Many Christians talk about the importance of loving God and loving others, and rightly so. Jesus declared these to be the greatest commandments (Mark 12:28–34; see Deuteronomy 6:4–5 and Leviticus 19:18). The idea that we are to love others is sometimes more specifically stated as the call to love one’s neighbor as oneself. “Who is my neighbor?” becomes a natural question to ask.
The command to love one’s neighbor as oneself comes originally from Leviticus 19:18, which says, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” The Jews of Jesus’ day would largely have understood their “neighbor” to be their fellow Israelites. But God has a broader definition in mind. Loving one’s neighbor is more than simply loving those who are like us and who can love us in return.
Luke 10 records an incident in which a scribe, an expert on the Jewish law, tested Jesus about what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus turned the question back to the scribe (Luke 10:25–37). The scribe responded with the command to love God with all of one’s being and to love one’s neighbor as himself. Jesus affirmed the response. But the scribe, wanting to justify himself, asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied with the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
In the parable, a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is attacked and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest walking by sees the man but passes on the other side of the road. The same happens when a Levite travels through. In essence, two Jews, both of whom were from the priestly line of Israelites and should have known and followed God’s law, failed to show love to their fellow Israelite in need. However, Jesus said, along came a Samaritan, a person generally disdained by the Jews because of cultural and religious differences. And it was the Samaritan who stopped to help the injured man. He cared for the man’s wounds and paid for him to stay at an inn. In short, a person whom the Jews would have considered “unclean” and outside of God’s covenant demonstrated compassion for one who would have considered him an enemy. Jesus asked the scribe which of the three passersby was a neighbor to the injured man. “The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (Luke 10:37).
Our neighbor is thus anyone in our proximity with whom we can share God’s love. We are called not only to love those who are similar to us or with whom we are comfortable, but all whom God places in our path. In fact, Jesus said, “I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:44–48). God shows love to all people (John 3:16–18; Romans 1:19–20; 2 Peter 3:9). As His children (John 1:12), we are called to do the same.
It is important to understand what true love is. We love people by genuinely seeking what is best for them. Loving others does not mean agreeing with everything they say or do, nor does it mean acting in ways that always gain their approval. Loving our neighbors means attending to their needs—both physical and spiritual. We love our neighbors when we, like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable, have compassion for them and help meet their needs as we are able. We love our neighbors best when we share God’s truth with them. Jesus alone can save (John 14:6; Acts 4:12), and He alone can meet people’s every need.
We love our neighbors, including our neighbors who seem like enemies to us, when we act toward them with a heart that first loves God. We love our neighbors out of an overflow of God’s love for us and as a way of demonstrating our love toward God (1 John 4:7–12; Colossians 4:5–6; 1 Peter 3:15–16).