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On Neighbors, Love & the Magistrate

On Neighbors, Love & the Magistrate

In recent discussions about Syrian refugees, the subject naturally led to the definition of "neighbor." Are they our neighbor? Are our answers just some proof-texting excuse to express compassion without reservation? So I sought to set the record straight that yes, the Syrian refugees are our neighbors and that they are not a lesser neighbor because they are far away or not American. In fact, I argued it was against the very definition of neighbor to tier someone into a lower priority,

When we attempt to prioritize our neighbors by proximity, race, gender, or religion, we are merely retaining the word without its Biblical meaning.

Corey Poff, a writer here at Torrey Gazette, took issue with my stance and wrote a cautious response to this point of my argument. Though this post will move beyond pure engagement with him, I would like to begin with his criticism as my launching point. He said,

If my understanding of [Joshua] is fair, and I believe it is, then it necessarily follows that my family, my friends, and my immediate community have no greater claim on me than a stranger does. This is unhelpful and untrue, for reasons I think I need hardly explain.

His main critique of my post was that in not setting a priority for "love thy neighbor," I effectively opened the door for the mistreatment of a Christian's family. As per usual in irenic disagreements, Corey is partly right and partly wrong in understanding my point. My original reaction to Corey's post was agreement that Christians do have a responsibility to their respective families. Yet, my concern remained as I read Corey's hypothetical examples of individuals "loving their neighbor" to the detriment of their family (e.g. a father who gives all his money to the poor but does not provide for his family).

A clear look at Christ's teaching on the word "neighbor" in the Gospel of Luke eradicates a tier system in "neighbor" and prevents the false hypotheticals that Corey suggested. In what follows, I will use Christ's teaching on "love your neighbor" to eliminate tiers of neighbors, critique any hermeneutic that introduces Scripture to limit other Scripture, clear up misunderstandings about the character and expression of love, and show the impact on the refugee discussion.


Christ taught that "Love your neighbor as yourself" was the second greatest commandment in all of the Scriptures only behind "Love the Lord your God" (Mark 12:31-33). This was a direct quotation from Leviticus 19:18 which in its context does not present itself as a summarization of God's holy law. Yet, Christ said, "On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets" (Matt. 22:39). Neighborly love then is the summation of all horizontal elements of God's law (and particularly the Ten Commandments). This type of love for our neighbor eclipses all commandments save love directed to God. This is no inferior love. This is full throttle God-honoring love.

It is interesting that in Luke's rendition it is not Jesus who quotes these two commandments as the summary of the law — it is an expert of the law. The weight of this commandment and this particular word "neighbor" drove the expert to justify himself (Luke 10:29). So he asked, "Who is my neighbor?" In answer, Christ told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and at the end Christ asked the expert which character "proved to be a neighbor." The answer was that “a Samaritan,” a hated outsider of Israel’s society, was the neighbor. Christ had infused “love your neighbor as yourself” with "you shall love him [the stranger] as yourself" (Lev. 19:34). But the expert could not bring himself to even name this neighbor. He merely said, “the one who had mercy” (Luke 10:37).

Christ's response defeated the expert's attempt at self-justification for the word "neighbor" is not defined by lists or characteristics. It is not a word pinned on another person. Who we act neighborly towards defines the word. Christ turns the positive commandment to "love your neighbor" sternly on its head. His question to us, as it was to the expert, is "Who are you not wanting to treat as your neighbor?"

To speak Christologically, Christ is truly the Good Samaritan. It is God Himself who goes into the "North Country" to get His people (Jer. 31:8). It is Christ who shows love to His enemies in His behavior towards them (Rom. 5:8). Within this framework Christ says "love each other" (John 15:12) and "love your enemies" (Matt. 5:44). It is precisely because Christ does the later that the former is possible. The Good Samaritan loves first so that the wounded may be his neighbor. Thus, the question hangs — "Who are we not wanting to treat as our neighbors?"

Under the weight of this question many Christians buckle. Intentionally or not, attempts to mitigate this weight have crept into Christian thinking. This can be accomplished when familial responsibility is seen supplanting this commandment. Or when the word family is integrated as a special priority tier to the word "neighbor." This has occasionally been done in refugee discussions to create a "love this neighbor or love that neighbor" quandary.

First, Christ's command does not mean we can help one neighbor to the detriment of another neighbor. Second, Paul's admonition towards family care cannot act as an interpretive lens to minimize Christ's word. Remember the Christological understanding of the word "neighbor" and the Good Samaritan. We cannot diminish this understanding. We must allow our interpretations of Scripture to stand alongside each other to exemplify the larger picture of Christ's work in redeeming creation.


It could be argued that Paul's teaching presumes a prior moral obligation to those nearest to us relationally (Gal. 6:10; 1 Tim. 5:8). This is initially attractive for its simplicity but there are problems. First, Paul's command must be seen as a subset of Christ's greater command — "love your neighbor." Paul when summarizing the horizontal portion of God's law quotes this verse (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14). James also quotes the verse as a summary of the entire law (Jam. 2:8). There is no Biblical command that is outside of this summarization. Put another way, all other commands are an application of "love your neighbor as yourself."

Paul's teaching is riddled with particularized application. For example, his command for husbands to "love their wives, as Christ loved the church" (Eph. 5:25) is not a unique command. It is the application of "love your neighbor" and "love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12-13). Applications such as these are not a new command but expressions of the old command (1 John 2:7). In teaching on our relationships, Paul cannot but tap into "love your neighbor." These Biblical texts cannot restrict our responsibility to the larger, less specific command of God. So what do we do with Paul's admonitions towards family? We stand them up as the Word of God and fulfill them.

Fathers cannot neglect their children, parents, or wives in order to serve others — coincidentally one only needs the Ten Commandments to affirm this proposition. There is no need to read them as a top tier of "neighbor" to the exclusion of other "neighbors." These are people that God has seen fit to put into our lives through biological links. We are forced into interaction with them and our behavior towards them must be "neighborly." This is the only way to fulfill Christ's command.

But if we were to attempt such a tier we might be inclined to read Jesus literally when He says, "If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them" (Luke 6:32). Though a wooden reading of Luke 14:26 could suggest such a course of action to make moot the love of family, that would be to entirely miss the point. Jesus' point in both passages of Luke is that our calling is not merely to love those who love you. This would fall short of the Christological example. We must ensure that we love those who do not love us. To "hate...even his own life" (Luke 14:26) is not to be dismissive of our lives or the lives of our children. It demands we make them inferior to Christ's ethic, which after "love the Lord your God" springs forth into "love your neighbor as yourself."

Christ's emphasis is that if our neighborly realm consists only in those who treat us neighborly than we are failing. James would say that if we only show favor to those who are of "fine clothes" then we are showing favoritism (Jam. 2:1-7). None of this sets aside Paul's admonition. It further shows that Paul's teaching is not the full scope. Incidentally, this emphasis on love beyond those who love you might explain Paul's major argument for singleness — undivided attention to God (1 Cor. 7:32-35). For Paul, no higher cause or higher tier of neighbor is lost when an individual has no family. They are merely able to focus on Christ. And to focus on Christ in our relationships is to "love your neighbor as yourself."

This leads me to my concern with analogies such as a father distributing money to strangers without making provision for his family. The analogies presuppose, as a place card for love, a limited or singularly quantified commodity. With this shared characteristic, they pointed that someone could certainly take the "love your neighbor" teaching and use it to behave un-neighborly to their family. This is disobedience to Christ, not Paul. It is Paul's application that makes this disobedience clear.

The behavior in these analogies is clearly refuted by the very teaching of Christ in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In fact, they depict another form of the expert "seeking to justify himself" (Luke 10:29). For "the stranger" is exalted to a neighborly position above other neighbors. That these then could not categorically be representations of my position should also be obvious. I have argued that there should be no tiers in the word "neighbor," analogies such as this contain the very tiers that cannot exist if Christ's command is to be fulfilled.


However, these analogies reveal a point that should be clarified — expressions of love do have to be prioritized. For example, it is impossible for me to "love" all the Christian brothers and sisters in the world through an expression of financial means. In fact, if the command of Christ requires that I love everyone the same way then I am certain to fail on multiple accounts. But love is not a singularized commodity easily equitable with time or money. Neither is love restricted to singular expressions (which by the way means that accepting Syrian Refugees is not the only way to love them...I merely think at this moment it is the best we can do).

For instance, the majority of my brothers and sisters in Christ will remain strangers to me. Yet through prayer, I beseech God's blessings upon members of Christ's body that will remain nameless until eternity. I love them by keeping them in my prayers — similar to Paul in Ephesians 1:15-16. But if by God's providence I were to encounter one during my travels it would be natural for my expression of love to change. This example should shed light on why those within our house, who God has providentially seen fit to place with us, will be recipients of unique expressions of love.

I can love my family while loving my neighbor while maintaining different expressions for each. This is often the case when I am around them both at the same time. So there is a prioritization. But it is a prioritization on the expression of our love. This is especially the case of specific expression of love are justified by Scripture. My love for my wife includes expression through sex. To truly obey "love your neighbor" I must not commit adultery. This expression of love is reserved just for her. The love I express to my children requires that I read them books and occasionally provide food but these expressions are not reserved solely for them. On occasion, my attention (sometimes a valid expression of love) cannot be given to my wife and my children at the same time. So too, if I do not have food in abundance than my expression of love to my other neighbors cannot be in food — though as a Christian household we could decide as a whole to forgo dinner to serve others.


Let me now reorient this discussion to present debate over the Syrian Refugees. I contend that love for our Syrian neighbors does not conflict with love for our American neighbors — primarily because protection of family and compassion for refugees are not the same commodity. Some would argue that reality points to a mutual exclusivity. I would like to challenge this thought two ways. First, the cause of death percentages are clear — safety and protection for most American families with or without Syrian refugees will remain much the same. So we can provide protection to our families and acceptance to refugees. Love, in this case, need not be split to the detriment of another. Nor is priority needed with regards to love.

Second, God has given unto the USA an abundance of provision and safety. We need to understand that safety and protection are precious commodities, not conditions. It is the "daily bread" of the Lord's Prayer per Luther, "For where there are dissension, strife, and war, there the daily bread is already taken away." This protection is a blessing from God that we have it in degrees, not status. Few in history have ever experienced such a blessing. As a blessed commodity, God can say to us as He said to Israel,

"Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the Lord your God." (Lev. 19:10)

Protection and safety is given to us to consume in moderation not to hoard. This is especially true with refugees who are lacking protection and actual nourishment. This text should apply to the orphans, widows, and homeless within our own borders as well. Christian love should "leave [the fallen fruit] for the needy and for the stranger." With regards to safety, we will never have perfect perfection this side of heaven. Here now, we have the ability to share a blanket of protection with refugees and love our families. There is no prioritization need.

The phrase "widow and orphan" was an Old Testament colloquialism for those who have no one looking out for them. The phrase "the stranger and the orphan and the widow" is used as well (e.g. Deut 16:11). Widows and orphans we have aplenty. We need to be doing more for them. In particular, the church needs to be doing more. But unless our country lets in "the stranger," we will be incapable of fulfilling this portion of loving them as ourselves (Lev. 19:34). James' admonition towards "widows and orphans" (Jam. 1:27) does not clash with Paul (1 Tim. 5:8). We can protect and provide. These applications work together to express the fullness of Christ's commandment. 

I would like to now shift to impact on the state. I will do this by looking at a condemnation against Israel that comes at the very end of the Old Testament,

"Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me" (Mal. 3:5)

This verse is particularly haunting and gripping. But does it apply outside of the theocracy of Israel? I think looking beyond the individual at the application of "love your neighbor" both to the state proves that it does apply outside of Israel — the state "loving" someone is incredibly awkward language. Though expressions of this love should certainly differ.

Why is it important for the inclusion of the alien/stranger? Why would God be upset that Israel would turn them aside? Let me explain by way of analogy through the language of "love your neighbor as yourself." I, as an individual, am not called to love myself but love others as myself. This is an expansive concern for others. Similarly, Christ's commandment upon the Christian house is "Love your neighbor as yourself." Christian families are not called to love merely inside themselves but to love those outside their walls. This means that the entire house of the Christian homes should look outside itself to satisfy the needs of others. The same is true of the church. As a covenant community of God, it must love outside of itself while ensuring that lower levels (e.g. households and individuals) are loving each other. So finally, we arrive at the state - can it be entirely for itself? Or must it also "love the stranger?"

First, let us remember that love of one's neighbor cannot be to the detriment of another neighbor although expressions of love may differ. Second, arguably this rebuke of Israel can only be carried over to the Church - who rightfully are the new Israel in Jesus Christ. Some might say that any obligation on the state is to conflate the role of the church into the state. And I suppose either challenge would be true if "love your neighbor" and its application to "the stranger, the widow, and the orphan" could be shown particular to Israel. Instead, the commandment is a summarization of God's moral law. This is the law that is on all hearts (Rom. 2:14-15). Within the Reformed tradition, Calvin (certainly no theonomist) argued that the magistrate was responsible for both tables of the law — the love of God and neighbor (Inst. 4.20.1-9).

Now within the broader Christian tradition, some have discarded the obligation of the first table of the law upon the magistrate, but none consistently discard the obligation of the moral law. When God bestows authority it is because the authority is to represent Him. And in the case of the state this includes reflection of His moral law as summarized in "love your neighbor as yourself." Thus, the state needs to ensure its citizens are loving towards each other. But at its very core, it is responsible to uphold the moral law — it must also love its neighbor. The consequences of this thinking on foreign policy, global debt, and other topics are beyond my scope. I will instead just recall, the state also must prioritize its resources and expressions of love. It cannot send money to every humanitarian effort. It must balance its efforts. But with respect to refugees it should not be particularly difficult to open our doors to as many as can feasibly be screened by security — which our government is already doing. Many of these individuals are fleeing evil and corrupt governments. In some countries to refer to the military leadership as a government is stretching things. They are under regimes that are in disobedience to Christ and His moral law. In seeking to remove themselves from this situation they are widowed and orphaned from the protection of the state. This is what infuriates God when Israel "turn[s] aside the alien."

At this point, I am not persuaded the state is responsible for the extended care of refugees. I think that actually falls to the shoulders of the citizens — especially those who confess Christ. This would be a phenomenal area in which the church could stand up and fulfill the words of Christ. So that in our collections of clothes, food, etc. we may "leave them for the needy and for the stranger" and fulfill Christ's words in Matthew 25:34-40. But those details cannot be enumerated here.

I will conclude with a few summary remarks. Christ's greatest commandment "love your neighbor as yourself" eliminates any priority list on who our neighbor is. Application to refugees is not an exegetical stretch. This mindset of God was long in the making,

"The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself" (Lev. 19:34)

Though the expressions of love will be different, the church in particular needs to be leading the charge in compassion on widows, orphans and refugees. God’s moral law on individuals and the state requires this. We do not want to be "those who turn aside the alien" and do not fear God.

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