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!