Proper 10C Sermon (2001)

Proper 10 (July 10-16)
Texts: Luke 10:25-37;
Deut. 30:10-14; Col. 1:1-14

DOING COMPASSION

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who did mercy to him.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The one who did mercy to him. Go and do likewise. Last week, we began to ponder what it means to be called to be peacemakers. This week we are confronted with a call to do mercy. I think they’re related. Being a peacemaker involves, among other things, doing mercy.

So how does one do mercy? The parable of the Good Samaritan is obviously a good example to begin with. Jesus means it as an example. “Go and do likewise,” he says to the lawyer — he says to us. We are to do as the Samaritan did to the man who fell into the hands of robbers. But that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? And the problem with a real specific answer like this one is that you can start to play the game of ‘what-iffing.’ You can think of similar situations but point up the differences and say, ‘What if…?’

No, I think we need to understand a bit deeper what is going on here in this timeless parable of Jesus. And I think that a key to such deeper understanding is to look at the Samaritan’s basic response: “‘But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion.'” Moved with compassion. We must understand how this response of being moved with compassion is different than the other responses.

The responses of the priest and the Levite, for example. What would we say about those responses? Apathetic? Yes, that’s one word. But there’s another word I’d like to suggest today. [It’s a word I came upon actually in the story I stumbled upon this week, as I relate in the reflections for this week.] The word is denial. I’d like to suggest this morning that the opposite of being moved with compassion is to be shut-down with denial. We shut off any feelings of empathy with a person in need like the man in the road by somehow denying that person’s connection with us, and therefore denying any responsibility we might have to help them.

The lawyer answered correctly. We are to love God with all our heart and mind and soul, and we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. When we behave like that priest or Levite did, what we are denying is that the other person is like our self. Essentially we are denying the other person’s humanity. We are denying that he or she is like us. We are finding some difference in them that means we neither have to consider them a “neighbor” or to love them as ourselves. We are denying them our love. And when we deny them our love, then we cannot be moved with compassion. The opposite of compassion is denial.

In order to understand this a bit deeper yet, I’d like to do something unusual. I’d like to take us back to the very beginnings of the Greek word which we are translating here as “being moved with compassion.” For it has very strange roots. In the ancient Greek world this work never had the meaning of compassion until it started began to be used to translate some Hebrew words in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Then, in the Gospels, it has such a specialized sense of compassion that it is used only twelve times, with nine of those twelve times being used of Jesus himself: that he would be moved to compassion just before performing a miracle, like feeding the five thousand, or healing blind men, or raising the widow of Nain’s son. The other three times that this word appears in the Gospels, it is Jesus himself who uses it to describe the response of someone in one of his parables: a master as he forgives his servant’s unpayable debt (Mt. 18:27), a father as he welcomes home his Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:20), and, of course, here the Good Samaritan. Seemingly, Jesus and the Gospels have completely transformed this word.

So what did this word mean originally in the Greek? You’re not going to believe this, but it’s the truth: this word originally designated the inner parts during a ritual blood sacrifice. I apologize if you’re squeamish but I think this is important. It was common during such sacrifices to cut out the still beating heart, or other important organs. These organs were called not by their usual designations but by this generic name, splachna, which became “compassion” in the New Testament. The Greeks had a word for “heart,” for example. We know it, in fact. Their word for heart is kardia, from which we get our word “cardiac.” So why, during a blood sacrifice, didn’t they call it a heart? Because they had to deny the humanity of the victim of sacrifice. Let’s also remember that the Greeks did practice human sacrifice. How can you possibly place a human being on an altar and kill them? By denying their humanity. The sacrificial victim is sacred, more than human; the gods want them. Or the sacrificial victim is a monster, somehow less than human.

So how in the world did this word come to be used in the New Testament as the word par excellence to describe Jesus’ compassion for us? I submit to you it’s because Jesus came to transform our sacrificial institutions. He came as the Lamb of God, a victim himself of our sacrificial ways. And when I say sacrificial, I mean the old kind of sacrifice in which you spilled someone else’s blood. Jesus transformed that sacrifice into self-sacrifice by offering his own blood, his own body. A body and blood that we remember again here this morning as he comes to bind us together into a Holy Communion of his resurrected body.

What we need to understand is how it is that all our human institutions are sacrificial in some form or other, sacrificial in the old sense of leaving someone else out or even killing them. The old way of sacrifice is actually our human means of communion, of having community. We bind ourselves together in groups at the expense of someone we leave out or even kill. In order to do that, in order to leave some out or to even kill them, we have to do the opposite of Jesus’ compassion. We have to deny them their humanity, to deny that they are brothers or sisters in our human family with us.

Let’s have some quick examples. When the Conquistadores landed in Central America, one of the peoples who were still spectacularly practicing human sacrifice were the Aztecs. They had regular rituals just as we described earlier, where they would cut the still beating heart out. The Conquistadors were appalled and so felt justified in slaughtering Aztecs in great numbers. But do you see? We’ve later come to understand how the colonialism of the Europeans was its own updated form of blood sacrifice. We were able to use the ritual sacrifice of the Aztecs as a difference to point to, something to deny them their full humanity, and so we were somehow justified in killing them. We played the same sacrificial games with the slaves from Africa and with the Native Americans of this continent. Our expansionist doctrines of capitalism in the 18th and 19th centuries gave us some rules by which we were able to deny the full humanity of some, to leave them out of the game, and to even slaughter them in great numbers.

What about capitalism of the 20th and 21st centuries? We don’t seem to play of colonial expansionism in quite the same way anymore. But how do we explain the facts of such a huge gap between rich and poor across this globe? The world’s 358 billionaires’ combined assets roughly equal the assets of the world’s poorest 2.5 billion people. Since 1950, Americans alone have used more resources than everyone who ever lived before them. We hoard far more than our share of the world’s wealth and resources, while more than half of the world’s people are in great need of basics for survival. When we are confronted with such people in need, how can we “walk around them” with some standard justifications, some rules, for passing by on the other side? We do so by denying that they are our neighbors.

(Since we are still getting to know one another, let me briefly be clear about something: if I’m critical about capitalism, it doesn’t mean I support another option like socialism. Socialism simply wrote other kinds of rules and justifications for slaughtering their enemies. Different rules, but the same basic, bloody game of sacrifice.)

What’s at stake here is the age-old sin of humanity: writing some rules that leave someone out and excuse our aggression towards them. Or even to excuse our neglect. That was the game of the priest and Levite, of course. The rules of their game said that the half-dead man in the road was unclean, less than human, and so justifying their neglect.

Jesus comes to teach us the opposite, to empower us to live the opposite. Instead of denying anyone’s humanity, he moves us to be compassionate toward them. How? Because he himself became like that man in the road. He let himself be victim to the violence and denial of our sacrificial games. He was the Lamb of God who came to take away the sin of our world. But to let himself become the Lamb of God led to our slaughter he also had to have compassion for us, compassion for us who regularly deny and slaughter one another. We ultimately are always victims of our own games. And so Jesus is also the Good Samaritan. He has compassion for us by becoming the man lying dead in the road, by becoming the victim of our games. And God his Father jumps in with the power of life, the power of creation, the power of the Holy Spirit, to raise him up again that we might continue to learn from him, that we might continue to be fed by him with his own body and blood, that we might be empowered to go and do likewise. That we might have our ways of denial transformed into ways of compassion. Let us go to his table now and be fed with the bread of life and wine of compassion. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, July 15, 2001

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