This is one of many gospel narratives where people come to Jesus not to ask him good-faith questions, but to test him, to see if they can catch him in an error or a lie. The people who do this sort of thing are invariably men with religious authority. Women and poor men approach Jesus looking for healing or a bit of good news; they know Jesus is on their side. The religious authorities, however, suspect he is a threat to them, so they look for some way to discredit him.
The “lawyer” in this passage isn’t a civil lawyer such as we would consult for a trial or lawsuit, but rather an expert in halakhah, which is usually translated as “law” or “Jewish law.” Halakhah doesn’t actually mean “law,” however. It comes from a root that means “walk,” so you can think of halakhah meaning something like “the right path,” or “the way you should walk.” It’s not a law code, but rather a collection of guidelines about how to live according to God’s commandments, how to interpret those commandments and apply them to everyday life.
So of course this lawyer knows the right answers. But Jesus, being the exceptional rabbi that he is, doesn’t merely want to give this man a cookie for getting the answer right. He wants him to move from mind-level to gut-level, from the brain to the heart. Because he sees in this man someone who is keeping himself apart from his neighbor and judging himself better than others, because of his sophisticated understanding of halakhah. If it wasn’t obvious in his attitude, it’s pretty clear in his very attempt at tripping Jesus up!
So Jesus, in the mode of many rabbis of his time, tells a story. Here’s the thing about parables: they are meant to draw the listener into the story, to experience in the imagination the different perspectives of its characters. For example, in the parable of the prodigal son, maybe you identify with the younger brother or the older brother. You may even identify with the father, or maybe, over the course of your life, you may find yourself identifying with all three characters at different moments. I remember the first time I realized this was an option; like many Christians, I’d internalized the idea that there was only one character to sympathize with. Christian preaching can often flatten the dynamics of these 2000-year-old Jewish stories. As a very rule-oriented child, I had a hard time understanding the actions of the younger brother, the prodigal son. So I felt sort of shut out of the parable. But then a preacher talked about how some of us might identify instead with the older brother, resentful because he’s always followed the rules and no one threw him a huge party! It was like a light bulb went off over my head. And when you study the Judaism of Jesus’ time, you learn just how wise the rabbis were, telling stories that operate on many different levels to allow multiple levels of interpretation. Jesus is right smack in the middle of this tradition, which we should keep in mind when we read the gospels.
Just as with the prodigal son, the parable of the good Samaritan allows us to see ourselves in any of the characters. Have you ever felt like the man in the ditch? Abandoned and friendless? How has that changed you? Has it made you more likely to be the Samaritan and help, or do you feel too unsafe to do that?
Have you been the priest or Levite, trying not to get involved? The lawyer whose questions prompt Jesus to tell this parable wanted to justify himself. How do you think the priest and Levite justified themselves when they passed by the injured man without helping? Perhaps they thought, “Oh, I have children I need to get home to.” Or maybe they told themselves this man must be a bandit himself, and therefore somehow “deserving” of being beaten and left for dead. Or maybe they walked on in a panic, desperate not to become involved, only to wrack themselves with shame and guilt later on. I think, if we’re being honest, we’ve probably all been this person at some point in our lives—maybe more than we’d really like to admit.
Maybe you’ve been the innkeeper, a witness to someone else’s act of generosity and mercy. What do you think happened to that innkeeper? Did this experience change him? Perhaps he was inspired by the Samaritan man and himself became a generous and merciful person. Or maybe he was a cynic, and thought something like, “That foolish Samaritan, giving his time and money to someone he doesn’t even know! He should put his family first and not waste resources on strangers.”
Or maybe you can recognize yourself in the Samaritan. Maybe you’ve practiced generosity and thinking of others your whole life, to the point where helping is simply instinctual. Or maybe your heart went out to someone in need, but you had to stop and think through whether you had the resources to help them.
Halakhah stresses helping a person in need, especially a person whose life is in danger. But it’s clear that knowing what is right and what God expects of you (as Micah put it) doesn’t automatically translate into right action; it certainly doesn’t for the priest and Levite who pass by. The lawyer who approaches Jesus is described as someone who wants to be seen to be right. But he also wants to get out of doing the soul-work halakhah demands of him. He wants to keep halakhah in his head rather than embodying it in the world.
And this is perhaps the crux of all of Jesus’ teaching: Torah is meant to be lived out. It’s meant to be embodied. Jesus, like all the prophets before him, wants to viscerally remind people that their actions mean nothing if they are not accompanied by soul-work and by active loving of one’s neighbor. Our passage from Micah follows a rhetorical question; Micah is wondering, what will get me right with God? Is it perfect sacrifice? Each sacrifice he can think of is more over-the-top than the last: “Will God be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?” No, God doesn’t want any of those things! God only wants three things: that you act justly, that you act with loving-kindness, and that you walk humbly with God. That means that you remember you yourself are not God, you are a little human being created just like everyone else, interdependent just like everyone else. And that verb, walk, is from the same root as the word halakhah. In fact, “walking humbly with God” is a pretty good way to understand halakhah. Jesus, in his time, is echoing what Micah wrote hundreds of years before. Making the most outrageous sacrifice and being the one who knows all the right answers mean nothing to God. Only living out the love of God and neighbor matters. Only justice, mercy, and walking humbly with God ultimately count.
The Samaritan being the “good neighbor” underscores the fact that knowing the right answers doesn’t make you a good person. Anyone once considered a “gifted” child or an exceptional student has had a difficult time learning this. Praise from parents and teachers trains you to think you’re good . . . as long as you know the right answer. The priest and Levite are the gifted kids in this story. They have access to the temple. They have been trained, they have the knowledge and the lineage. They should automatically know what to do when they come across a beaten man lying by the road! They should know that, according to halakhah, it is imperative to save a life: even on the Sabbath, one is commanded to break specific injunctions against work, if the work is to save a life! Care for others is the heart and soul of Torah.
A priest I used to know said that helping people is a habit, one you need to strengthen and practice just like any other habit, until it becomes so engrained that it’s a reflex. He told the story of a soldier in World War I who saved his whole platoon by immediately throwing himself on a grenade that landed in their trench. My priest said that the dead man’s family spoke of his habitual generosity, how he was known for always responding to people’s needs with compassion.
Not gonna lie, that story terrified me, and it still terrifies me. Is this a habit I want to practice? Where might such a habit lead me? To what actions? Into what kinds of uncomfortable situations? If you don’t feel even a little bit trepidatious, I question how honest you are with yourself. And still, I ultimately come down on wanting to practice that habit. My heart wants to help others, and my mind tells me it’s the right thing to do.
To follow Jesus is a risk. We ought to be more honest about that. And it means taking risks. The alternative is to protect ourselves, certainly, to stay in our comfort zone . . . and to become the insufferable know-it-all or the priest muttering justifications as we pass by. But if we do that, we will end up passing by not just one opportunity to help, but an entire lifetime’s worth. If helping is a habit only strengthened by taking action, well, justifying inaction is a habit that only gets stronger with time, too.
When the news can leave us feeling beaten up and alone, perhaps what’s called for is to start looking a little more actively for people around us to reach out to, and help them get back on their feet. Who today could use a kind word, or a favor that asks no repayment?
In a time when we need more hope and love than ever, taking care of each other starts small, and it starts everywhere. Like the good Samaritan, let’s all practice living out that gospel truth of helping others, that right pathway of halakhah, walking humbly with God, every day. One foot in front of the other.