Among the Israelites in pre-Christian times, the neighborly bond was particularly characteristic because of this people’s standing with God as His covenant people. The covenant with Abraham (Gen 12:1-3) automatically created among his descendants moral obligations toward one another which are best summed up in the words of Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In this v. the “neighbor” is defined by the parallel expression “sons of your own people.” Treatment of one’s neighbor was an important gauge of righteousness in Israel. Refusal to respect the rights of one’s neighbors is a highlight of the moral disintegration which provokes national punishment (Isa 3:5; Jer 9:4-9; Mic 7:5, 6).

Though almost all the OT’s emphasis is upon neighborliness among Israelites, the term is used also of those outside Israel, as the Egyptians (Exod 3:22; 11:2; Ezek 16:26). This broadened sense did not impress the formulators of Jewish tradition, however, for when Jesus came He found the teaching of the rabbis to be much narrower than could ever have been implied in the original statement of the law. The traditional interpretation is found in Matthew 5:43: “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” According to this false understanding, “neighbor” is limited to “fellow Israelite” and hatred of non-Israelites is the inescapable deduction from the Gentiles’ being omitted in Leviticus 19:18.

The Lord’s correction of this erroneous understanding of “neighbor,” based upon the spirit of the law and not just the letter, is “Love your enemies” (Matt 5:44). In other words, Christ’s concept of “neighbor” embraces all men. Thus the responsibility to love is much more rigorous than the Pharisees were willing to admit. This is not to say, as modern theology commonly does, that all men are spiritual brothers and God is the Father of all. Rather, the world neighborhood concept goes no further than to dictate the obligation of universal love, because even an opponent falls into this category.

Further amplification of this broadened definition lies in the incident of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). The lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” receives its answer by way of illustration. From the lips of the lawyer “neighbor” excluded all Gentiles, but Christ’s corrective expanded the meaning by criticizing the wording of the question. The proper emphasis would be “To whom am I neighbor? Whose claim on neighborly help do I recognize?” The priest and the Levite were neighbors to the victim by race, and the Samaritan was neighbor only by geography. Yet the alien was the only one to recognize the truth that “it is not place, but love, which makes neighborhood.” The lawyer asks, “Who as my neighbor has a claim upon my love?” But his question reveals his failure to grasp the spirit of the commandment to love his neighbor. It is not a question of how narrowly one can restrict his neighborhood, but rather how broadly he can enlarge his devotion to his fellowman. Undoubtedly the lawyer was dismayed at not being given an academic answer with Talmudic precision. In its place, the truth was driven home that depending upon his own willingness to love, anyone could become his neighbor.

There are, however, a few NT illustrations of “neighbor” to denote one who is an opponent and not the object of love (Acts 7:27; James 4:12). In such cases, however, the resort is to the root idea of “outward nearness.” Yet even here, the absence of love is not condoned.


J. A. Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (1886), 121-125; A. H. M’Neile, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1915), 71-73; A. Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke (5th ed., 1922), 283-289; R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (1951), I, 18, 19, 344, 345; H. F. Beck, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1962), III, 534, 535.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(rea`, `amith, "friend," qarobh, shakhen; ho plesion, "near" geiton, (compare 2 Macc 6:8; 9:25), "inhabitant"; Latin proximus (2 Esdras 15:19), civis (2 Esdras 9:45; 10:2, the Revised Version margin "townman")):

1. As Described in the Old Testament:

2. As Described in the New Testament:

D. Miall Edwards