When the man who was so versed in the law asked Jesus the question, "Who is my neighbor?" he was actually asking a question that is familiar to most of us, though we rarely use those words. The man didn't really want to know who his neighbor was.
He wanted a box to live in.
He wanted to know exactly what parameters God was putting on his life. He wanted to know exactly what lines God was drawing and how he was supposed to best live in them. He wanted to know exactly to the letter what it was that Jesus expected of him, likely so that he could do just that and nothing more.
He was a box-checker, a rule-follower, a line-toe-r. He was a man who lived doing only and exactly what was required of him. And as someone who seemed to know the law so well, of course he was. That's what the law does. The law draws lines for us through our lives and shows us exactly where the boundaries are. Those who studied and knew the law in Jesus's day had made a profession out of it. They knew exactly how far they could go without going too far and exactly how much was permissible without breaking the letter of the rule.
That is, then, what this man is asking Jesus - where are the lines? What do I have to do to fulfill the letter of this law? What do I have to do to live within its bounds? What is expected of me in relation to this truth?
And that's precisely why Jesus doesn't answer the question that the man asked.
Jesus doesn't want the man to constantly be hemming his life in; not when Jesus has come to set him free from that very thing. Jesus doesn't want him to look at other human beings as some line to live by, but as real human beings bearing the image of God Himself who need a touch of grace and love. When this man encounters a neighbor, the last thing Jesus wants him thinking about is the law.
Which is why Jesus tells him the question is not, "Who is my neighbor?" but rather, "Who am I a neighbor to?"
This subtle little change in the question changes everything. Because now, when this man meets a neighbor, he's not thinking about the law. He's not trying to figure out if this is his neighbor or not. He's not asking himself what he owes to this particular man on the basis of some relationship he has to diagram first. No, if the question is, "To whom am I a neighbor?" then all this man has to ask is what he's going to do about the situation.
Is he going to be a neighbor?
It's the question Jesus wants all of us to be asking ourselves. Not what do we have to do based on the letter of some word that was spoken once upon a time, but what are we going to do on the basis of who we are as a person of God? Not what has God required us to do, but what has God equipped and called us to do? Not who is our neighbor, but are we, in fact, a neighbor to this person? Will we be?
That's the question.