Who “Is” or “Becomes” your Neighbor? (Luke 10:36) — Mondays with Mounce
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Changes in tenses are important to note. Even if it is subtle, there is always a reason. Take the parable of the “Good Samaritan” (or as I liked to say when teaching at Azusa Pacific University, the “Good Biola Student”).
The lawyer’s question is, “Who is (ἐστίν) my neighbor”? (Luke 10:29). It was a limiting question, designed to restrict his responsibility to a smaller group. I would guess the lawyer was thinking in ethnic and geographical terms. “For whom do I have to be responsible?” (Correct grammar can sound so odd at times, can’t it?)
Jesus tells the parable and concludes, “Which of these three do you think was (γεγονέναι) a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (10:36, NIV, also NLT). The problem with this translation is that γεγονέναι is a perfect, not an aorist. Why use a perfect?
The first clue is in Jesus’ actual answer. The issue is not who am I responsible to help. The issue is who I am able to help. The neighbor is the person who you are able to help, regardless of racial and geographical restraints.
The second clue is the verb used, γίνομαι, which generally indicates coming into a new state, “to become.”
Thirdly, since the perfect indicates a completed action, it changes the time frame from who currently is my neighbor to the past in which I have become a neighbor.
Given these facts, an aorist would not have communicated properly. It isn’t a matter of who was a neighbor (as if the focus were on the person in need), but an issue of what you have become to those in need.
You can see most of the other translations recognizing there is some meaning in the perfect. Most have “proved to be a neighbor” (NASB, ESV, CSB); the NET has “became a neighbor” and includes this note: “Do not think about who they are, but who you are.”
The simple “was” misses the point. It is not a matter of who was a neighbor (as if the focus were on the person in need) but who has become a neighbor by helping someone in need.
I know that you and I can’t help everyone, and there are times that it is not possible to help anyone. But our mindset should be to be mindful of those in need who we can help, whether they are next door or in Nepal. It is a mindset change.
Professors: Request an exam copy of Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, Fourth Edition, here.
Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill’s Greek resources at BillMounce.com.