We have just witnessed a play in three acts. In each act, a new character takes his turn upon the stage. None of the characters has a name; each of them is known only by the category to which he belongs. In Act One, we meet a man – this morning, I am going to call him The Stranger – who is beaten by robbers and left for dead. In Act Two, we meet the Priest and the Levite – strictly speaking, two characters, but because of the uniformity of their actions and the brevity of the appearance on the stage, I am going to treat them as one. In Act Three, we meet the Samaritan.
There is then an Epilogue to the play, in which Jesus himself – the playwright, if you like – comes out before the footlights and asks us a question.
I’d like to watch Jesus’ play a second time with you. But this time, I would like to encounter it in a slightly different way. I would like to reverse the order of the Acts, so that we watch Act Three, Act Two, then Act One. The Epilogue will still be last.
Act Three: The Samaritan
Intermission has just ended. The lights dim, the curtain rises, and a man steps onto the parable’s stage. This is the Samaritan.
This Samaritan sees the stranger lying on the ground. And Jesus immediately tells us how the Samaritan feels: the Samaritan is moved with pity. Or, as some translations have it, he is moved with compassion. The trick is that the Greek word used to describe what happens inside of the Samaritan doesn’t really translate into English. Scholars tell us that, in its earliest use, this word that our translation renders as “Pity” – Splagchna – referred to a blood sacrifice in which the inner parts of a victim were ritually ripped out. [i]
By the time that Jesus tells this parable, Splahchna had evolved to mean something like, “To be merciful.” It appears twelve times in the Gospels, and the Gospel writers use this word exclusively to describe the emotions of Jesus or the emotions f a character in one of Jesus’ parables. For instance, in both Mark and Matthew, just before the miracle that we call The Feeding of the 5000, Splagchna is what Jesus feels for the crowd. In today’s story from Luke, it is the Samaritan who feels this gut-ripping compassion. Five Chapters from now, in the story that we call the Prodigal Son, it will be the Father who feels the same.
Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of the Bible entitled The Message, translates what happens when the Samaritan sees the stranger on the side of the road by using the expression “his heart went out to him.” That might be the closest phrase we have in English that captures Splagchna. Here is an experience of empathy that is like being gutted, that is like having your heart pulled outside of your body.
Seeing his heart lying on the ground before him, the Samaritan renders first aid to the man. He places him on his horse and he takes him to an inn. And there, in one of the most recklessly generous offers to be found anywhere in scripture, he agrees to be personally responsible for all of the stranger’s hospital bills. (Stop and think about that for a second. Even if you have a huge credit limit on your Mastercard, that is a staggering offer, possibly even a terrifying offer.)
And then, after promising the innkeeper that he will come back, the Samaritan returns to the road.
The curtain falls.
Act Two: The Passers By
Two men appear from the wings, one after the other. And they leave just as quickly. They get one sentence of stage directions each. And then they vanish from scripture forever, never to be seen again. (Although, in fairness to them both, their respective sentences show up in one of the most famous passages in the Bible). Here is the Priest. And here is the Levite.
The Priest and the Levite are high-ranking members of Israel’s religious authority. And they hold these jobs during a time when the separation of church and state isn’t so much as a pipe dream in the mind of an idealistic college student. Brian McLaren argues, therefore, that if were to transpose this story to the United States in 2016, we could defensibly render “Priest” as “Chief Executive Officer” and “Levite” as “Wall Street Broker.”
But I’m not sure that we actually need to look as far afield as McLaren suggests. Indeed, I want to suggest that the Priest and the Levites actions – or their inactions – are something that most or all of us know from our own lives.
The Priest and the Levite see the stranger lying on the side of the road. The Stranger has been beaten so badly that his eyes are swollen shut, his bloodied face reduced to a grotesque mask. At first it looks as though he must be dead, that the crows and the jackals and the flies can’t be far away. But then he takes a gasping breath.
And the Priest and the Levite have a choice.
The Priest and the Levite glance over our shoulders. Maybe they are checking to see if the people who beat the stranger are still around, if there is a second ambush to come, if their lives are in danger. Or maybe they are checking to see if they are observed, if anyone will bear witness to what they do next. As they stare at this stranger lying in the mud, a mud that is mixed with the stranger’s blood and tears, what do they feel?
Jesus doesn’t say. Jesus is amazingly economical in his storytelling, deliberately economical in his storytelling. doesn’t tell us about the Priest and the Samaritan’s Splagchna or anything else. He leaves you and me to decide what the Priest and the Levite feel. Is it fear? Do their consciences tug at them? Do they feel a surge of compassion or revulsion or both?
What Jesus does say that they cross the road and keep on walking.
Well, that answer is also is up to you and me. Here is the answer that I am going to venture today. The Priest and the Levite keep on going not out of fear or hostility or bigotry but for the same reason that most of us keep on going past men lying in the street: plain old exhausted despair and apathy. Helping the beaten man: well, it just feels like too much. I already have a lot of responsibilities, I am already stretched thin trying to pay my bills and raise my kids and deal with my aging parents. I can’t save someone else. I can’t let my heart be pulled out of my body.
It’s terrible that the man is lying on the roadside. I wish he wasn’t hurt, I wish he was safe, I really do.
But I can’t help. Someone else will have to do it.
And so the Priest and the Levite cross the road and keep walking.
Act One: The Stranger in the Dust
It is 8.05 and the play is about to begin. The last few audience members, late from dinner or let down by a tardy babysitter, come rushing in. A disembodied voice tells us to turn off our mobile phones and not to take photos. And then the story begins.
The stranger has barely stepped onstage – again, here is Jesus’ economy of words – before the robbers set upon him. The violence is abrupt and intense and brutal. The violence leaves the stranger down on the ground. He lies where he will remain until Act Three.
Nothing happens for a while. Jesus – who is both the playwright and the show’s director – lets us watch our fellow human being, a wounded animal out in the beating sun. The moment goes on a long time, too long. The stranger does not call for help, he does not stagger to his feet, he does not to find his way to safety. None of that is possible, for the robbers have left him, as Jesus tells us, half dead.
Watching him lying on the stage, however, it is hard not to wonder if the stranger is, at least in part, aware of what is going on around him. Does he hear the wind and the call of birds? With his ear involuntarily pressed to the earth, does he notice sounds that he has never heard before? Does everything suddenly sound like opportunity or danger? As he swims in and out of consciousness, does he wonder if he will remain by the side of the road until nightfall, at which time the burning of the sun will end and he will freeze instead? What does he feel when, through his swollen eyes, he see the Priest and the Levite, people of his tribe, people of authority, people whom he has been taught to respect and trust? Is there a surge of hope at their approach, a surge of despair as they cross the road and go on their way?
And what does he experience when he sees the Samaritan? I’m not sure that we have a contemporary analogy for the way that the people of Israel felt about the people of Samaria – some combination of fear and loathing. Maybe we could come close if, when Jesus comes to the part of the story that says, “But a Samaritan while travelling came near him” we were to substitute “But a member of the Taliban while travelling came near him” or “But a member of ISIS while travelling came near him” or “Bit an ex-con covered in gang tattoos while travelling came neat him.” As the Samaritan approaches, the stranger feels a new wave of fear jolt through his already battered body. Perhaps he wonders what indignity or violence is coming next.
But no violence comes. It is the Samaritan who carries the stranger to safety.
This too is a moment of Splagchna, a moment in which the stranger’s heart leaves his body. For as the Samaritan binds the stranger’s wounds and places him on his horse and takes him to safety and promises to pay to see him made well – as the stranger is saved by his enemy – the stranger is broken open, he is transformed. Impossibly, he finds himself experiencing healing and love in the last place that he expected it, through the last person from whom he expected it.
The Epilogue: The Question
It is G.K. Chesterton who said famously said:
Christianity has not been tried and found wanting;
it has been found difficult and not tried.
Here is the playwright’s difficult question for us:
Who was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?
The answer is inescapable, it is almost absurdly easy. But if you’ve spent your whole life figuring that Samaritans are the enemy, admitting to it is almost impossibly hard.
The one who showed him mercy.
Today we attend Jesus’ play after a week of staggering violence in our country. A week in which still more black men were gunned down by the police. Philando Castille. Alton Sterling. A week in which five police officers were murdered in the coldest of blood. Patrick Zamarripa, Brent Thompson, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith and Michael Krol.
The temptation for me – maybe the temptation for you – is to give into despair and apathy, to keep distant and safe like the Priest and the Levite. But I know that isn’t what Jesus is calling me to do. It isn’t what Jesus is calling us to do. Jesus proclaims the simple and hard news that, if there is going to be justice and reconciliation in this broken world, we have to engage in Splagchna, we have to risk letting our hearts out of our bodies, outside where they may well be battered by robbers. We have to go towards grief and anger and hardship and injustice and loss, we have to stand in solidarity with those who endure these things, much as Jesus goes towards these things and stands in solidarity with those who endure these things when he hangs from the cross.
Letting our hearts out means joining with those who are doing the hard and vital work of building justice, the hard and work of healing. And maybe even more difficult than that, it means doing something as vulnerable as naming out loud own need to be healed, it means accepting healing, even from a Samaritan, from someone whom we don’t like or don’t understand or don’t respect.
Jesus gives us a choice – there is always a choice, following him is always something that he wants us to do in total freedom. The choice is so simple. And it is so difficult.
Do we cross the street and keep on walking? Or do we join in the work of giving and receiving God’s grace, a grace than changes everything?
[i] This word study is taken from Paul Nuechterlein’s marvelous website, “Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.” http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-c/proper10c/