Proper 10 (July 10-16)
Texts: Luke 10:25-37;
Col 1:1-14; Deut 30:9-14
GOD’S NEW CULTURE OF COMPASSION
We’ve just heard a story from Jesus that is known not just to Christians but also to much of the world. Good Samaritan has been a popular name for hospitals. The phrase “Good Samaritan” is often used for anyone who goes beyond the normal to help someone in need. For two thousand years this parable of Jesus has gained a notoriety across the whole world. I think we have the sense that it’s one of the stories from Jesus that is nothing less than world-changing. Let’s pray that our meditations this morning, and especially our response in the days ahead, can contribute to changing the world.
We begin with getting the question right, because I think the lawyer’s question to Jesus very much has the sense of what we just said about making a contribution to changing the world. We haven’t generally heard it that way. When we hear our translation into English, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, what do we think of? Isn’t it something like, “What must I do to go to heaven when I die?” But the good Lutheran in us might immediately suspect something is wrong with the lawyer’s question. He asked, “What must I do?” To which the well-trained Lutheran immediately responds, “There’s nothing you need to do. It’s all a matter of what God does. God sent Jesus to die for our sins, so now it’s all about grace!” There’s been plenty of Lutheran sermons preached on this passage that make this turn of grace.
But then how did this parable become so important in history? If it is world-changing, then how so? Does the emphasis on grace alone undercut doing anything at all? Armed with that message of grace alone, do we become one of those who simply passes by on the other side of the road from the person in need? How does this work? Namely, starting with grace alone and getting to the point of doing something that might contribute to changing the world, to making a difference in a terribly broken world.
In my 35+ years of being a pastor, I’ve become convinced that we need a serious upgrade in proclaiming the Gospel message if we are to survive as church. More important still: it’s what we need if we are to be more faithful to our calling as disciples of Jesus. And it begins with hearing something like this lawyer’s question correctly. I’ve shared in the past that the English translation of “eternal life” is not an especially good one for conveying how a good Jew like Jesus thought about their hope in God. They were not thinking about ‘going to heaven when you die.’ They were more interested in resurrection. They hoped for a new sort of body to someday enjoy God’s kingdom come. In short, they hoped-for and most fervently believed that God would act to change the world into a more just place, a more life-fulfilling place. Jews are very much grace-centered in their beliefs that it is what God does which counts.
But I think we’ve lost some of the importance of what it is that God does. God has bigger plans than simply saving a few souls for an otherworldly place called heaven. The God who created this world has plans to save it — the whole darn world! Now, that’s big! So this Jewish lawyer is not asking about something like ‘going to heaven when you die.’ He’s asking about the huge hope of inheriting life in God’s kingdom when it comes. In asking what he might do, he’s asking what he might contribute to what God is doing. He’s asking the question that any concerned human being might ask, “How can I make a difference?” But he’s also asking it with God in mind, that it’s God who takes the lead and we human beings who contribute.
So I think we’ve got the lawyer’s question more correctly. It’s something more like, “What can I do to contribute to the coming of God’s kingdom?” To which Jesus responds, “What does the Torah say?” Once again, even though Luke tells us that he’s testing Jesus, the lawyer is on the right track. He simplifies Torah into love by quoting just two verses in the Torah: Deut 6:5 on loving God with all one’s heart and soul, and Lev 19:18 about loving one’s neighbor as oneself. “Right answer!” says Jesus.
But since the lawyer is testing Jesus, he won’t let it lie there. He pushes the boundaries . . . literally. He pushes Jesus on the boundaries of who our neighbors are. And this is where we get Jesus’ world-changing answer. Notice that Jesus doesn’t engage this lawyer in the kind of linear argument that he may be used-to as a lawyer. He doesn’t give him a definition of “neighbor” that they can then argue about. Instead, Jesus tells him a story. And it’s a story so shocking and compelling that the lawyer has little choice at the end but to go where Jesus leads him.
How does Jesus do this? Basically, by dodging the thing about neighbor to some extent and making it a simple matter of showing compassion. Jesus tells the story about a person, a fellow human being, in grave and dire need of assistance. The man half-dead in the road needs another person to show compassion. And Jesus poignantly makes this a widely human matter by choosing carefully between those who do show compassion and those who don’t. It’s the fellow Jews who fail to show compassion, and one of their ethnic enemies, a Samaritan, who does show compassion. So when he asks the lawyer at the end, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”, the lawyer is compelled to answer simply, “The one who showed mercy.”
What Jesus has done is to change the very culture of who one’s neighbor is by nothing less than changing the typical way we human beings do culture. Since our evolution as a species, human beings have typically been enculturated on the basis of being over against someone else. We form our cultural identities in contrast to other cultures of other groups. There always has to be a right and wrong, a good and evil — ever since we wrongly ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, that is, and so we thought ourselves actually right in deciding between good and evil. Ever since that fateful time of our beginnings, we’ve sort of been forced into the corner of forming our cultural identities as the Good Guys vs. the Bad Guys. Of course, we have to be the Good Guys! Otherwise, why bother to pass on our culture to our children?
So, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus shoots right past all that typically human stuff of Us-vs-Them thinking, and he places the matter of being human — the matter of having a culture truly worthy of passing on to our children — not to be about a typical list of rights and wrongs, but to instead be focused on simply one thing: showing compassion to other fellow human beings in need of our assistance. Jesus is redefining what it means to be a neighbor by redefining what it means to be human. We are no longer Us and Them. We are only Us.
Yes, this means nothing less than an entire re-enculturation from a typical human culture, even a good one like being a U.S. citizen. Even the best of human cultures need to be enculturated into God’s new culture that was launched in Jesus the Messiah. That’s what we believe as followers of Jesus. Why? Because of the world changing nature of what happened on the first Good Friday and Easter. By submitting to trial and execution on the cross, Jesus let himself be designated as the outsider, the one we need to hate in order to keep the peace in our group. Our peace is won by unifying ourselves against our scapegoats. In short, Jesus died for our sins in the sense of showing us the sin of division deep at the heart of our whole process of enculturation.
All human beings tend to operate like the example of Jews and Samaritans that provides the background for Jesus’s great parable. Even though Jews and Samaritans were ‘kissing cousins’ ethnically, they found many reasons to hate each other over differences that were much smaller than the differences they had from others like the Romans. Jews and Samaritans were both descendants from the sons of Israel, yet the division that happened 1000 years earlier, when Israel split in two after the reign of Solomon, had festered into hatred. Each found reasons to be certain that their side comprised the truest descendants of Jacob.
Are we any different yet today? Look at our deep divisions as Americans. What Jesus is offering us in this parable is a whole new way of being enculturated as a human being . . . God’s way, as a matter of fact. It’s a way that enculturates us not on the basis of our group’s somehow being more right or better than some other group. It’s a way of enculturation based on love. It’s a way of enculturation based on showing compassion to fellow human beings in need. It’s a way of enculturation that sees every human being as a brother or sister in God’s family. Can you see how this might be world-changing?
I’d like to leave us with one example from our time that might challenge us in a similar fashion that the Jew-Samaritan example challenged the audience of Jesus’ time. But first there’s one last detail that I think will help us be challenged in a good way. It’s a seemingly small detail. When Jesus tells of the Samaritan’s response to the man in the road, we read the English word “compassion.”1 When the lawyer responds to Jesus’ question at the end, we read the English word “mercy.” The English translation does accurately reflect a difference in the Greek words in the original text.2 The lawyer chooses the most common Greek word in that category. It’s the same Greek word behind our liturgies when we pray, “Lord, have mercy” (“Kyrie eleison”). But the Greek word behind Jesus’ choice of “compassion” is a different story. It’s a Greek word that nowhere in their culture means “compassion.” Strange! Right? Yet Matthew, Mark, and Luke consistently choose this Greek word to mean “compassion” twelve times in the Gospels — twelve times a word that nowhere else in the world means “compassion.”
Here’s what I think is going on. Jesus and the Gospel writers are choosing a word from another cultural setting to signal the drastic conversion which needs to take place for us to truly start being human in the way that God planned for us. Our human cultures are ordinarily based on being over against other people’s cultures. Like Jews vs. Samaritans. And so we dehumanize those other cultures. We have to say that they are less human than we are. We’re the Good Guys; they’re the Bad Guys. The Gospel writers actually take a word from the Greek culture which is meant to dehumanize others and turn it into the opposite when using it for Jesus. In ordinary Greek usage, that word, splagchnizomai, is shockingly connected to cannibalism.3 Can you think of anything more dehumanizing than cannibalism?! I kid you not! The Gospel writers have Jesus use this same word from ancient ritual blood sacrifice, but it means for them the polar opposite, “compassion.” It means the epitome of treating every person as fully human, deserving of respect and kindness and caring.
This strange word-use probably came from try to translate a Hebrew word for compassion that has to do with your innards churning when you are moved to compassion. That Hebrew word for compassion has the sense when we say something like “gut-wrenching.” Notice that things move in our gut with any strong emotion. We feel it in our bodies whether we are reacting with hate for someone, or with compassion. Hate and compassion are both “gut-wrenching.” We learn to tell the difference. The Gospel writers take a word from the gut-wrenching experience of cannibalism and apply it to the gut-wrenching experience of compassion. I believe they take this wacky strategy in order to signal how radical a transformation Jesus is working on our human cultures. He is working to transform them from being based on hate to being based on love.
Keeping in this in mind, I’d like to conclude this morning with a “gut-wrenching” story that I think illustrates the revolution in cultures. Two weeks ago tomorrow (on June 27), a tractor-trailer was discovered near San Antonio, Texas, filled with migrants who were already dead or suffering from severe heat-related disease. In the end, fifty-three of these migrants had died.4 Take a moment to let that sink-in. Fifty-three unique children of God forever gone from this earth. Can we hear this story seeing these fifty-three souls in the sense of the man left-half dead in Jesus’ parable? Do we read or hear this story and have the gut-wrenching experience of compassion for such horrific suffering and loss of life? Or how easy is it for this story to get immediately caught-up in our culture’s debate on immigration policy? If we go almost immediate to our stances on immigration policy, do you see how that’s like the priest and the Levite passing by on the other side? We by-pass compassion and go straight for the gut-wrenching debate over which our culture is so deeply polarized. And that reaction — which I have to admit is easy for me to fall into, too — is emblematic of how our usual human cultures are based on being over against each other.
But Jesus’s parable is trying to challenge us to be enculturated in a different way, such that when we hear or read a story like this terrible tragedy in Texas, we simply have our gut-wrenched with compassion and react accordingly. Do you see how hard this is? How challenging this is? Once again, Jesus is reached out to you and I and inviting us into nothing less than a new way to be human. A way based on compassion and love. A way such that when we are met with a fellow human being in need, we are immediately moved with compassion. It’s an invitation that our broken world needs for us to embrace. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, July 10, 2022
1. The NRSV translation actually uses the word “pity”; I changed it to “compassion” for reading it in the assembly.
2. The Greek word for describing the Samaritan’s response in vs. 33 is splagchnizomai. The Greek word used in the lawyer’s response in v. 37, “the one who showed mercy,” is eleos.
3. For a full explanation of the Gospel writers using splagchnizomai for Jesus articulating “compassion,” see my webpage “‘Compassion’ in the New Testament.”
4. See, for example the account in the New York Times, “Tractor-Trailer Used by Smugglers Was ‘Death Trap’ for Migrants Inside,” by James Dobbins, Miriam Jordan and J. David Goodman (June 28, 2022).