Does this seem to you like a strange pairing of words? Quite aside from the sad reality that some “neighbors” can certainly be a serious test of one’s commitment to Kingdom attitudes and behavior, the ancient admonition (which, remember, Jesus flatly contradicted) to “love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (Mt.5:43) makes a lot of sense to a tragically astonishing number of people who claim to follow him. But Jesus insists that both are to be loved (Mt.5:44) – not just tolerated, but actively loved. The verb is agapao (see #87), and if it needs greater clarification, the Lord has amply provided it: the neighbor is to be loved equally with one’s “self” (Mt.19:19, 22:29; Mk.12:31,33; Lk.10:27, Rom.13:9, Gal.5:14, Jas.2:8), and love for one’s enemy is to be expressed in actively doing good (Lk.6:27,35) to those who hate you, “blessing / speaking well of” those who curse you (Lk.6:28), and praying for one’s abusers.
The vocabulary is not the problem here. The words are quite without a trace of ambiguity.
Although there are three different terms translated “neighbor”, geiton (4x), perioikos (1x as a noun, 1x as a verb), and plesion (16x), none of the lexicons offer any distinctions. Uniformly, they refer to “someone living in one’s vicinity”, although plesion, the most common, is also rendered “one’s fellow man” (Bauer) and “friend, countryman, or companion” (Thayer).
No, the problem for most folks lies not in semantics, but in Jesus’ explicit instructions.
It’s not just that, as noted above, fully half of the uses of plesion – 8 out of 16 – insist that the neighbor is to be loved “as yourself”. This admonition has been twisted by advocates of a brand of pop-psychology to justify a narcissistic focus upon one’s “self” as a positive thing – but such an attitude is diametrically opposed both to Jesus’ own life and to his message. Jesus’ focus is consistently outward, and his concept of “neighborhood” is expansive.
Although in parables, he refers to “friends (philoi) and neighbors” (geiton) (Lk.15:6,9), Luke also refers to “relatives (suggeneis) and neighbors” (Lk.14:12, 1:58), and in Ac.3:37, seems to define the word as “a fellow-Hebrew” as does the prophet Jeremiah (31:34) quoted in Heb.8:11. Paul may be using it some of the same ways, calling for doing no wrong to a neighbor (Rom.13:10), “pleasing” him for his up-building (Rom.15:2), and interacting with absolute truthfulness (Eph.4:28), or he may be referring to fellow-disciples, although he usually calls the latter “brethren.”
Of course such instructions would be equally applicable to any associates, which would fit well with Jesus’ own departure from a narrow definition of “neighbor.
The classic example, of course, is the parable (Lk.10:27-36) of the “Good Samaritan” where we see a stark contrast between the comfortable “neighbor / countryman” image and the “enemy”. The “good guys” (neighbors) were too busy or too preoccupied to care for the unfortunate traveler. It is the perceived “enemy” who acts in a loving manner in Jesus’ story. And when the Lord pinned down the “legal expert” with the blunt question as to which of the men was “neighborly”, the lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to utter the word “Samaritan”, so thoroughly schooled was he in the assumption that Samaritans were, if not outright enemies, at least unacceptable creatures. He simply stammered, “the one who showed mercy” and let it go at that. One wonders how he later reflected upon that encounter.
Although “enemy” is the only translation of the 29 uses of echthrous (except for two places where “foe” was substituted), its application covers a much wider scope than does “neighbor”, ranging from describing personal animosity (Mt.5:43,44; 10:36; Lk.6:27,35: Gal.4:16), or deliberate efforts to destroy a person’s enterprises – a rival or competitor? (Mt.13:25, 28, and possibly Rv.11:5,12), to political opposition (Lk.1:71,74; 19:27,43), active opposition to the Gospel message and its promoters (Rom.5:10, 11:28; Phil.3:18, Col.1:21, Jas.4:4), and even to the devil himself (Mt.13:39, Lk.10:19, Ac.13:10). Seven of the references (Mt.22:44, Mk.12:36, Lk.20:43, Ac.2:35, I Cor.15:25, Heb.1:13,10:13) deal with the opponents of Jesus being made his “footstool” – a quote from Ps.110:1, numbered 109 in the LXX – denoting their total subjugation.
Paul also notes (I Cor.15:26), “The last enemy to be destroyed is death!”
But please note, that even in the cases where an “enemy” is eventually put down or destroyed, that destruction is an act of God! It is NOT an assignment delegated to any fellow-human!
The admonition in Rom.12:20 to provide food and water for an “enemy” is part of more detailed instructions (17-21), “Never give back wrong for wrong, but pay attention to what is right before everyone. If possible, in whatever has its source from you, (be) at peace with all people. Don’t avenge yourselves, dear ones, but give place for God’s wrath ….don’t be conquered (passive voice) by what is wrong, but overcome wrong (active voice) by doing good!”
Similarly, when a brother stands in need of correction (II Thes.3:15), the reminder is repeated, “don’t consider him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother!”
Review these references, and you cannot miss the observation that the only proactive behavior toward either a “neighbor” or an “enemy” asked – or even permitted – for a Kingdom citizen, consists of love: love in “shoe-leather”, actively doing good, providing food and water, blessing, and praying.
Perhaps it is at best a waste of time and effort, and at worst deliberate avoidance or delay tactics, to devote ourselves to the task of “defining” either a “neighbor” or an “enemy”, or to accept such a definition from anyone else, be it an individual, a group, or a civil government.
For the people of God, there is a single assignment:
With respect to a neighbor: actively to love and serve him.
With respect to an enemy: actively to love and serve him.
He may, as in Col.1:21, or Rom.5:10, become a brother!
The Lord has reserved for himself the task of seeing that things and people are properly and finally sorted out.
Thanks be to God.