Last revised: July 30, 2019
Click reload or refresh for latest version
PROPER 10 (July 10-16) — YEAR C / Ordinary Time 15
RCL: Amos 7:7-17; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
RoCa: Deut. 30:10-14; Colossians 1:15-20; Luke 10:25-37
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong. Alison makes reference to two of today’s texts in successive sections of ch. 3, where he is developing the process of transformation that the apostles underwent in response to the resurrection. More than just intellectual enlightenment (careful to avoid Gnosticism), this transformation involved the creation of a new community of God’s people in history, a New Israel. There are troubles involved with a notion such as New Israel, as well, and Alison is seeking to avoid an out-and-out replacement of Israel by the church. He’s attempting to put it in terms of a fulfillment of what God’s people were, in fact, chosen to do and to be from the beginning. In this portion (from pp. 84-86), he is parsing the difference between a dialectical critique and a foundational critique. (More on the issue of a New Israel under the gospel.)
***** Excerpt form Alison’s The Joy of Being Wrong *****
In the previous section I tried to make it clear that the witnesses perceived a difference between their accession to the intelligence of the victim, a necessarily dialectical process involving their own conversion, and their awareness that this intelligence was pacifically held by Jesus (or that it was what pacifically possessed Jesus) from the beginning. They also demonstrate that Jesus applied this intelligence to Israel from the beginning. This is clear from the way in which he replied to the question about divorce: “from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8; Mk 10:6). That is to say, his attitude towards Israel was not based on a dialectical critique, but on what one might call a foundational, or gratuitous critique, which is only a critique at all by accident, because in the first place it is an understanding of what was in the beginning. (By a ‘dialectical critique’ I mean one that is provoked into being by an opposition to what is found present, a critique that is inseparable from an attitude of ‘over against’ and is thus intrinsically violent. For an elucidation of this use of ‘dialectical’ cf pp 60-2.) This means that when he criticizes the scribes and pharisees it is, once again, not part of a new proposal that he is making in the light of which they look foolish. His concern about them is that in them, Israel is falling short of what it should have been from the beginning. Hence, in places it is suggested that they are Egyptians, who are holding up the real Exodus of God’s people. This is done with particular subtlety at Mark 3:1-6. There the way in which Moses placed before the people of Israel the choice between good and evil (Dt 30:15), the way in which God took Israel out of Egypt with mighty arm and outstretched hand, and Pharaoh’s hardness of heart, are all recalled in the incident of the cure of the man with a withered hand (which becomes outstretched) despite the hardness of the heart of the Pharisees, who did not understand the choice on the sabbath between doing good or evil, and went out to seek to destroy Jesus.Here the problem is not with the nature of Judaism, but with the way in which its current spokesmen are falling short of what they should have known and been ab initio. Exactly the same intelligence underlies the famous “woes to the pharisees” in Matthew and Luke. (Note: Girard’s essay on this, largely reproduced in Things Hidden pp 158-167, is justly considered one of his most original contributions to biblical understanding, and is one of the texts that has had most resonance ever since its first publication…) The critique, which is obviously made out of a huge sadness concerning the fate of Jerusalem (Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem etc), is precisely that the whole point of the foundation of Judaism, the calling of Israel out of Egypt, was to build a nation that was not like other nations, a nation that did not victimize, that cared for the widow and the orphan, treated well the sojourner (for remember that you were strangers in Egypt), that did not enslave (for remember that you were slaves in Egypt). That is to say: the calling of Israel was God’s project for being authentically human, for the rescuing of Abel from beneath Cain’s stones, and this vocation as universal model for humanity is being betrayed by the current representatives of Israel, who are fully complicit in the construction of the identity of Israel by exclusion of the victim, in the tradition of their forefathers who killed the prophets. Again, what makes this critique possible is Jesus’ given understanding of the plan of God from the beginning. (pp. 84-86)
*****End of Alison Excerpt*****
2. Charles Mabee, “Text as Peacemaker: Deuteronomic Innovations in Violence Detoxification,” from Violence Renounced, edited by Willard Swartley. As the title indicates, he wants to present Deuteronomy as a text that can lead us into peacemaking. He begins by noting the prominence of the Decalogue and its movement from the exclusive sovereignty of Yahweh to stipulations concerning coveting and desiring in human community.
…In other words, the Deuteronomic prescription for social solidarity and peaceful coexistence begins at this crucial point of redirecting desire toward Yawweh rather than (things of) the other (personified as the neighbor’s wife) and the property of the other (house, field, slave, ox, donkey, and the like).Presupposed here is the anthropological perspective that human beings have the capacity to “choose” Yahweh, and that this choice breaks the back of misdirected human desire. In Deuteronomic theology, this capacity to choose Yahweh is based on Yahweh’s prior choice of Israel….
…In other words, Yahweh’s choice of Israel has theological priority over the “natural” human desire of its people, and thereby becomes the key to transform their human desire from an evil into a good, or into a choice for Yahweh…. In this way, Deuteronomy can best be understood as a catechetical handbook designed to instruct the community of faith in the fundamentals of life liberated from the drive of destructive coveting and desiring which always lies embedded in the soul of human society. (pp. 73-74)
The key movement which Mabee points to is the observation at the end of Deuteronomy about Moses’ death that: “no one knows his burial place to this day” (Deut. 34:6b). What an extraordinary contrast to the prominence of the tomb in primitive religion of the Sacred! It signals in Yahwistic religion the replacement of the tomb with the text as the new center of religion. The prophet and scribe replace the priest-kings as central figures. Mabee writes:
By eliminating the tomb of its “heroic” founder and opposing the mythological Anakim [Deut. 1:28], the Deuteronomic writers in effect propose the written text as a weapon of peace (replacing the weapons of war), as the new means to effect social change. The hero forces social change based on impostion; Deuteronomy relies solely on the catechetical tools of teaching and persuasion and places the fundamental motivation of war — vengeance — out of human hands and under divine control. (p. 77)
1. “Redemption” in vs. 14 is the Greek word apolytrosis, related to the noun lytron, which is translated as “ransom” in Mark 10:45: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” So apolytrosis has the sense of “ransomed from,” which happens to fit the context of these two verses very well: “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (The word for “rescue” here is not related to soter, but rather is ryomai, which has a noun form of ryomenos, the Savior, the Rescuer, the Deliverer [Rom. 11:26].)
In the gospels, apolytrosis only appears in Lk. 21:28: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” In the Paul’s letters it occurs three times, Rom. 3:24, 8:23; 1 Cor. 1:30. It’s greatest frequency is in the Pauline letters: Eph. 1:7, Eph. 1:14, Eph. 4:30, and here in Col. 1:14. The final two instances are in Hebrews, 9:15 and 11:35.
1. Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. This is a brilliant reading of Paul’s letter in a postmodern context. In conversation with both our contemporary culture and Paul’s first century Jewish experience of Roman imperialist culture, they provide targum readings of three portions of the text: 1:1-14, 1:15-20, and 2:8-3:4. Check out this book and the excellent commentary that surrounds the targums. This book is quite simply one of my favorite monographs on a book of the Bible.
Reflections and Questions
1. As we have cautioned in the past (see, for example, Proper 24B), one needs to be careful with the notion of ransom. It can fit too easily into the Anselmian notion of atonement, where Christ pays a ransom for our sin. Girard’s anthropology helps us to avoid the pitfalls of the Anselmian atonement theory, the most basic one being that the darkness we are rescued from ends up being God’s wrath. The alternative view in many of the theologies leading up to Anselm was that of being ransomed from Satan’s power of darkness, not God’s wrath. But this view risks the pitfall of Manichaeism, giving too much power to Satan, i.e., seeing him as a power of evil akin to God’s power of good. The offshoot is that we end up having, as Anthony Bartlett calls it, an Imitatio Diaboli. We might allow God and Satan to be become enemy twins of one another. Even if we have God as the winner of the contest, tricking Satan at the cross, we need to be careful that God remains truly transcendent, showing Satan’s transcendence to be a false one, not worthy of the elevation to the power of deity. Bartlett brilliantly traces the pitfalls of walking this fine line through the first fifteen hundred years of Christian theology in the second chapter, “Imitatio Diaboli,” of his book Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement.
How do we avoid according too much power to Satan? By learning to understand Satan’s power anthropologically. In other words, Satan’s power arises out of human reality. It is a power transcendent to individuals and to human communities, but it is never separate from human existence and derives its power from the way in which human beings live in community. Understanding ourselves through the Gospel, then, with a gospel anthropology, is coming to learn to separate God’s true transcendence from Satan’s limited, less-than-divine transcendence. Satan loses his transcendence altogether — it falls from heaven like lightning — if we learn to see the nature of God’s true transcendence in Jesus Christ. We are rescued from the power of our own darkness and transferred into the Culture of God in Jesus Christ, where we are ransomed from Satan’s power through the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:13-14). Sharpening such a gospel anthropology has been Girard’s mission, one most recently and poignantly titled (from last week’s gospel, Luke 10:18) I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. See also the webpage “The Anthropology of René Girard and Traditional Doctrines of Atonement.”
1. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Recent generations of Christians hear this as, “What must I do to go to heaven?” But postmodern interpreters are guiding us in other directions, offering us other translations.
James Alison, in the concluding essay of Jesus the Forgiving Victim (see Resources below), offers this translation: “What must I do to become an insider in the life of God?” He writes,
Inheriting eternal life is a more interesting phrase than it might seem to those of us whose first reaction is that it is a simply another way of saying what must I do to go to heaven? Inheriting is what the ultimate insiders did (in those days, sons, but not daughters) and eternal life was a way of referring to the life of God. So St Luke frames the parable as a discussion of what it looks like to become an insider in the life of God. (p. 528)
N. T. Wright offers this translation in his The Kingdom New Testament, What should I do to inherit the life of the coming age? His best explanation of translating the Greek phrase zoe aionias is in How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels:
God so loved the world, reads the famous text in the King James Version of John 3:16, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. There we are, think average Christian readers. This is the biblical promise of a timeless heavenly bliss.
But it isnt. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Pauls letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two aions (we sometimes use the word eon in that sense): the Present age, ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the age to come, ha-olam ha-ba. The age to come, many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring Gods justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the present age. You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age. In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the “age to come. But there is no sense that this age to come is eternal in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, Gods great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay. (pp. 44-45)
In the translation I used in 2013 (below #9), I decided on, what must I do to enter life in Gods kingdom? The “age to come” of the Hebrew is “God’s Kingdom” proclamation of Jesus. I presume that this lawyer is aware of Jesus’ message of the Kingdom coming near and is wanting to know how he can be part of of it.
2. “wanting to justify himself” — the Greek word behind “justify”is dikaioo. Along with its noun form, dikaios, it is one of St. Paul’s most crucial vocabulary words. Among the gospel writers, it is perhaps most crucial for Luke. The most poignant moment is at the foot of the cross, where instead of the centurion declaring “Surely, this man was the Son of God” as in Mark and Matthew, Luke has the centurion proclaim, “Surely, this man was innocent (dikaios).” Previously, in Luke’s gospel, other characters, such as the lawyer in this pericope, seek to justify (dikaioo) themselves. Jesus tells the lawyer a parable about a man who is a victim of violence and is befriended only by a man who is a victim of prejudice and ethnic hatred. The point seems to be that this lawyer cannot justify himself. And, ironically, it is when Jesus is made both a victim of violence like the man in the parable and to be an outsider like the “Good Samaritan” that someone else — the centurion, another outsider — proclaims Jesus to be justified, innocent.
3. Two other crucial passages in Luke in which people attempt to justify themselves are: 16:14-18 and 18:9-14. The first is a group of sayings to the Pharisees in between the parables of the Dishonest Manager (16:1-13) and the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31). Luke 16:15 reads: “So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify [dikaioo] yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.'”
And the second passage, Luke 18:9-14, is the parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, which begins: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous [dikaios] and regarded others with contempt.” And the parable concludes: “‘I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.'”
4. dikaioo and dikaios are versatile words for Luke which the NRSV translates in various ways. dikaioo is translated:
(1) as “justify” in Luke 10:29, 16:15, 18:14;
(2) as “vindicated” in Luke 7:35;
(3) as “acknowledged the justice” in Luke 7:29; and
(4) as “set free” (twice) in Acts 13:38-39.
dikaios is translated:
(1) as “righteous” in Luke 1:6, 1:17, 2:25, 5:32, 12:57 (“right”), 14:14, 15:7, 18:9, 23:50; Acts 3:14, 4:19 (“right”), 7:52, 10:22 (“upright”), 22:14, 24:15;
(2) as “honest” in Luke 20:20; and
(3) as “innocent” in Luke 23:47.
5. Luke 10:33: “But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion.” The Greek word for “compassion,” splagchnizomai, has a very interesting history [consulting the article by Koester in Vol. VII of TDNT, pp. 548ff.]. The noun form splagchna was used in the earliest Greek literature to designate the inner parts of the sacrificial victim ripped out during a ritual blood sacrifice. If the heart was cut out during the ritual, for example, it was called a splagchna, not a kardia. Later, it became a generic term for the inner organs, including the womb. It also was seen as the seat for the impulsive passions, such as anger or anxious desire. It was never used in the pre-Christian Greek world to mean mercy or compassion as it came to mean in the later Jewish-Christian writings.
The verb form in the earlier Greek literature is even more gruesome. splagchneuo meant to eat the inner parts at the sacrificial meal, or to use the entrails in divination. It is also used in this way in 2 Maccabees.
In the Septuagint and other later Jewish writings, splagchna began to be used to translate Hebrew words having the sense of the seat of feelings. More generally, it is used to translate a Hebrew word that has the connotation of having one’s entrails stirred up — in other words, a visceral response. But it’s usage includes more positive feelings like mercy and compassion. The middle voice form episplagchnizomai is used in Prov. 17:5 to mean “to be merciful.”
It is that middle voice meaning that came to have a specialized usage in the Synoptic Gospels, with that verb form found only there. It occurs twelve times: Matt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 18:27; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22; Luke 7:13; 10:33; 15:20. And it is only used either a) to describe an emotion of Jesus, or b) by Jesus in a parable to describe the response of compassion by a major character therein. Mark‘s four usages all occur before miracles: Jesus is moved to compassion and heals a leper in 1:41; he is moved to compassion by the crowd before both feeding miracles, 6:34 and 8:2; and the father of a possessed boy beseeches Jesus to have compassion for his son in 9:22. The five occurrences in Matthew begins with a remark about Jesus’ compassion for the crowd, “like sheep without a shepherd,” in 9:36; which is a precurser to his repetition of Mark’s use of the term before both feeding miracles, 14:14 and 15:32; Matthew also uses to describe Jesus’ compassion before healing two blind men in 20:34. The fifth occurence in Matthew is the first of the three synoptic occurences in a parable of Jesus: the master has compassion on the “unforgiving servant” in forgiving his unpayable debt in Mt. 18:27. That leaves three instances in Luke: Jesus is moved by compassion before raising the son of the widow at Nain, 7:13; and Luke has Jesus use the word twice of the two most time-honored characters of his parables: the Good Samaritan has compassion when he sees the man lying half-dead in the road, 10:33, and the father of the Prodigal Son is moved by compassion when he sees his son returning home, 15:20.
I find this specialized usage to be remarkable! Is there anything behind it? And what about the roots of this word in the world of sacrifice? There is the Girardian notion that Jesus subverts the old world of sacrifice into the new world of self-sacrifice. Is the Synoptic use of this word — used only for or by Jesus — reflective of such a transformation? In Jesus Christ the emotions that make necessary the purging through the sacrificial institutions — anger, blood-lust for vengeance — are transformed into the emotion that underlies serving in the Culture of God, namely, compassion. The “impulsive passions” behind the making of sacrificial victims are transformed into a compassionate reviving of victims. The latter is especially true of Luke’s usage, i.e., compassion for the raising of a widow’s dead son, the return of a “son who was dead but now is alive again,” and a man violently beaten and left for “half-dead.”
6. Eugene Petersen, in his The Message, has the perfect translation of esplagchnisthe given our discussion: “his heart went out to him.” It is not only a picturesque metaphorical rendering of compassion, but it also more literally interprets the sacrificial origins of the Greek word. The heart going out of the sacrificial victim was, of course, a literal occurrence. Further, we once again clearly see the Gospel reversal: instead of the heart coming out of the sacrificial victim, compassion means one’s heart going out to the victim.
7. When the lawyer responds to Jesus’ question following the parable, he responds, Ho poiesas to eleos met’ autou, “the one who did mercy to him.” Different from the specialized word for “compassion” above, eleos is the common word for mercy.
8. Luke mentions Samaritans four times, here in 10:33, and also 9:52, 17:16, and Acts 8:25. He is using a Samaritan as a positive model here in 10:33; he also does so in 17:5 in specifying that the one leper who turned back to thank Jesus for being healed was a Samaritan. Acts 8:25 speaks of Peter and John “proclaiming the good news to many villages of the Samaritans.” We had much to say about the 9:52 passage two weeks ago on Proper 8C, when I argued that this passage is much more about the disciples wrongly wanting to bring down fire on the Samaritans than it is the traditional heading about Jesus being rejected by a Samaritan village. If I’m right about the latter passage, then Luke never speaks about Samaritans in a negative way but even uses them as positive models.
9. In 2013 I used the following translation (modified from the NRSV):
Just then a religion scholar stood up to test Jesus. Teacher, he said, what must I do to enter life in Gods kingdom? 26He said to him, What is written in the law? What do you read there? 27He answered, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. 28And Jesus said to him, You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.
29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, And who is my neighbor? 30Jesus replied, A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and seeing him had compassion. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two days wages, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend. 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? 37He said, The one doing mercy with him. Jesus said to him, Go and do likewise.
10. Brian Stoffregen, in his weekly notes on the Gospel (Proper 10C), notes of Luke’s set-up in 10:25:
We are also told that he comes to test (ekpeirazo) Jesus. The only other time this word is used in Luke it is Jesus quote to the devil: Do not put the Lord your God to the test (4:12). Is that what this lawyer is doing with Jesus?
And so his question is even somewhat off-base:
If we take seriously the image of inheriting, I think that the question, What must I do to inherit eternal life? is really stupid. I would like to think that there is something I could do to inherit some of Bill Gates fortune — or even the fortunes of a less wealthy (but much older) person. An inheritance is usually determined by the giver, not the receiver.
There are many more excellent exegetical notes friendly to preaching (typical of Pastor Stoffregen’s weekly offerings — highly recommended).
11. In 2007 I found and used the following maps side-by-side in a handout:
Short Geography Lesson
- The Samaria of Jesus day (right map) corresponds roughly to the West Bank area of modern Palestinians in todays Israel (left map). Samaria, however, extended to the Mediterranean coast, so there was no good way around it. The most common way for a Galillean like Jesus to get from Galilee to Jerusalem was along the Jordan River to Jericho (only on right map), and then up from Jericho to Jerusalem except that that road was notorious for robbers and brigands. But Jews of Jesus day would rather have risked that road than go through the heart of Samaria!
- Up from Jericho to Jerusalem. Remember from your geography lessons that the Dead Sea is the lowest point on land below sea level in the world. The road from Jericho to Jerusalem is through rocky country up over 1000 feet in elevation.
1. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, Essay 12, the concluding essay in JFV, “Neighbors and insider: What’s it like to dwell in a non-moralistic commandment?”, pp. 521-564. This essay is an extended meditation on Luke 10:25-37, coupled at the end to the New Commandment in John 13. So the Parable of the Good Samaritan is the anchor for Alison’s adult catechism. There’s lots of great exegesis as he goes through the entire passage verse-by-verse. But the real meat of a Girardian reading comes in the following section of placing ourselves with the Samaritan in the life of God for a different way of experiencing victims, especially victims who are nearly dead. Alison writes,
One of the things the parable takes for granted in the midst of contingency is the centrality of victims. Victims appear in two valencies in our story: sacred victims, of the sort to be found in temples, and which inspire certain attitudes towards blood and corpses; and contingent victims, who are to be found in the midst of violent human interactions. We might, following the passage from Hosea (6.6) at which we looked in Essay 8, call the human attitude towards the first sort sacrifice, and the human attitude towards the second sort mercy. Concentrating our attention on the first sort of victim leads to a certain habitual blindness towards the second sort. While attention to the second sort leads to a certain sort of insight concerning the first sort. What is in common is that those involved in both valencies, the priest and levite on the one hand, and the Samaritan, on the other, are drawn by a pattern of desire which is intimately involved with a victim.
So here is the first hint of the shape of being on the inside of the life of God, what its like to become sensitive to where Jesus is and what hes doing now: there is something ineluctable about what is at its centre. The human pattern of desire is such that we either create goodness by displacing victims, or find ourselves being made good by moving towards them. But a form of goodness which is entirely unrelated to dealing with the human reality of victimhood is not something available to our species. So much is this so that René Girard, with whose understanding of desire we have been working throughout this course, wondered what it was that first led proto-humans to discover the distinctions between good and bad, in and out, us and not-us which are set into the bedrock of distinctively human culture.
Girard postulates that human culture emerges from an (often repeated) act of lynching amongst groups of proto-humans that came before our construction of goodness and badness. Good and bad, in and out, us and not-us, and all their related culture-sustaining binaries would only have emerged fully within our race as a result of the frenzy of a groups all-against-all yielding to the all-against-one in which anthropoids discovered ourselves as humans. The lack of differentiation of the horde starts to yield to the beginning of regular culture as a source of meaning and structure emerges: the one who is not us, the one who, being out, enables us to be in, the one who thus enables us to sense the goodness of what we have done, as they come to be detected as bad. This does indeed illustrate how the emergent difference that it later became possible to call a victim is at the root of our hominization. And how victimhood is an ineluctable reality in our species.
Goodness or badness according to sacrifice, then, is what enables us to be good by contrast with some defiling other. And goodness or badness according to mercy is discovered in our being moved, or not, to show neighbourliness to one considered defiling. Thus we may find ourselves relating to victimhood in a way that dances around it, as it were, being given an apparently strong identity in our going along with the various forms of fascination with, and repulsion from, victimhood. In this way we will merely be continuing the founding gestures of human culture, seduced by our own lie about the one who is not us. Or, with much greater difficulty, at least in my case, we can allow ourselves to face the centrality of the victim in a way that is not run by a mixture of fascination and fear, and be given to be who we are to be, starting from our recognition of ourselves in the one who is just there. The attitude to victims is the criterion for neighbourliness. (pp. 540-42)
The other emphasis in reading the parable from the perspective of the Samaritan, in the life of God, is that he doesn’t seem as afraid of death as we normally are. “Gut-wrenched” compassion moves the Samaritan to a different attitude toward death — which is essentially an effect of the Resurrection. It ultimately changes the entire way we look at creation. Two further paragraphs to share:
Well, it seems to me that this is the human and anthropological pattern that the resurrection has in our lives. If the model is God, and the object creation, or everything that is, then the question becomes, How do we learn to love, to desire, everything that is, in the same way that God does? The difficulty is that God is not a model in any obvious sense. If we do not have a human model to imitate, one at our level, then we have no ability to desire according to God, and we will be left at the mercy of modelling each others desire, while claiming that we desire according to a frightening sacred object who is in fact a projection of ourselves and of our fears and of our violence. What is traditionally called an idol. We will be stuck, in fact, with that draw towards and repulsion from victims, a kind of unstable and two-faced fascination, which is what characterizes the archaic sacred.
However, what we have in Jesus resurrection is a fully human set of eyes for whom death is not, a real human life story that is a living out at the anthropological level of the deathlessness of God. Because of this, that life is able to get alongside us and into us in the same way as the pattern of desire of the fine art connoisseur, and we start to be able to look at creation, at everything that is, through those same deathless eyes. The pattern of desire of the deathless one opens our eyes to what really is in the world, without us having to run away from, be run by, death. It becomes possible for us to be towards everything that is in the same way as the deathless one, and so to be creative and daring and imaginative without fear or hurry. The deathless one has opened up the possibility of our pattern of desire being towards everything that is, in this quite specifically deathless way. And of course, everything that is actually looks quite different if looked at with humanly deathless eyes. Observation affects reality, as quantum physicists tell us. Just as the reality of creation underwent a real change when human consciousness was born, and anthropoids started looking at everything round about them through those hugely more powerful and dangerous things, human eyes, so that same reality has been undergoing a further change as, ever since Jesus resurrection, reality has been able to be observed from within itself by the deathless One looking through fully human eyes into whose gaze we find ourselves drawn. (pp. 545-47)
And one final dimension of Alison’s insights in this passage: our becoming unafraid of death changes our perspective on time, too. So one last excerpt:
As death loses its power, so commitment to the flourishing of what is fragile and precarious becomes possible, and our relationship with time changes. I dont know about you, but pledging yourself in an open-ended manner to make good on the hospital expenses of a severely injured person without any guarantee of payback for yourself is mostly a terrifying possibility. What is to stop you being taken to the cleaners for everything youve got?
But what if time is not your enemy? If time is not your enemy, then what you achieve or dont achieve, whether you are taken to the cleaners or not, is secondary, and whatever you have will be for the flourishing of the weak one for as long as it takes, since you know that you will be found there. Being on the inside of the life of God looks like being decanted, by a generosity you didnt know you had in you, into making a rash commitment which makes a nonsense of death, of worry, and of the panic of time, because you know that you want to be found in loving proximity to what is weak and being brought into being. (pp. 549-50)
2. Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change. There are two citations in the McLaren corpus that I’d like to highlight. The first is in the context of the seeing today’s North American religion as capitalism. If Jesus chose a priest and levite as two core representatives of his religion, we might choose a CEO and a Wall Street broker. In ch. 23, McLaren names “theocapitalism” as our main religion and suggests we go by Four Spiritual Laws. The Fourth he calls The Law of Freedom to Prosper Through Unaccountable Corporations: “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic economy, and in the communion of unaccountable corporations.” Even if our Christian mission is moving sacrificial relationships to victims to relationships of mercy, we still have to contend with our Number One religion, capitalism. How much of our current capitalist practice shows mercy to victims of our economy, victims of poverty? In Everything Must Change, McLaren is lifting up the faith dimension of living by God’s Culture of mercy within our theocapitalist cultures. So over the next several chapters he develops alternatives to the Four Spiritual Laws of theocapitalism. The Fourth is The Law of Freedom to Prosper by Building Better Communities: “Jesus offers an alternative path to freedom not through unaccountable corporations (the gangs of the rich) linked together to become wealthy using the labor of the poor, but rather through the rich and poor joining their labor for the building of a better world by the building of better communities.” It is under this Fourth Law that McLaren cites the Good Samaritan:
As weve seen, the global economy, as a collaboration among corporate elites, currently lacks both accountability and responsibility to local communities. Meanwhile, those local communities (where they still survive) are bound by a primal human bond: neighborliness. In Jesus teaching, from the Great Commandment to the story of the Good Samaritan, neighborliness is a duty that cannot be escaped or avoided. Even the stranger and the enemy, in Jesus vision, must be treated as a neighbor.
So for the global economy to be liberated from service to theocapitalism and connected instead to Gods love economy, it needs to replace the fourth law of freedom through global corporate elites with a vision of co-liberation for neighborliness and community building.
The second citation within McLaren’s works that I’d like to feature is in Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?. The crossing-the-road metaphors provides the link. The priest and levite fail to cross the road while the Samaritan doesn’t. In a footnote (#9, p. 271), he offers, “Here is another answer to the question, Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed cross the road? To discover the other as neighbor, and to show solidarity with those on the other side.” So McLaren uses this parable as part of his closing words in summarizing the book, in the concluding chapter, “How a Hindu Can Help Christians Discover Their True Identity in a Multi-faith World.” That Hindu is, as you might guess, Mahatma Gandhi. Even as many Christians have been reluctant to cross the road that separates us and them, Gandhi was willing to take discipleship of Jesus seriously enough to show us how to get started again in crossing that road. And so these two paragraphs near the end of the book:
Everyone is crossing roads. Many, like the religious leaders in Jesus paradigmatic story (Luke 10:25-37), cross the road in fear and prejudice to avoid contact with the other. But some, like the good Samaritan, cross the road in compassion and solidarity, moving toward the other to touch, to heal, to affirm human-kindness. In that spirit, we have begun crossing the road, and on the other side, we are discovering the other as neighbor, and God as loving Creator of al1.9 This crossing forever changes our identity. Each page that we have turned has been a small step in embracing that new identity, in making room for it to be born within us.
For all our progress, we still have a long way to go. We have only begun to face and trace the darker threads of our history and to own them and integrate them with the brighter hues in our tapestry of faith (the historical challenge). We are just beginning to reformulate and celebrate our doctrine as a healing teaching rather than an exclusive litmus test (the doctrinal challenge). We are neophytes when it comes to reinvigorating our liturgy for strong-and-kind spiritual formation (the liturgical challenge). And we have a long journey ahead in reframing and practicing our mission in a politically conflicted, ecologically precarious, economically unjust, and spiritually diverse world (the missional challenge). But to be crossing the road at all is great progress in comparison to being huddled defensively on our opposite corners, glaring from a distance in fear, pride, isolation, and ignorance. So, just as Jesus introduced an outsider a despised Samaritan to teach his companions about the greatest commandment, a Hindu has given us a final word in these final pages. (pp. 270-71)
3. Michael Hardin and Jeff Krantz, PreachingPeace.org (a sister site for “Girardian reflections”), Proper 10C. Michael begins his exegetical reflections by noting the history of interpretation shaped by Augustine’s allegorical take: the half dead man is Adam after being conquered by sin, the Samaritan is Jesus, the inn is the church, the two drachma are the two sacraments, etc, etc. Actually, Stoffregen above represents well the Augustinian take:
We are the ones in the ditch and the Samaritan represents God — God who is both enemy and helper. Our sin makes God our enemy. Yet, in the parable, the enemy gives new life to the man in the ditch. The enemy expends his resources (apparently unlimited) for the care of the half-dead man.
The problems with the lawyer is that he couldn’t see God as his enemy. He hadn’t recognized the depth of his own sinfulness. (He wants to justify himself and probably had a bit of pride that comes along with that.) He was too strong and healthy. He assumes that he has the ability to do something to inherit eternal life. He assumes that he can do something to justify himself. He is not helpless in the ditch. He doesn’t need God’s grace.
But Hardin turns this around to get to what I think is the more important point, the radical love of God which reaches out even to enemies (see Part II of “My Core Convictions,” especially as it climaxes with Romans 5:8-10):
The mimetic crisis of Jesus Passion reveals that we are the persecutors, Jesus is the man on the side of the road. We are invited to rethink our concepts of neighbor and enemy. The moral interpretation of this parable, the one that extols good and charitable deeds, is still far from the love of enemy to which we are called. The moral interpretation of the parable creates a false security by focusing on the compassion of the Samaritan because identification of our own victims has not been done first.
But the Lukan portrayal of this enemy love, as shown by his emphases, means far more than deeds of compassion. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has relations with folk most people would try to avoid. And the proclamation of the eschatological jubilee means something spiritually; that we are forgiven by God for killing Jesus. And it means something socially, namely, that we were also to be forgiven our social debts and to forgive others their debts, both monetarily and in terms of honor and the like. Enemy love is taught and lived in the life of Jesus. When Jesus died, he, for his part, had no enemies (Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing). The Lukan christological focus is not meant to dominate at the expense of the more original setting of the parable. A more cogent interpretation of the parable lets it really parable us, that is, it brings both aspects of mimetic theory into play, making us aware of negative mimesis and exhorting us to positive mimesis. Perhaps this has been the real power behind the popularity of the parable in describing the Christian life. If Jesus has told us that life is to be about not having enemies anymore, then how does this parable read Christians who perceive others as enemies?
Jeff Krantz then moves to an excellent point of contemporary application:
There is a cliché that floats around the news from time to time. It is called compassionate conservatism and is portrayed as charitable acts of kindness within firm boundaries. Herein lies the problem. Because it is both compassionate and conservative, it has set limits on its goodness, it goes this far and no farther. Compassionate conservatism is the scribes’ problem, not his solution; it is the limit, the threshold, and the end, the-beyond-which compassion is not obligated to go. This compassion and the compassion of the Samaritan are two quite different things according to Jesus. Luke’s gospel is the gospel of compassion and for us to set limits on compassion (we will give it to those we deem worthy, the unworthy do not receive it) is to ignore the parable’s entire stated point. To interpret the parable in this moralizing fashion turns the lesson into a myth.
Krantz’s “Preaching Thought” builds on Hardin’s emphasis above by turning the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” into, “Who is my enemy?” Great stuff.
5. Andrew McKenna, Violence and Difference; the appendix, “Biblical Theory: Testing the Victimary Hypothesis,” has an extensive reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, pp. 211-221. This is the most expansive Girardian reading that I’m aware of on this most crucial parable. It is well worth looking up.
6. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of Luke” audio lecture series, tape #6. Link to my notes and transcription on this portion of Luke’s Gospel. These lectures are also now available online in clips; this portion covered by “The Poetry of Truth,” Part 61, Part 62, Part 63, Part 64, Part 65, Part 66.
A basic thesis of Bailie’s treatment of this passage is that it goes with the Mary and Mary story which follows (Part 67, Part 68). The lawyer correctly perceives the two great commandments — love God, love neighbor — but then jumps to the second commandment about loving neighbor. The Mary and Martha story complements the parable of the Good Samaritan by emphasizing the first of these commandments, love of God. For a sermon that makes use of this insight, link to one for next week’s gospel entitled “The ‘Better Part.'”
7. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 91-93, 217; Raising Abel, p. 109. Pages 91-93 in JBW continue the discussion of the New Israel (began under the First Lesson), lifting up its universality, but not in the recently popular sense of the “anonymous Christian.” The Parable of the Good Samaritan is his main illustration: the Samaritan is not some sort of “anonymous Jew” in Jesus’ parable.
The problem with the term “anonymous Christian” seems to me its link with a certain sort of anthropology, one insisting that a certain sort of universally saving grace is already present in people just by the fact of being human, and one which therefore makes of the visible contingent Church simply the explicitation of what is essentially an anthropological universal. I would suggest, as a consequence of the theology of grace that I have been developing above (for that is what it is), that a more useful approach to this problem might be to talk of the universal christoformity of grace, whether present in sign, or present anonymously.
Let me illustrate this: when Jesus taught the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37) he was not teaching that the Samaritan was in fact an anonymous Jew. He was identifying the concrete way in which divine grace is made humanly present: as a turning towards the victim. The intelligence of the victim is the criterion of the presence of grace. This means that we can say that grace is always christoform: it is always the gratuitous presence of the self-giving victim that is at the same time a critique of the way humans are, and a constructive forgiveness of humans permitting the construction of a creative sign of a new human reconciliation. Now, the creative sign of the self-giving victim bringing about a new humanity par-excellence is the Church founded on the Eucharist. And this is a visible reality. Indeed, the only way we have come to know that God and the self-giving human victim are essentially linked is through the contingent historical events, signs and texts discussed above. However, this very fact obliges us to recognize that this self-giving of the victim, a divine self-giving, is constantly pushing wider the human limitations of the contingent historical sign, and is perfectly capable of creating anonymous proto-signs of the reconciliation of humanity with God wherever there are humans to be reconciled — the field of opportunity is universal….
To be a Christian is to live out the universal christoformity of grace visibly, so as to create the sign, which is itself contagious to others, all of whom live in a world whose social order is based on victimization. The important thing is not whether people are Christians or not, anonymously or explicitly, but whether the universal christoformity of grace is being lived out as genuinely constructive of the new unity of humanity. The importance of this approach is that by talking of the universal christoformity of grace, rather than the anonymous Christian, I am saving the way in which there is no grace available to human beings that does not involve a turning towards the victim, that is, a certain form of conversion. …the question Jesus was answering when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan, was that of the criterion for inheriting eternal life (Lk 10:25). And the answer was given in terms of the intelligence of the victim. Any anthropology that does not include that criterion seems to fall short of adequacy as an aid to theological interpretation. (pp. 91-93)
8. Paul Dumouchel, The Barren Sacrifice: An Essay on Political Violence, pp. 122-23. In the chapter on “Indifference and Charity,” Dumouchel extends his ideas from The Ambivalence of Scarcity regarding the development of systemic Indifference from the archaic situation of solidarity obligations. In archaic communities there was a sacred obligation — i.e., backed with a threat of sacred violence if one did not fulfill the obligation — for both solidarity with all community members and hostility for those deemed as foes. The solidarity obligations were idyllic in terms of making sure everyone was cared for — no one went hungry unless everyone went hungry. But the other side of that was an obligation of hostility to one’s enemies that often created a situation of incessant tribal conflicts. Both solidarity and hostility were fueled by the engine of ritual blood sacrifice and gods who punish those who don’t fulfill their obligations.
Dial forward to today where obligations have been undercut in secular society by desacralizing the motivation for keeping either solidarity with friends or hostility toward enemies. One is allowed to remain indifferent — and so Indifference is the default mode of the system. Especially charity is done only by individual choice — or by one living in the Spirit of Christ where charity and love are fulfilled as a way of life.
Jesus’ parable is at the breech between the breaking down of traditional obligations and modern Indifference as the default of the system. The parable shows that obligations have already weakened and then completely undercuts them with the conclusion, the ‘moral of the story.’ The priest and Levite fail to fulfill solidarity obligations to a fellow Jew by their indifference, while the Samaritan fails his traditional hostility obligations to a Jew, instead acting in solidarity. The ‘moral of the story’ is that all prior friend-foe obligations are transgressed in favor of showing compassionate solidarity to all.
Dumouchel writes how this complicates today’s situation:
Given this twofold ‘failing,’ we can say not only that charity transgresses and neutralizes traditional obligations, but that it simultaneously appears as a way of compensating for their weakening, their inevitable fatigue as we get further and further from their origin. The two phenomena go hand in hand. The weakening of traditional obligations, which is testified to by the indifference of those who pass by, is the condition of possibility for the Good Samaritan’s charity, and his distance from his obligation of exclusive solidarity, which is indicated by his charity, is the condition of possibility for their indifference. (p. 123)
9. Jeremiah Alberg, Beneath the Veil of the Strange Verses, pp. 86-97.
10. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2013, titled “The Man Who Had to Win“; a sermon in 2019, “Go and Do Likewise“; Tim Seitz-Brown, sermon notes/outline in 2016, “Solving Samaritan Puzzle; Dan Hinkle, a sermon in 2016, “What Do We Do Now?”
11. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” offered this blog on the text, “On Being a Bad Samaritan and a Good Person.” It offers a concise Girardian reading of this parable that includes many of the insights above. I especially like his coining the phrase “bonding based on exclusion” as a description of human culture under the power of sacred violence. Marr writes, “What Jesus is doing in this parable, then, is shock us out of our tendency to bond through exclusion and bring us back in touch with the deeper natural bonding through compassion for whichever victim we pass by.” And concludes:
Jesus knew better than most liberals like me that we don’t overcome prejudice by trying to be more logical about the problem. Our bonding through exclusion short-circuits rational thinking as the lawyer, the priest and the Levite demonstrate in much the same way as priests, ministers and social workers demonstrate today. What is needed is knowledge through our deepest natural bonds of sympathy with the other that has no boundaries. Then, we need not ask: Who is our neighbor? because, as Kierkegaard tells us in Works of Love, the person nearest us, no matter who he or she is, is our neighbor.
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2016 I had preached a series of sermons on the Galatians texts, bringing out the notion of the dimension of sin that infects human culture. Then, in the intervening week two more African American men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were needlessly killed by police, followed by the gunning down of five police officers in Dallas — Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith. I read the Parable of the Good Samaritan in line with the Galatians sermons on cultural sin that pointedly addresses the American sin of racism, a sermon entitled, “Exposing and Working to Heal the Sin of Racism.”
2. In 2013 this Parable of the Good Samaritan draws me to the cultural dimension of the mechanisms for blocking or shutting down compassion — “Barriers to Compassion” (the theme for the 2014 Theology and Peace Conference). Mimetic theory, combined with the new science of “mirror neurons,” explains how we human beings can fire up with compassion. An hours-old baby can begin to mimic a smile on the mother’s face. As the relationship deepens, the mimeticism deepens to actually feeling one another’s joy in imitating the smile. As we mature, we also grow to become moved by the suffering of others.
Contra contemporary scientists who look for a ‘compassion gene,’ Mimetic Theory once again provides a simpler hypothesis for compassion. The combination of mirror neurons (physiological) and our propensity to live within a force-field of imitation (spiritual) provides a explanation that is fully human without locking us into genetics. There is not a ‘compassion gene,’ so to speak. When we consider the case of people who seem to be incapable of compassion, this can be explained not by a missing gene, but by a defect in brain physiology (the mirror neurons don’t work normally) and/or by spiritual trauma that has mimetically nurtured an ‘interdividual’ into a deficit of experiencing compassion.
What’s more interesting to me, however, is the inclination itself to find a gene that somehow exempts a person from receiving our compassion as a culture or society. Persons who seemingly lack compassion become our scapegoats, throw-away people for whom we need not feel sorry. In other words, what is more important to understand is the lack of compassion that happens not just on the interdividual level but on the cultural/societal level.
In 2013 I was still fresh from our Theology & Peace Conference on the theme “Lynching, Scapegoating, and Actual Innocence.” How did the culture in the South develop in 1870-1950 to accept lynching? How did a large group of folks who can feel compassion toward each other hang and immolate a young black man without any compassion, but rather hatred? How do cultures and societies participate in cruel and deadly practices such as slavery? How is it that we, as a species, apparently organize ourselves into Us-Them structures where Us deserves compassion and Them does not? This, it seems to me, is better answered by Mimetic Theory and its understanding of the Scapegoat Mechanism as the basis for all human culture. In short, Barriers to Compassion are a product of the Scapegoat Mechanism.
So we ask: how is compassion blocked or shutdown if it is a natural part of our mimeticism? What are the barriers to compassion? I know in my own experience that there is a self-protection mechanism that seems to trigger it. There is so much suffering in the world that one sometimes needs to block it or shutdown one’s compassion. But how does that self-protection work without being overloaded with guilt? Does our self-protection from compassion, when it threatens to overwhelm us, find transcendent justification in the Us-Them sacrificial structuring of our cultures and institutions? This once again goes back to our beginnings: sacred religion had to provide justification and means for shutting down compassion for victims killed on altars. Our justifications have simply become more complicated and abstract — capable, too, of removing us from proximity to our victims. Living in a gated community (or suburb) means not having to see the suffering of poverty.
In short, due to sacrificial culture I’m able to justify shutting down my compassion for Them, and keep my compassion flowing for a circumscribed, manageable Us. In times of sacrificial crisis, the Us tends to become increasingly smaller. In times of peace, the Us might seem expansive.
But in our cultures of Us-Them structuring, we will never have ultimate peace. As Jesus reminds us, Satan casting out Satan will always mean a house divided (Mark 3 — the first “parable” in Mark’s Gospel). In this Parable of the Good Samaritan, I think the lawyer seeks to “justify” a circumscribing of compassion for his neighbor in manageable proportions. Jesus deflates that hope by showing a Them, the Samaritan, that crosses the boundary to show compassion to an Us. On the cross, Jesus will live that out. Thus the meaning of both the cross and this parable is that if we are ultimately to have peace in this world, there can be no boundary on compassion for the Other.
But doesn’t that mean risking to be overwhelmed by suffering? Isn’t that what happened on the cross to Jesus, taking on the suffering of the world? Is that what it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus? To leave oneself vulnerable to compassion toward all the suffering around us? To some extent, I would say, “Yes, following Jesus to the cross means being vulnerable to the suffering of compassion.” The whole creation, after all, is groaning for redemption (Romans 8). But there is also the grace both of hope and of the experience of beginning to be remade as sons and daughters of God, of living in the Spirit.
The grace of hope is that this is ultimately God’s project, begun in Jesus Christ and continued in the power of the Spirit, and so we look to participate and follow where God is leading as best we can as finite creatures, bound in time. We do not bear the responsibility of leading, only following, trusting in God’s promise — the the Resurrection as down payment — that one day the work will finally be done. Suffering will come to an end.
And there is the grace of being remade in our humanity. I think that James Alison (in the Jesus the Forgiving Victim excerpts above) describes beautifully the personal transformation into creatures who can show compassion without being so afraid of death.
But I might also suggest that we can go further into the cultural dimension of who we are as human beings. Alison’s treatment of this parable sets up but doesn’t more fully explore the cultural dimension of this parable. He shows us how our unredeemed culture gives us a sacrificial approach to victims. But what does a being-redeemed culture look like in opening us more toward compassion — or even to less frequently shutting down our compassion? To me, that is where someone like Brian McLaren helps point the way (see also the McLaren excerpts above). In Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, he provides a detailed outline of how life in the church is being remade to hospitality and compassion to the Other. In Everything Must Change, he sketches the broader picture of cultural change that needs to happen, as disciples of Jesus called to participate in how God is transforming our cultures to be more compassionate. The latter is a much slower and complicated business than personal transformation — but no less part of the call to discipleship. We are called to advocate with the victims to the representatives of religion today — CEO’s, Wall Street magnates, elected politicians, et al., no longer priests and levites. We are called to be part of God’s shaping who we are as cultural beings into cultures of compassion.
Once again, my Gospel in a nutshell in Ephesians 2:14-16:
For Christ Jesus is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.
Here we see that even the law has become a barrier to compassion, dividing us in two. Jesus has come to tear down those dividing walls. How do we live in that peace he is creating? That will be the theme of the 2014 Theology and Peace Conference, “Barriers to Compassion.”
For a sermon on this reading of the parable, see “Transformed by Compassion — Personally and Culturally.”
3. My exegetical notes above point to a related but slightly different direction than focusing on the victim status of the man in parable. The parable, by being set in this context of the lawyer “testing” Jesus, is set in a context very much about mimetic rivalry. The latter always seems to come down to this phenomenon of trying to justify oneself. The lawyer is part of the crowd listening to Jesus, but steps out from the crowd in order to justify himself. And he does so by trying to make himself look good in opposition to another, by tempting someone else to get caught up in his game.
But Jesus will not be the constituting Other in his game. He who was without sin will not become embroiled in such mimetic rivalry. In fact, he offers the lawyer the way out. The priest and the Levite in the parable are like the lawyer: they are caught up in the typical games of mimetic rivalry that necessitate a sacrificial solution of some variety. But Jesus leads this lawyer to see the way out of the mimetic entanglements and their sacrificial solutions: respond to the victim of those games. Will the lawyer follow? Will you and I ‘overhear’ and follow?
Link to a sermon (1995) developing these themes entitled “Deadly Games.”
4. During this week in which the bottom line is the experience of mercy, I had one of those eerie God-moments of happenstance (2001). While visiting a patient in the hospital who was using the bathroom, I sat down in the nearby lounge and picked up a book of American short stories lying on the table — of all things to find in a hospital lounge! Leafing through the contents, the story with which I’m most familiar, largely through Gil Bailie’s tapes (e.g., tape #3 of his series on “Confirmation”), was the one that caught my eye. I turned to “The Artificial Nigger,” by Flannery O’Connor.
The ending of the story with its depictions of mercy is what initially caught my eye. But it’s the crucial episode at the center of the story which gave me a word to name the opposite of mercy or compassion, namely, “denial.” When the priest cut out the beating heart of the human victim of blood sacrifice (see comments on splagchna above), the congregation certainly could not allow themselves the emotional response of compassion. Rather, they would need to have denied their human connection with the victim. The victim is Sacred, or a demon, a monster. For Jews to hate Samaritans, they must deny their human connection to them. For Americans to kill Japanese in war, we deny their humanity. For Mr. Head in O’Connor’s story to hate “niggers” in the way that he does, he must deny their humanity. Standing in the circle of Jesus’ persecutors, Peter must deny Jesus. The miracle of Jesus’ forgiveness is that it is able to transform such denial into compassion.
At the center of O’Connor’s story is a denial. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, first published in the spring of 1955, it is about Mr. Head and his 10 year-old grandson, Nelson, taking a train ride from their rural home in Georgia into the big city of Atlanta. When Mrs. Head had died some years back, their only daughter had run off. When she returned home “after an interval,” it was with the baby Nelson. His daughter then died when Nelson was only a year-old. Mr. Head is taking Nelson into the big city purely for the experience. Having led a sheltered life in the country with his grandfather (embroiled in mimetic rivalry), he has grown up a bit of a smart-aleck, and Mr. Head hopes this trip teaches him a lesson, putting him in his place.
They get off the train at center city and begin walking in tight circles around the neighborhood of the train station. Being in mimetic rivalry, Nelson is able to goad his grandfather into wandering further and further away from the station, until they find themselves lost in the African-American portion of town — an absolute fright for two white racists from the country. Nelson finally is the one to ask directions, and they are told to catch a streetcar at the corner. Afraid to take the streetcar itself, Mr. Head and Nelson follow the streetcar tracks out of the poor section of town.
It is when they feel safe enough to sit and take a break that the crucial episode in the story takes place. Nelson falls asleep. In keeping with his goal of teaching his grandson a lesson, he walks off a distance to hide around a corner. But Nelson panics so immediately upon waking up that he darts off without his grandfather being able to keep up with him. When Mr. Head catches up, he sees that Nelson has gotten into some trouble. He has collided with a women walking home from the grocery store, and he, the woman, and the groceries are scattered all over the sidewalk, with a growing crowd of women surrounding them. Mr. Head inches forward as the woman shouts, “You’ve broken my ankle and your daddy’ll pay for it! Every nickel! Police! Police!” When Nelson spies his grandfather he runs to him and throws himself around Mr. Head’s hips, his fingers digging into his legs. With the fallen woman renewing her shouts for justice, Mr. Head is faced with a moment of truth:
Mr. Head sensed the approach of the policeman from behind. He stared straight ahead at the women who were massed in their fury like a solid wall to block his escape, “This is not my boy,” he said. “I’ve never seen him before.” He felt Nelson’s fingers fall out of his flesh.
The women dropped back, staring at him with horror, as if they were so repulsed by a man who would deny his own image and likeness that they could not bear to lay hands on him. Mr. Head walked on, through a space they silently cleared, and left Nelson behind.
Nelson follows at a distance, his hatred seething. He refuses to speak or respond, even when his grandfather offers him something to drink. They now have clearly gone in the wrong direction, following the street car tracks into the wealthy suburbs. They finally come upon a man walking his dogs, who informs Mr. Head that they are only several blocks from the suburban station and will be just in time to catch the train there.
It is in those last remaining blocks that Mr. Head and Nelson come upon a sight very strange to them, one which begins to break the ice between them. They catch sight of an ironic piece of the landscape, the plastic figure of an African American posed on one of the suburban lawns. “An artificial nigger!” they both exclaim. Here’s how Flannery O’Connor describes the experience:
They stood gazing at the artificial Negro as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another’s victory that brought them together in their common defeat. They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy. Mr. Head had never know before what mercy felt like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now. He looked at Nelson and understood that he must say something to the child to show that he was still wise and in the look the boy returned he saw a hungry need for that assurance. Nelson’s eyes seemed to implore him to explain once and for all the mystery of existence.
Mr. Head opened his lips to make a lofty statement and heard himself say, “They ain’t got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one.”
A Girardian can recognize that this is in fact the mystery of our existence: how it is that human beings solve their differences by designating someone else as more different, as an outsider. The symbolic marker of that mystery perched on the suburban lawn works not only for the suburbanites but helps to bring Mr. Head and Nelson back together, too. Rather than continuing to hate his grandfather, with whom he must live, Nelson is able to join with him toward a mutual object of hatred. Thus is Mr. Head’s first experience of “mercy.”
After riding the train back home, standing on the train platform in his own familiar environment, Mr. Head has a second, deeper experience of mercy. Here is the second to last paragraph of the story:
Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again but this time he knew that there were no words in the world that could name it. He understood that it grew out of agony, which is not denied to any man and which is given in strange ways to children. He understood it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame that he had so little of it to take with him. He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.
The sin of humanity that we all carry, going back to the beginning of time, is to hold together our little communities and sub-communities by denying the humanity of someone whom we expel or sacrifice. Jesus at the cross transforms not only that sacrificial mechanism into self-sacrifice, but he also transforms denial into compassion for the victim and thus into possibility of reconciliation. We come to live new lives of compassion when we experience in Jesus Christ a compassionate forgiveness from God that is more vast than our sin — Mr. Head’s experience as he stands on the train platform back home.
Link to a sermon that makes use of these insights on “denial” vs. “compassion,” entitled “Doing Compassion.”