“The Lord saw her and had compassion…”
Imagine this scene as if you were watching it from the outskirts of the village of Nain:
A funeral procession winds its way through the center of the village and passes through the city gates, heading for the place outside its bounds where the dead were laid to rest. Hired mourners, weeping and wailing on behalf of the friends and relatives of the dead man, are leading the way, along with musicians with flutes and cymbals sounding their mournful tunes. The mother of the dead man, already a widow, walks ahead of the open-faced coffin, her face worn and weary and her body bent with her double sadness. Then comes the body of the dead man, lying in a long basket carried upon a stretcher and followed by a large crowd from the town, silently shuffling forward.
The grieving crowd is met by another large crowd of people, this one led by Jesus and his disciples. Someone runs ahead to learn that the dead man is the only son of the woman and that her husband has already died, leaving her with no provision or means of support. The news is reported to Jesus, who approaches the procession and asks it to stop. He pauses to look deeply into the sad eyes of the woman and feels deep compassion for her. “Do not weep,” he says, consoling her, and then turns his attention to the corpse on its bier. “Young man,” he says to the dead man, “I say to you, rise!” And to the astonishment of the crowd, the dead man begins to stir and then sits up and speaks. Looking again to his mother, Jesus offers her her son, restored to life.
The crowd is seized by fear. What power is this? Who is it who can do such things? What can this mean? Gradually their terror gives way to wonder and then to praise and “They glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’”
How might you have reacted if you had been part of this scene? What lasting significance would it have had for you? How would you have understood what had just taken place?
The story certainly had significance for Luke, who is the only gospel writer who records it. Luke is a physician and is fascinated by the healing power of Jesus. Some of the terms he uses to describe this miracle are medical terms, and yet it is not only the miracle of the man’s restoration to life that captures his attention. He is equally captivated by the compassion of Jesus, his deep concern for the woman in her unhappy situation, and his startling response to her. By touching the bier Jesus rendered himself “unclean” according to the law (Numbers 19:11), but as is so often the case in the gospels, he underscores once again that the law of uncleanness must yield to the higher law of mercy and compassion. For Jesus, it is always about love.
Jesus, the compassionate One. Jesus, the healer and restorer of life. Jesus, the presence of God, the incarnation of God, the truth of God, in our midst.
It is not difficult to imagine that the crowd went away filled with wonder and awe. The image that has been evoked in their minds is the image of a great prophet. They recall the familiar stories of their faith: how Elijah raised the son of a widow at Zarephath (I Kings 17:17-24) and how Elisha did the same for a Shunammite woman (II Kings 4:17-22, 32-37). The voice of a prophet had not sounded for many generations, but now they see that “a great prophet has risen among us” and that “God has looked favorably on his people!”
And now the story is passed to us and it is for us to reflect on its meaning and significance in our own times. I’d like to suggest three ways in which it challenges us.
The first challenge is expressed in the words of Jesus in the previous chapter of Luke’s gospel (Luke 6:36), when he instructs his disciples to “be merciful (compassionate), just as your Father is merciful (compassionate).” Compassion is at the heart of God’s very being, and Jesus’ consistent preference for choosing compassion over the law signified the new life he was bringing into the world. Those who follow Jesus must be channels of his compassionate presence in the world.
“The word ‘compassion’ generally evokes positive feelings,” write Henri Nouwen. “We like to think of ourselves as compassionate people who are basically good, gentle and understanding. We more or less assume that compassion is a natural response to human suffering. Who would not feel compassion for a poor old man, a hungry child, a paralyzed soldier, a fearful girl? It seems almost impossible to imagine that compassion does not belong among our most self-evident human qualities. Do we not feel deeply offended when someone accuses us of lacking compassion? Does that not sound as if we are accused of a lack of humanity? Indeed, we immediately identify being compassionate with being human. An incompassionate human being seems as inconceivable as a nonhuman human being.
“But,” Nouwen continues, “if being human and being compassionate are the same, then why is humanity torn by conflict, war, hatred and oppression? Why, then, are there so many people in our midst who suffer from hunger, cold, and lack of shelter? Whey, then, do differences in race, sex or religion prevent us from approaching each other and forming community? Why, then are millions of human beings suffering from alienation, separation or loneliness? Why, then, do we hurt, torture and kill each other? Why, then, is our world in such chaos?”i
Perhaps we have more to learn about God’s compassion than we thought. This story invites us to reflect on how we might become more compassionate human beings.
The story also challenges us with the real need of the world. The circumstances of the woman bring to mind the plight of millions and millions in our own world who suffer in poverty. She was alone in the world, having lost her husband and now her son, vulnerable in an economy that was not kind to widows who lacked resources and support. She is one of those who often “fall through the cracks” as others pass her by on their way to wealth, success and fame. She is one of the anawim, the poor of God, in whom Jesus invites us to see himself. “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger, I was naked or sick or in prison…and as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (cf. Matthew 25: 31-40).
In its General Convention of 2006, the Episcopal Church committed itself to the reduction of poverty in the world through the Millennium Development Goals outlined by the United Nations. We pledged to
▪ eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
▪ achieve universal primary education
▪ promote gender equality and empower women
▪ reduce child mortality
▪ improve maternal health
▪ combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
▪ ensure environmental sustainability
▪ develop a global partnership for development.
Confronted with the overwhelming suffering of the world, we are being called to action, to identify some way in which we can contribute to the reduction of the world’s poverty, to work and give toward that end.
Compassion is both a feeling and a way of being that flows out of that feeling. When we feel compassion, we feel the sufferings of others and feel motivated to help relieve them. Prayer deepens this awareness. But compassionate prayer also calls for compassionate action. Prayer without action is just powerless pietism. Action without prayer can be manipulative, when our action springs from our own needs rather than God’s call. Prayer leads us into deeper union with the compassionate Christ, which compels us to acts of service. These acts of service lead to deeper solidarity with the poor and the suffering, and in turn give rise to prayer. Both prayer and action require us to be present to the suffering world and to respond to it.
Jesus feels compassion and acts to relieve it. How can we imitate him? What shall we do?
And finally, the story invites us once again to consider who Jesus is. Those who were present that day sensed that God was among them in a special way, that the word of God was in their midst in the person of Jesus. If Jesus is the new Elijah, whose word is truth, then we are called to bear witness to him and to place our confidence and trust in him. Whether or not we are in grief or pain, this story assures us that he is the compassionate One, and in him we can find hope and comfort and new life. His purpose for us is always life, not death; hope, not despair; joy, not sorrow. In truth, “a great prophet has risen among us” and “God has looked favorably on his people.”
i Nouwen, Henri, with Donald P. McNeille and Douglas A. Morrison; Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, pp.3-4.
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