john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Luke 10- The Compassionate Heart of the Victim

    Good Shepherd Morning Communion 15/7/2007

    Colossians 1.1-14, Luke 10.25-37

    We all know the story about the Samaritan on the road. It's a violent tale: so, a warning that there is quite a bit of violence in today's talk.

    We all know the story of the lamb that was sacrificed. The lamb, along with all those other creatures the bible tells us about which the people would kill as an offering to God. By killing the lamb the sinful people made themselves whole again; they sacrificed the animal - which wasn't like them, wasn't one of them - so that they would feel right about themselves again. Anyone among them who joined in the act of sacrifice was made one of them, again. Part of the group, again.

    The need to sacrifice something which is not-one-of-us so that we can be right again - we all know that this runs very deep in human society.

    We humans sacrifice others just like the poor little lamb simply because they're not-one-of-us. Not because they've done anything wrong to us. But because for us to feel right about ourselves something outside ourselves has to be sacrificed. For us to feel that we belong, we have to create and then sacrifice a victim who doesn't belong.

    We all know the story of Anthony Walker. A young man from Huyton who was killed simply because he was a different colour from his attackers. His story fits perfectly into this notion of sacrifice.

    A group of young men, feeling for whatever reason the need to assert themselves, to prove who they were, took a victim to sacrifice - simply because he was not-one-of-them. He wasn't victimised because he'd done anything wrong to them. But because for them to feel right about themselves something outside themselves had to be sacrificed. Anthony was simply a different colour, that's all. Not their colour. And because he was not-one-of-them Anthony was the lamb slain in that sacrificial killing.

    We've seen it time and time again in our society and throughout history - innocent victims sacrificed so that others can feel right about themselves again. It's what happens during wars, when any initial just reason for fighting gets forgotten and killing starts to happen for its own sake - we might argue that's the stage we're at in Iraq now. It's what happens when groups of young people gang up on others, in the playground or on the street.

    It's what motivates people to explode bombs in shopping centres or airports - sacrificing a few people who are not-one-of-them makes the bombers feel right about themselves. And at its most extreme it's what's behind genocides and holocausts.

    Now in the ancient world in a blood sacrifice the heart or other organs were taken out of a sacrificial victim, and the ancient Greeks had a word for that body part - which I won't try pronouncing but I want to talk about a bit. [1]

    The ancient Greeks also used that very same word to describe the place where our impulsive passions, such as anger or anxious desire, come from, deep within us.

    I suppose today we'd use the word guts. Guts describe the inside of an animal, and guts are also where our deepest feelings come from - we talk about our gut feelings, our gut reactions.

    Or we might talk about the heart in the same way. The heart is on the inside of an animal, the heart is also where our deepest feelings lie - we talk about our heartfelt feelings, and about having a heart-to-heart talk with a loved one.

    So sometimes when you hear about someone who has been made a sacrificial victim you might hear it said that they have had the heart taken out of them - the old man knocked over and beaten up by a gang outside the shops, who since then won't go out on his own any more; Revd Julie Nicholson, that vicar who didn't have the heart to forgive the bombers who killed her daughter in the London attacks two years ago, and so out of integrity felt forced to change her ministry and the course of her life.

    Sacrificial victims have the heart taken out of them.

    Now when the teacher of the law asked Jesus the question, "Who is my neighbour?" Jesus chose as the main character in his story a Samaritan. Which is very interesting because as you well know, Jesus's people, the lawyer's people, thought about Samaritans as being not-one-of-us.

    Because Samaritans were not-one-of-us in Jewish eyes they were quite often victimised, not necessarily killed but certainly attacked - by the sorts of supposedly upright people like the man who was talking to Jesus that day. Samaritans were like the lambs, like the Anthony Walkers, like the bomb victims - there to be sacrificed by the mainstream Jews so that those Jews could feel better about themselves again.

    So the Samaritan in the story would know what it was like to have the heart taken out of him just like today's outsiders - he wouldn't have got a look-in when applying for a job, she would have been stopped at road blocks on the way to the hospital, the newspapers would campaign against them having the same rights as all the other citizens.

    The Samaritan in the story would know what it was like to be a sacrificial victim.

    But as you know, in the story Jesus does something remarkable. He turns the lawyer's question back onto himself. Jesus makes it very clear that Who is my neighbour? isn't the important question. After all, asking Who is my neighbour? makes you start noticing people who are not-one-of-us. And we know where that leads.

    The important question, Jesus says, is How can I be a good neighbour? That is the sort of question which leads to eternal life.

    Jesus answers the question How can I be a good neighbour? by telling the story of this Samaritan - someone used to being a sacrificial victim who had compassion on another man who had become a victim himself.

    Luke 10:33 says, "But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion."

    Now the most amazing thing about this word, which we have translated as compassion, is that it is the very same word we came across before.

    The word has shifted its meaning over time. The ancient Greeks used that word to describe the heart which is torn out of a sacrificial victim. And they use it to describe the place where our impulsive passions, such as anger or anxious desire, come from, deep within us - our gut feelings, our gut reactions. But the gospel writers used it to describe other sorts of passions: mercy or compassion.

    Five times in Matthew, four times in Mark, and three times in Luke this word for compassion or mercy comes up. And it is only used either to describe an emotion of Jesus, or by Jesus in a parable to describe someone in the story responding with compassion.

    In Mark's gospel Jesus is moved to compassion and heals a leper; he is moved to compassion by the crowd before his miracles of feeding them; and the father of a possessed boy beseeches Jesus to have compassion╩ for his son.

    Matthew writes about Jesus' compassion for the crowd, "like sheep without a shepherd," he uses this word to describe Jesus' compassion before healing two blind men, and he tells a parable of Jesus where the master has compassion on the "unforgiving servant" in forgiving his unpayable debt.

    And in Luke Jesus is moved by compassion before raising the son of the widow at Nain; and in the parable the father of the Prodigal Son is moved by compassion when he sees his son returning home. But it is the parable of the Good Samaritan we are most interested in today, and in that story the Good Samaritan has compassion when he sees the man lying half-dead in the road.

    But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion.

    Eugene Petersen, in The Message version of the bible, translates this perfectly: when he saw the man lying injured on the road "his heart went out to him."

    His heart went out to him - what a beautiful picture of the compassion which the Samaritan had for the injured man.

    But more than that - His heart went out to him reminds us of the original use of this Greek word. The original use of the word told the very bloody but very real story that the heart was literally pulled out of the sacrificial victim. Sacrificial victims have the heart taken out of them.

    But Jesus is making something very different happen here. Jesus is making something very Gospel happen here. He has turned the story right around: instead of the heart being taken out of the sacrificial victim - in an act of violence, compassion means one's heart going out to the victim - in an act of love.

    It's a wonderful way of seeing this old familiar parable. The Samaritan, a victim himself, had compassion on a man violently beaten and left for half-dead. The Samaritan, a sacrificial victim who had previously had the heart taken out of him by Jewish society, was now free to let his heart go out in compassion to another.

    By telling this story Jesus has put away forever the old world of sacrifice and introduced a new world of freedom through self-sacrifice.

    The old world of sacrifice relied on anger, blood-lust for vengeance. The new world of serving in the Kingdom of God relies on compassion towards others.

    Jesus is teaching the end of the need to make sacrificial victims; he is introducing a new way where compassion leads to the reviving of victims.

    This is the gospel of Christ: that the old world of sacrifice is past, that we don't need to create victims to make us feel whole any more. This is the gospel of Christ: that a new world of compassionate self-sacrifice is what makes us whole, what makes us neighbours to others.

    [1] The word is splagchnizomai and it is expounded wonderfully well by Paul Nuechterlein, here.