Who Is My Neighbor?

But he, desiring to justify himself, said unto Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)

The Washington Post published an article entitled “Judgment Days” by Stephanie McCrummen on July 21, 2018. In it Ms. McCrummen interviewed many members of First Baptist Church in Luverne, Alabama, regarding their support of Donald Trump and their convictions as those who profess the Lord Jesus Christ. Within one of these interviews, ostensibly without provocation, one such member, Sheila Butler affirmed her confidence in America as a Christian nation and declared that “love thy neighbor as thyself,” quoted by Jesus as part of the foundation of the law and prophets in Matthew 22:39-40, meant “love thy American neighbor.” The “least of these my brethren” of Matthew 25:31-46 are Americans, according to Sheila Butler (“God, Trump, and the meaning of morality”; accessed 07/25/2018).

We might wonder what Jesus would say to Sheila Butler about her beliefs about His words. In this situation we need not wonder; Jesus Himself encountered an Israelite who felt the same way about Israel.

This Israelite shared a lot in common with Sheila Butler. He believed fervently in the God of Israel; he was proud to be part of his nation and ethnicity, and thought it was special to God. He asked Jesus the right question, one Sheila Butler may have asked before as well: what shall I do to inherit eternal life (Luke 10:25)? When Jesus asked this Israelite what he thought of the answer based on the Law, his response was of great value, one with which Sheila Butler would no doubt agree: you shall love YHWH your God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:26; cf. Leviticus 19:18, Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus also agreed with the answer, and told him to do so and he would live (Luke 10:26).

But the conversation did not end there. This Israelite, a lawyer by trade, wanted to justify himself, to demonstrate how he was in the right in his present circumstance with his present attitudes. And so he asked Jesus: who is my neighbor (Luke 10:29)?

The Israelite assumed and acted as if his neighbor were his fellow Israelite. One could make an argument for this based in the Law and its treatment of Israelites versus the nations; it would certainly be taken as the standard practice of the day, since Israelites wanted as little involvement as possible with “Gentiles,” people of the nations; “Gentiles” was seen a pejorative term, equivalent to sinner and unclean (cf. Matthew 18:17, Acts 10:28). The Israelite would have had little reason to envision his neighbors in a universal sense; everything in his upbringing and culture privileged his fellow Israelites. This is likely true of Sheila Butler as well.

Jesus immediately perceived the two issues behind the question, and spoke to the real issues in a parable (Luke 10:30-36). Jesus spoke of an unfortunate Israelite who fell among robbers and left for dead. Exemplary members of his people, a priest and a Levite, perceive his condition, but not wanting to become unclean they passed him by.

Then someone came by who was not one of his people: a Samaritan. For Israelites, Samaritans were half-breeds, people who claimed a relationship with YHWH as their God of covenant who actually derived from the nations the Assyrians introduced into the land of Israel: when they were not active opponents of the Israelites of Judah, they remained a perpetual reminder of the exile and humiliation of Israel (cf. 2 Kings 17:24-41). John put it mildly when he said Jews have no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9).

The Samaritan would have known all of this; he would have also perceived the injured man to be an Israelite. And yet the Samaritan was moved with compassion toward the injured Israelite, bound up his wounds, poured oil on them, and brought him to lodging, giving the money he had and pledging a bit more if necessary.

And then, Jesus’ question: among the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan, who proved to be the neighbor to the Israelite who fell among the robbers (Luke 10:36)?

There was no escape. The Israelite lawyer, no doubt, did not like the answer, but it was the only answer which could be given. He could not bring himself to say “the Samaritan”; instead, he says, “the one who showed him mercy” (Luke 10:37). Jesus told him to go and do likewise (Luke 10:37).

The Israelite’s rationalizing question suffered from two flaws: not only was it an attempt to be restrictive of a broader command of God, it betrayed a person more interested in drawing lines than fulfilling the command. Jesus chose the characters of His story deliberately: priests and Levites were to minister to the Israelites and should have known the Law and its expectations, and yet they did nothing, more concerned about their personal cleanliness than the welfare of a fellow member of the people of God, prioritizing the cleanliness code over displaying love and mercy. Today we speak highly of “good Samaritans”; to Israel, there was no good Samaritan, and to see a half-breed prove more righteous than priests and Levites would stick in the Israelite craw.

The modern version of the story tells itself. A good Christian family, broken down on the side of the road, is assaulted by a motorcycle gang and left for dead. A deacon of a local Evangelical church drives by, sees them, but has to get his family to church on time; a pastor and his family drives by as well and likewise keeps going. An undocumented El Salvadoran immigrant drives by and sees the family in a terrible condition. He has compassion on the family, stops, and gives aid and assistance.

We also do well to notice how Jesus framed the indicting question: who proved to be neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers? He did not ask who his neighbor was; by common agreement, the priest and Levite were both neighbors by virtue of being fellow Israelites in close geographic proximity. Jesus is not interested in that. He is interested instead in who proves to be the neighbor: who loved his fellow man as himself?

It was the Samaritan. In our modern update, it is the undocumented El Salvadoran immigrant. It is not about what we profess. It is about how we act and what we demonstrate by our behaviors.

It would be easy to heap up scorn on Sheila Butler; such would be misguided. Her greatest fault is in speaking explicitly what is most often maintained implicitly, with coded language and an attempted bifurcation between certain political ideologies and spiritual realities. In terms of these issues at least Sheila Butler maintains a civic religion, an explicitly American faith, presuming America as a Christian nation with Americans as a privileged and chosen people. We could chastise Sheila Butler for this, but we do better to recognize that Sheila Butler believes these things because she was taught these things: perhaps not always explicitly, but certainly implicitly. People are far better at teasing out the implications of the things that are taught than we would like to admit. She, after all, did not come up with all of this out of nowhere.

Christianity was never meant to be a civic religion; Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings, reigning over a transcendent Kingdom over all nation-states, and the exclusive property of none of them (Colossians 1:13, Philippians 3:20-21, Revelation 19:15-16). God loves undocumented people as much as American citizens. We are to prove to be neighbors to anyone and everyone: we must give precedence to fellow Christians, yet must do good to all (Galatians 6:10).

Yet we are all liable to the same error of the Israelite lawyer and Sheila Butler: taking a commandment of God and adding qualifiers to it which He did not establish and did not imagine. YHWH said for Israelites to love their neighbors as themselves, and it did have implication for the foreigner and sojourner in their midst; the Israelite lawyer had no justification to limit the command to fellow Israelites. In teaching this Israelite lawyer Jesus made it plain to His people they must prove to be neighbors to anyone and everyone (Luke 10:30-37); Sheila Butler, and those who taught her, have no justification to limit “neighbor” to their fellow Americans.

Jesus pronounced many commands people prove more than willing and able to circumscribe in ways which did not enter His mind or imagination. These are difficult commands, explicitly countercultural: turn the other cheek. Leave vengeance to God. Do good to everyone. Love everyone. Give without expecting to receive in return. Suffer without responding in kind (cf. Matthew 5:20-58, Luke 6:27-42; cf. Romans 12:17-21, 1 Peter 2:18-25).

Our culture and upbringing will give us reason to think it extreme to believe Jesus meant such things without qualification. Plenty of preachers and teachers will prove all too willing to provide those qualifications and to make fine distinctions, all of which are designed to justify themselves. People like to hear it; they like to have their consciences thus assuaged.

It is just as wrong to add to the Word of God as it is to take away from it. It is not for us to qualify or limit the commandments God has given in Jesus; it is given for us to accomplish them. May we all prove to be neighbors to our fellow man of any and all nationalities, and seek to embody all of the commands of the Lord Jesus, however counter-cultural and counter-intuitive, so that we may glorify Him and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Ezra the Scribe

This Ezra went up from Babylon: and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given; and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the LORD his God upon him (Ezra 7:6).

Ezra proves to be a pivotal person in the history of Israel.

Ezra is a priest descended from Aaron through Zadok (cf. Ezra 7:1-5), but that is not touted as his claim to fame. Instead, it is his role as a “scribe skilled in the Law of Moses” which is prominently featured in his career (Ezra 7:6). He devoted his life to studying the Law of the LORD so that he could teach it to his fellow Israelites (Ezra 7:10); it was for this purpose that Artaxerxes king of Persia sent him to Jerusalem (cf. Ezra 7:11-28). The community of returned exiles recognizes this authority granted to Ezra and proves willing to change their behavior on account of his teachings and pleadings (cf. Ezra 9:1-10:44). The Israelites are listening to and heeding the message of the Law of Moses as read and taught by Ezra the scribe (cf. also Nehemiah 8:1-8). What is astounding is that such is the first recorded instance of such behavior since the days of Joshua; Ezra is the first person described in the Old Testament as a “scribe skilled in the Law of Moses.” How can that be?

Does this mean that there were no scribes skilled in the Law of Moses before Ezra? This is unlikely; there probably were some such scribes in Israel before the exile. For whatever reason they did not gain sufficient prominence to be noted in the text. They also were likely in the minority; even though God commanded the Levites to continually read the Law before the kings of the land (Deuteronomy 17:18-20) and before all the people at the Feast of Booths every seven years (Deuteronomy 31:10-13), the prophets condemned the priests for their negligence in teaching the people (e.g. Hosea 4:4-10). If priests were reading the Law, it certainly was not being reflected in the behavior of the kings or the people!

Perhaps because the Law was not being read as it should, or perhaps for other reasons, the prophets feature prominently in the days between Joshua and Ezra. God speaks directly to the kings and to the people through the prophets; the prophets were held in somewhat high esteem even though the people often did not heed their messages. God spoke through the prophets throughout the days of the kings, through the exile, and even after some of the people returned to the land. But even then there is a difference: certain questions are put aside until a priest should arrive with Urim and Thummim (cf. Ezra 2:63). The prophets Haggai and Zechariah exhort the people to finish the (second) Temple in 520 BCE; Malachi prophesies to the people at some point afterward. Otherwise we have no other recorded messages from any prophets at this time; by the second century BCE there is admission that there are no prophets in the land.

Ezra stands at this major juncture in Israelite history. The hand of the LORD is upon him in his diligence in studying the Law of Moses to teach the people. He is often reckoned to be the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles and Ezra; if he himself did not write them, someone very much like him or associated with him did. As such, he is one of the final “prophets” of the Old Testament period, yet one whose authority is vested in his understanding and explanation of the Law of Moses. From this point on the prophets fade; in their place come the lawyers and the scribes. Such figures feature prominently in the Gospels; Jesus chides and condemns them for their hypocrisy, their arrogance, and their inconsistencies, but never denigrates the profession itself or considers it unnecessary or unworthy (cf. Matthew 23:1-35). In fact, Jesus and the Apostles validate the role of the text and its interpreters; they are filled with the Holy Spirit, can prophesy, and yet their arguments and discussions throughout are based on texts and the proper interpretation of those texts. Consider any of the messages of the prophets by the “word of the LORD” compared to, say, Peter’s preaching in Acts 2:14-36, or even Paul in Acts 17:16-32. Texts and their interpretation feature much more prominently than they did during the days of the kings.

Ezra’s example should provide us with encouragement today. We also live during a time when there is no prophet in the land (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:8-10). We have not been granted new revelation since the end of the first century, and we have no reason to expect any new revelation until the Lord returns (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Jude 1:3). Yet, as with Israel in the fifth century BCE, so with us today: it is not as if God has left us without guidance or a way forward. We have the revelations regarding God and His purposes for mankind in the Bible; we can set our hearts to seek to know the will of God as revealed through Jesus Christ and His Apostles (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15, 3:16-17). We do not need a prophet to tell us the will of God for us today; we have that will already revealed in the Scriptures. It has been sufficient, is sufficient, and will continue to be sufficient to equip God’s people to conform to the image of Jesus to the glory and honor of God the Father until Jesus returns in triumph. It is for us to learn from the Good Book and seek to live what it says.

It is good to learn the message of the Bible, to seek to properly interpret it, and then put it into practice in life. Let us, like Ezra, set our hearts to understand the will of God, always seeking His wisdom and guidance, so that the hand of God may be upon us for good and that we may live so as to give glory to His name!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus the High Priest

Wherefore also [Jesus] is able to save to the uttermost them that draw near unto God through him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:25).

What is a priest?

It seems like a very easy question, but it might take us a minute. It is a lot easier to describe what a priest does, particularly in the Old Testament, than it is to actually define him. He is the one who offers the sacrifices, maintains the Tabernacle/Temple, and instructs the people (Leviticus). How can all of these be brought together?

We can settle on a fairly basic definition: a priest is a designated man who stands between God and the people. The people bring their sacrifices for God to the Temple; the priests offer them. The priests enter the places the “regular people” cannot go.

In that sense, Jesus, by definition, is the ultimate priest– He is the Mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). He stands between God and us in a most powerful way.

The Hebrew author describes Jesus as the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:10) based on the prophecy found in Psalm 110:4. Jesus, like Melchizedek before Him, is both King and Priest (cf. Genesis 14:18, Hebrews 7:1-3), itself an extraordinary matter and responsibility.

Yet Jesus fulfills this task to an extent not seen before. Priests, by virtue of their work, sacrifice animals. They themselves cannot be the sacrifice– in fact, the high priest must first sacrifice for his own sins before he can enter in and make sacrifice on behalf of the people (Leviticus 6:6, 11; Hebrews 7:27). Jesus, on the other hand, offers up Himself, the perfect, unblemished Lamb who can take away the sin of the whole world (John 1:29, Hebrews 7:27-28).

He is able to do this because He was sinless, holy, undefiled, and separate from sinners, but is not really distant– He can sympathize with our weaknesses, having been tempted Himself in all points, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15) and having learned obedience through the things He suffered (Hebrews 5:8).

This ought to leave us breathless, really. A perfect mixture of holiness and humility, righteousness and love, separation and sympathy. Jesus is never sanctimonious, for He upholds the right while being willing to suffer with people, sympathizing with their plight. His ministry is all the more excellent because He was willing to suffer death so that we might be reconciled to God and live (Romans 5:6-11, Hebrews 5:6-9)! Thus Jesus is able to save us to the uttermost, inaugurating a new and superior covenant!

It is immediately apparent that no matter how righteously we might live we will never be anywhere near reaching the perfect ministry of Christ. That high priesthood in the order of Melchizedek is properly suited for One and only One, and we are not Him! We ought to thank God continually for such a perfect and wonderful High Priest!

Nevertheless, in establishing the new covenant and being the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, Jesus changes the nature of priesthood entirely (cf. Hebrews 7-9). Much is often made of the description of all Christians as priests in 1 Peter 2:5, 9, but consider what is being said in those passages. In 1 Peter 2:9, Peter uses many descriptions of physical Israel to describe the spiritual Israel– Christians are as much an “elect race” and “holy nation” as a “royal priesthood.” Furthermore, what do we find in 1 Peter 2:5? Christians are being built up into a holy (spiritual) Temple, to be a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices. And what is that spiritual sacrifice but ourselves (Romans 12:1)? A strange priesthood this is– we are as much the sacrifice as the priest!

This is all because of Jesus’ example. Jesus did not offer up some other person or animal; He offered up Himself, and thus established Himself as the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. The New Testament does not emphasize “priesthood” at all– servants, disciples, brothers and sisters are more appropriate images– but when it does, it focuses on that idea of the priest offering up himself as the sacrifice like Jesus did.

Therefore, as we are able, we do well to follow Jesus’ example. Today He is the only One who stands between God and the people (1 Timothy 2:5); we point to Him to show people the face of God and how to live as redeemed believers made in His image (Genesis 1:27, John 1:18). Our ministry is to offer up ourselves, spiritual sacrifices well-pleasing to God. Let us praise God for and serve our Risen Lord and High Priest!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Imperative of Doing Good

To him therefore that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin (James 4:17).

It is very easy to measure ourselves by the standard of that which we are not doing. If we are not murderers, rapists, adulterers, liars, covetous, drunkards, and so on, we feel like we are doing well. After all, how do most people define a “good, moral person?” If somebody seems nice, is not a bother to anyone, and not living in some obvious sin, they’re “good, moral people.”

We do well if we are able to avoid committing various acts of sin. We should not be murderers, rapists, adulterers, liars, and the like (Galatians 5:19-21). But it is not sufficient for us to simply avoid doing evil– we must also practice what is good and right!

James makes a declaration that is very uncomfortable. To not do the good when we have opportunity is sin, just like committing various unrighteous acts involves sin!

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we see the terrible sins of the robbers, beating up the poor man and taking all of his things (Luke 10:30). If the priest and the Levite had seen the events take place, they would no doubt have decried the action as terrible. Perhaps they might even complain about the depravity of their generation. Yet they are as guilty of sin as the robbers– they had the opportunity to do good and did not do it (Luke 10:31-32). Even though they themselves did not beat him or take his stuff, they stand equally condemned before God because they simply walked on by and did nothing good for the man!

James’ statement shatters the pretensions of many. To turn aside from helping the needy is no different from plundering them (James 1:27). To refuse to show compassion to the disconsolate is no different from hurting them in the first place (1 John 3:17). Not showing love to others is no different from actually hating them (cf. 1 John 4). While we humans may find an act of omission to be of less concern than an act of commission, sin is sin before God, and it separates us from Him (Isaiah 59:1-2)!

Society may declare that people who do not commit a lot of “major” sins as “good, moral people,” but God is concerned with not only what people do not do, but also with what people are doing. Serving Jesus means both avoiding sin and practicing righteousness– showing love, mercy, compassion, kindness, goodness, patience, and the like. Let us be known as Jesus’ disciples by who we are and what we do, and not by who we are not and what we do not do!

Ethan R. Longhenry