Monday, 15 July 2013

The Good Samaritan

Rembrandt's The Good Samaritan
In preparing to preach on the Good Samaritan I came across a strange piece of information. The word used for 'compassion' in the New Testament has its roots in the 'wet bits' pulled out of the corpse of a victim of human sacrifice. So, if your heart was plucked out during a sacrifice in ancient Greece it would no longer be referred to as a heart but splanga-something-or-other, and it is this word that the Jewish tradition used to refer to compassion. (You can read its history in Kittel's TDNT) That's strange.

But to turn to the parable itself. It has struck me for a while now the clever way that Jesus pushes beyond compassion in this parable and undercuts the kind of moral superiority that leads to rivalry, conflict and 'sacrifice'.
 Jesus could have made the Samaritan the victim and a Jew the compassionate stranger. The Jewish hearers of the parable could then have had their moral superiority reinforced if they decided to be even that compassionate (to help a Samaritan).However, with the Samaritan aiding a Jew Jesus still challenges his hearers to go beyond the usual barriers that prevent compassion but without encouraging that kind of moral smugness or self-justification. (Notice that in the text the lawyer who asks the questions wants to justify himself.)

Brian Stoffregen (a link to his site is in 'Sermon Prep' in the column to the right of this post) also makes a further point. Who would the Jewish hearers of the parable be likely to identify with in the parable? Presumably perhaps not the Levite and the priest who pass on the other side of the road, and they might struggle to identify with the Samaritan. Leaving only the man in the ditch. Is part of the point of the parable that grace comes not to the one who does the right thing necessarily but to the one who needs help and knows it? And in the parable help comes from the most unlikely and unexpected quarter.

Returning to the splanga pulled out of a human sacrificial victim. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, as in Jesus' ministry generally, Jesus undermines the kind of moral rivalry (I'm good, you're not; I'm so good, are you?) that leads to sarifices of all kinds. Brian Stoffregen mentions one English translation of 'compassion' as his heart 'went out' to the victim. Self-sacrifice instead of making a new victim.