric circles of decreasing responsibility that move outward from us like the ripples created by a pebble tossed in a pond — our first responsibility is to ourselves (because we cannot help others if we are weak), next is our duty to our immediate families, then to our extended families (or tribes), then to our nations, and lastly to all of mankind. We can see this hierarchy of affinity, loyalty, and responsibility exemplified throughout the biblical history of the nation of Israel where, under normal circumstances, priorities were given to the family, then the tribe, and then the nation over the stranger and the foreigner. This is the model that we ought to follow and if, in our Christian zeal to help the physically unrelated or geographically distant stranger, we do harm to any of those who are nearer to us in this social order of kinship, then our good works are not good works at all.