Is there a difference between Friend and Neighbor?

In John 15:13 Jesus says “greater love has no man that this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Those profound words have moved me and shaped me in my believing and my faith. It wasn’t until tonight that I considered what words the holy text was utilizing to communicate the heart of Christ. The word for “friend” is φιλων.  It is a participle whose root is the word φιλεω, which is one of the three Greek words used in the New Testament to communicate the idea of love. So this phrase by Jesus could be paraphrased like this: that no greater love has any man than this, that he lay down his life for the beloved one.

Now while this may seem to bolster some, who think that we should only take care of our own, we must first consider to whom Jesus was pointing in these words. I think that the only logical referent would be himself who is laying down his life for humanity. The next words in John 15 are “you are my friends if you do what I command you.” Is he dying only for those who keep his commandments or those he had a loving earthly relationship with? I think not. Jesus was dying for the creation he loved, for a humanity that he loved and valued.

The other text that I have been considering this evening is the parable of the “good Samaritan” found in Luke chapter 10. The operative word in this parable is “neighbor.” The Greek word underlying this term in Luke 10 is πλησιον, which is a preposition, which when used with the genitive case indicates “near”…someone or something which is near. When this preposition is used in a more substantive sense, it means a “fellow human” or “neighbor.” When you think about this word, its meaning and usage here, the parable of the “good Samaritan” springs to life much more than from a simple reading. The point of the parable, as the narrative reads is to answer the question of “who is my neighbor.” The commandment, about which the questions comes to Jesus in this text (from the lawyer who quotes it to him) is found first in Leviticus 19:18. It is reiterated by Jesus in Matthew 22:39 as the greatest commandment. It is the second of the two foundational laws, upon which all the law and the prophets rests (according to Jesus): “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul…and love your neighbor as yourself.

Now before I proceed further, I need to address what appears to be an exegetical mistake.  We take the individual corpus’ as single  literary units, so to compare or use Greek words of different authorship to support a single idea that would have them all using the same word to point at the same referent or concept would be potentially pushing the envelope of reasonable exegetical practice. And I understand this, and have held to this principle myself. And were it not that these words and concepts were used so broadly throughout the New Testament text to push us toward selflessness and care for the “other” among us, no matter who he was; I, too, would cry foul.  However, in the context of what I am pointing at, I think that the whole of the New Testament bears this out.

So if we are to love our “neighbor,” who is the one (anyone) near us, and Jesus says that to lay down one’s life for his friend, who is described by him as the “loved ones,” and that there is no greater love demonstrated than this…I would suppose that these two words from our Savior are pointing at a similar referent: others of any sort. That sure does up the ante as to what our lives are to be about.

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