Compassion

Last week, while reflecting on Sunday’s gospel, often referred to as the parable of the ‘good’ Samaritan from Luke, I was handed an interesting article by Vernon K. Robbins entitled “The Sensory-Aesthetic Texture of the Compassionate Samaritan Parable in Luke 10″.  The article, steeped in a rhetorical criticism, was a revelation to me and a real joy to read–so much so that I wouldn’t dream of messing it up by trying to explain it.  But the article raised an interesting proposition about human nature that is too good to pass up.

Using the work of Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch, the author discusses the rhetorical nature of the body in Mediterranean storytelling.  That there are several “body zones” that represent how we interact with our world.  It goes something like this:

  1. Heart and Eyes: emotion-fused thought
  2. Mouth and Ears: self-expressive speech
  3. Hands and Feet: purposeful action

Each zone represents a different part of us.  I think we can definitely relate to these things.  For the first zone, when something is dear to us (in our heart), we will respond emotionally, right?  The same if we see something with our eyes.  The revolution of photojournalism transformed the way people began to see the world around us.  When we speak or hear things, we operate in analytical and self-expressive ways.  I’m thinking about the primacy of expressing oneself (as I’m doing now, though with my fingers) both directly (by mouth) or in response to another’s expression.  Lastly, most obvious is the connection between our limbs and action.  Even Paul uses this to describe Christians as the action of the church.

All this stuff is exciting and interesting in itself, but there was a small piece that tugged at me.  When we apply this understanding of body zones to what was happening in the parable, we can see the real effect of the actions.  The priest and the Levite, that pass the man by, the usual scapegoats in our telling of the story, are in the midst of a complex dance.  We commonly recognize that these two men (sorry ladies!) were trying to maintain their ritual purity and couldn’t touch this man.  But to do so, they needed to go nowhere near him.

They had to cross the road to avoid this man who was wounded.

Going back to the body zone idea, the third zone (hands and feet) is about action.  So these two didn’t simply not act, they acted intentionally to avoid this man.

And

In intentionally removing themselves from close proximity to this man who desperately needed help, they also removed themselves from having to see him, by walking on the other side of the road.  I can imagine these two, spotting this guy lying in the gutter, so they cross the street and hold a hand or folder up the side of the face to keep themselves from looking.

So these two not only remove themselves from the nearness of this man, but they do so (consciously or unconsciously) to avoid seeing him and therefore feeling something about him.

Thus, the real condemnation is not that these two failed to act, but that they acted in such a way as to avoid feeling compassion for a stranger.

Perhaps there is nothing more clear about Jesus’s understanding of his faith than breaking of purity laws to help those in need.  And perhaps it is our millstone too.  That we desire to avoid communing with those that might make us feel something.  That we might not want to feel shame or guilt or pity or insecurity or anything else in our relationship with others.

In what ways do you cross the street?  Who or what do you avoid seeing?  What would it mean to show the compassion this travelling stranger shows?