The word “VeAhavta” is Hebrew; it was a part of a language that Jesus of Nazareth spoke in Palestine approximately 2,000 years ago. “VeAhavta” is a verb, active in voice and imperative in form, which means, “You shall love.” As such, “VeAhavta” is a word that demands obedience because it is spoken as an order or a command. It is not a word that offers the hearer a choice in the matter. The word means, “You shall love,” not “you may love if you would like; that is up to you.” VeAhavta is a very important word in the Bible because of what it means and the manner in which Jesus and other Jews faithfully used it then and still use it today. The Gospels contain several examples of Jesus’ use of the word “VeAhavta,” including one that nicely illustrates the uncompromising nature of the word when its object is the noun, “neighbor.”
In Matthew 22:36-39, a Torah lawyer is reported to have asked Jesus, “Rabbi, which of the mitzvot [usually translated as “commandments”] in the Torah is the most important?” Jesus responded, “‘You shall love [that is, “VeAhavta”] Adonai your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’ This is the greatest and most important mitzvah. And a second is similar to it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.” In Luke, it is reported that the lawyer asked Jesus the follow-up question, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29.)* Phrased another way, Jesus was asked, “Who exactly is it that I should love as myself?” As was typical for the Jewish sages of his time, Jesus responds with a parable and a question of his own (Luke 10:30-36) which demonstrate that his approach toward defining the word “neighbor” is wholly different from the norm.
Initially, it is important to notice a very significant but often overlooked aspect of the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” – that is, what Jesus omits from the story. Notice in particular what we are not told about the half-dead man lying in the road. We are not told anything about what he looks like other than he is naked and “half dead” because of the beating he received. We are not told what color his skin is. We are not told what his religion is. We are not told what his nationality is. We are not told if he is a rich man or a poor man. We are not told anything about his character – the man could have been a murderer or he could have been a saint. The man never asks for help and since Jesus says he is “half dead,” it’s not likely that he could have asked for help.
After hearing this parable, most people would probably have expected Jesus to ask, “Was the dying man on the road a ‘neighbor’ or not?” or, “Which of the four characters in this story should you consider to be your ‘neighbor’?” Such questions would have compelled the listener to focus on the identities of the players in Jesus’ little drama and would seem to fit the natural focus of the question that the lawyer asked. If asked to define who is a “neighbor,” most people will sort others into somewhat fixed and usually subjective classes or categories – such as race, religion or economic status – and will then define “neighbor” by the category they assign each person to, finally advising, “This person is your neighbor, but this person is not,” or “These groups of people are your neighbors, but these groups of people are not.”
But Jesus does not permit his listeners to entertain such an outwardly focused response; he never asks if any of the four characters in the parable is a “neighbor.” Jesus’ question – which of the three men acted like a neighbor to the injured man on the road? – tacitly assumes that all of the characters in the parable are “neighbors,” that is people worthy to be loved, and so he eliminates the possibility that “neighbor” can be defined by reference to some contrived or subjective class or category of persons. This is so because all human beings are created equal; everyone falls into the same “primary category,” if you will, because every single human being was created in the image of God. (Gen. 1:27.) This fact alone automatically entitles every person to honor, respect and love. Our equality becomes blurred when we choose to elevate ourselves above others based on classifications such as race, religion or economic status. But regardless of whatever categories or classes we may choose to assign others to, we all remain human beings created in the image of God. God may choose to classify people into other categories, but we are not given the right to make those judgments.
Of course, Jesus knew all of this – the belief that humans are made in the image of God was then, and still is today, one of the most basic tenets of Judaism and, therefore, of Christianity. Moreover, anyone who could say, “Love your enemies” (see, Matt. 5:44), would also have to say, “Love others who are different from you or who are not even known to be enemies.” Therefore, since all persons are automatically worthy of our love and assistance, why would anyone look at the dying man on the road, or at the identities of any of the other characters in the parable for that matter, to help them determine who a “neighbor” is? Each of the characters in Jesus’ parable should, of course, be automatically categorized as a “neighbor.”
By asking which of the three other men acted like a neighbor to the injured man on the road, Jesus has forced his listeners to take a fundamentally different approach to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” He compels his audience to look “inward” – that is, at their own hearts – not “outward” to define the “neighbors” we are obligated to love. This “inward approach” to faith seems to be a recurring theme in Jesus’ teachings. (Cf., Matt. 7:1-5, 23:28; Luke 17:20-21.) As is so often the case with human beings, it’s our own hearts that present the problem; it’s how we respond to others that Jesus addresses in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Are we willing to recognize and treat other human beings as “neighbors”?
Jesus teaches that the people we are to love as we would want to be loved are not to be selected based on the artificial and subjective classes or categories that we assign them to. Being a “neighbor” is instead someone that each person must choose to be. Anybody who offers kindness and mercy to a person in need is a “neighbor” to that person. We must each look within our own heart and ask: Will I choose to be a neighbor to each and every human being who is put in my path in life? Will I choose to love others as I would want to be loved no matter who they are or what they look like or what they have done? How will I choose to respond to the image of God? The answers to these questions are within each of us and how we answer them may imply certain obligations on our part: if we view others through the same spectacles that Jesus used, then we have an absolute obligation to help others in need, whoever they are and no matter where we find them.
* It should be noted that an alternative English translation of the Hebrew word often translated as “neighbor” is “fellow.” The text states that the desire to “justify himself” was the lawyer’s motivation to ask Jesus to define “neighbor” (v.29). Some commentators have interpreted this to mean that his intention was to “trap” Jesus, or that the lawyer was seeking “religious backing” for his “improper attempt” to limit who he would have to consider as a neighbor. But the text does not support such speculation. The lawyer could just as easily have been trying to resolve a legitimate ambiguity in the word “neighbor,” specifically, whether he was obligated to love just his fellow Jews or whether his obligation should also encompass those outside the Jewish community. The text offers no reason to attribute evil motives to the lawyer.