St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

He had Compassion on her

He had Com­pas­sion on Her

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, Third Sunday after Pente­cost, 5th June 2016
Read­ing: Luke 7.11–17.

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to take a funer­al in a neigh­bour­ing par­ish (their Rect­or being unavail­able). When I vis­ited the fam­ily to dis­cuss the funer­al ser­vice I dis­covered that the deceased was a com­par­at­ively young man of 42 who had been fit and well. On the day of his death he had spent some time in the gym as was his nor­mal prac­tice and when he returned home he told his part­ner that he was feel­ing unwell and would have a rest. His part­ner went to the kit­chen to get him a glass of water and when he returned he found his friend was already dead. It was a rather stark remind­er of the fra­gil­ity of life even in our mod­ern age and the truth of the rather sober­ing words in the BCP Funer­al Ser­vice” “in the midst of life we are in death.”

The people of first cen­tury Palestine were very famil­i­ar with death. Without the med­ic­al know­ledge and med­ic­a­tion avail­able today infant mor­tal­ity was high and even healthy adults could be quickly struck down by infec­tions and oth­er dis­eases. Today’s Gos­pel read­ing gives us Luke’s account of the rais­ing of the widow’s son from the town of Nain. Both the woman and her son are anonym­ous and we have no inform­a­tion about the son’s age, the cause of his death or any oth­er details of their life except the two things Luke tells us, namely that she is a wid­ow and the dead young man, her only son. Those two facts tell us some­thing. In a pat­ri­arch­al soci­ety for a woman to be without any male sup­port was to be in a pos­i­tion of great vul­ner­ab­il­ity. Hav­ing already lost her hus­band, this woman is now faced with the loss of the son who could have provided sup­port and pro­tec­tion into her old age.

Luke tells us that Jesus and his com­pan­ions meet the funer­al pro­ces­sion as it is mak­ing its way out of the town. The fam­ily buri­al plot would have been a little dis­tance from the town, most likely a small cave in the side of a hill, where the hus­band and fath­er had been bur­ied some time before. When Jesus sees this sad funer­al party with its pro­fes­sion­al mourn­ers and the people who have come to com­fort the wid­ow, he has com­pas­sion for her.

The word trans­lated ‘com­pas­sion’ in the NRSV is a very dis­tinct­ive New Test­a­ment word, which is well known to Greek stu­dents because it is almost unpro­nounce­able-splagch­nizesthai- doesn’t eas­ily ‘roll off’ the tongue. It is derived from the Greek word used to describe the more import­ant parts of our vis­cera-the heart, the lungs, intest­ines and liv­er which the Greeks believed were the seat of the emo­tions. The NIV is prob­ably closest to the mark when it trans­lates the verse, “When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her.” The word com­pas­sion is only found in the syn­op­tic Gos­pels and it is nor­mally used of Jesus, apart from three occur­rences in the par­ables. The wait­ing Fath­er in the Luke 15, has com­pas­sion on his way­ward son; the Good Samar­it­an has com­pas­sion on the wounded man, (Luke 10); and in Mat­thew 18, the mas­ter has com­pas­sion on the man unable to pay his debt. Com­pas­sion is the word the N. T. uses to describe the mer­ci­ful heart of God. For Luke’s first hear­ers heav­ily influ­enced by Greek think­ing the notion of a god who could be moved with com­pas­sion was very strange. Greeks believed that a defin­ing char­ac­ter­ist­ic of God was that he was incap­able of feel­ing. They argued like this, if God could feel pain or sor­row at any­thing that happened to humans then it would imply that men and women had some power over God- he could be moved or influ­enced by them-but it is impossible that any­one could have any power over God because God is great­er than any­one else. Against this Greek idea, Chris­tian­ity pro­claimed a God who suffered with us and for us and whose heart would be moved by the plight of his people.

Christ’s com­pas­sion is nev­er just empathy it always leads to action. He tells the woman not to weep and then brings the funer­al pro­ces­sion to a halt by touch­ing the coffin. This action would have brought a startled response from the crowd because touch­ing a coffin rendered a per­son unclean. But far great­er amazement fol­lowed when Jesus addressed the dead boy and he sat up and began to speak. Luke then gives us that lovely phrase, “Jesus gave him to his moth­er.” Luke here con­sciously echoes the words spoken by Eli­jah to the wid­ow in 1 Kings 17, our Old Test­a­ment les­son for today. In both stor­ies death had taken sons from wid­owed moth­ers but by God’s inter­ven­tion they were restored. The reac­tion of the crowd is one of holy fear and they glor­i­fy God say­ing, “God has looked favour­ably on his people.” Lit­er­ally the verse says, “God has vis­ited his people.” They recog­nize this as a divine inter­ven­tion remin­is­cent of the action of Eli­jah.

“God has vis­ited his people” is a favour­ite expres­sion of Luke. We find it first in the song of Zechari­ah after Eliza­beth has giv­en birth to John the Baptist and Zechari­ah sings, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has vis­ited his people and redeemed them.” Later in Luke’s Gos­pel the expres­sion is used by Jesus when he weeps over Jer­u­s­alem and laments the city’s rejec­tion of his mes­sage say­ing, “you did not recog­nize the time of God’s vis­it­a­tion.” For Luke, God’s vis­it­a­tion is always an act of grace even when it is spurned or not noticed.

For the Gos­pel writers mir­acles such as these are signs and as C.S. Lewis once said only a fool mis­takes the sign point­ing to ‘Chica­go’ with the city itself. The young man was raised to life but it was not resur­rec­tion. He like his fath­er would live to die of anoth­er dis­ease. For we live in a world where death is part of the nat­ur­al order of things, where not every sick child is raised and not every wid­ow is com­for­ted. But on that very mem­or­able morn­ing in Nain when a dis­traught wid­ow encountered the man whose heart went out to her, there was a fore­taste of the great vic­tory to come, when in Paul’s words, Christ would be raised from death, “the first­fruits of those who have died.” For the Chris­ti­an, belief in the resur­rec­tion changes the way we look at death. It no longer holds us in its thrall and in the words of the theo­lo­gian James Alis­on, “whatever death is, it is not some­thing which has to struc­ture every human life from with­in but rather it is an empty shell, a bark without a bite.”

The com­ing of Jesus among us was God’s great vis­it­a­tion of his people. In the words of the Apostle John, he came and pitched his tent among us and he did so in order to give us life in all its full­ness. The heal­ing of the widow’s son was a response of com­pas­sion to human suf­fer­ing but it was more than that: it was a sign of the final defeat of death that Christ would bring about through his own death and resur­rec­tion. The East­er event changes not just our atti­tude to death but our atti­tude to life itself. We are called to be a resur­rec­tion people who in the face of a world filled with suf­fer­ing and death dare to pro­claim that in Christ we can find life and hope. God has vis­ited his people and through his Holy Spir­it, God con­tin­ues to vis­it us every day and his pres­ence is always with us. Thanks be to God!

Philip Brad­ford