Text: Luke 7:11-17 Revised Standard Version (RSV)
Jesus Raises the Widow’s Son at Nain
11 Soon afterward[a] he went to a city called Na′in, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. 12 As he drew near to the gate of the city, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a large crowd from the city was with her. 13 And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 And he came and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” 15 And the dead man sat up, and began to speak. And he gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized them all; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” 17 And this report concerning him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
The hits just keep coming!
Last week, Jesus healed the centurion’s slave without even being in the same room with him. This week, he merely touches the bier – or stretcher – on which the body of the widow’s son is lying, says the simple words, “Young man, I say to you, arise,” and restores him to life.
Now, we have heard this passage an untold number of times throughout our lives; and so, like so many other amazing and miraculous acts of God in the world, we’ve gotten so familiar with this story that it hardly makes an impression anymore. We figure, yes, Jesus did that, because after all, that’s what Jesus does, that’s “how he rolls.”
But let’s take a look again at the reaction of the people who were there that day. All those people in that crowd – a large crowd, we’re told – were mourning the loss of the young man along with his mother. Maybe this young man had been very popular; maybe he’d been one of those young men we all point to and say, “He’s destined for greatness, that one.” And then, suddenly, he’s gone. People are devastated. They know that his mother is in serious trouble – that boy of hers was her only relative, and a woman in that day and age who had no husband, or father, or son, or any male relative to take care of her was almost as good as dead herself. So not only was this a dark moment, but it looked as though there wouldn’t be any light on the horizon for some time, if ever.
Yet, even with all that as a backdrop, when Jesus raises her son from death, the initial reaction is not joy, or celebration, or even relief, but rather we read “Fear seized them all.” Just who was this man, really, who could just touch a stretcher and say, “Rise,” and a person who was dead as a doornail just jumps up as good as new? If he could do that, what else could he do?
But apparently, a split second later, they decided to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt and began to glorify God for what had just happened, and started shouting that a “great prophet has arisen among us.” Nonetheless, the text doesn’t give us the impression that even this crowd of relatives and friends, who wished nothing more than that the young man lying there could be brought back to life, felt unalloyed joy when that actually happened! This was the sort of moment we think of when we say, “be careful what you wish for; you might get it!” They’d gotten what they’re wished for – and the questions now were “what does this mean?” and “what happens next?”
As for the question as to “what happens next,” they had actually answered it themselves – God had visited his people, and the world they were used to was over. Two crowds had converged that day – the crowd of life accompanying Jesus, and the crowd of death accompanying the widow. But after Jesus raised the young man from the dead, there was only the crowd of life. Sure, pain would still happen, wars would still come, justice would remain imperfect – but none of these things has the final say. God does. Life does.
As for the question “what does this mean,” Jesus, first by his very presence, and then by his action, gave the answer: God is compassion. God is love. God cares for his children.
Remember that old Sunday School song that contains the refrain, “God is love, God is love”? That’s how we tend to think about God; but what are some of the hallmarks of that love? God desires fairness – that’s a function of love. God desires justice – another characteristic of love. God desires mercy – yet another attribute of love.
But one of the key elements of love, it seems to me, is compassion.
“And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’”
The word “compassion” means literally “to suffer with.” When we have compassion with another, we enter into their suffering and share their anguish and pain.
Compassion is that quality that makes it possible for first responders like firefighters to rush into a burning building when everyone else is following their natural human instinct and rushing out. They don’t do it just because it’s their job, because there are countless other ways to make a living without risking life and limb for strangers. They do it because they care about others – more at times than they care about their own lives. That’s compassion.
Compassion is what causes a person to stop in the middle of the night in the midst of a blinding rainstorm to help change someone’s flat tire, and then, after making sure that the tire’s on right and that the other driver’s OK, they just drive off. That’s compassion.
Compassion is a big deal. Imagine what the world would be like without it. And so it’s no accident that Jesus shows compassion in today’s Gospel lesson.
“And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her He had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep’” (vs.12-13).
It may be that those three words “Do not weep” are the whole of the Gospel in a nutshell. Those three words tell us why Jesus came to us in the first place.
Jesus finds wrecked people. And that is every one of us, at some time or another. Life can be very hard at times. We feel like we’ve become wreckage. Wrecked people, hurt people, sad people can say and do some horrible things. But Jesus finds wrecked people. Today’s Gospel Lesson reminds us that Jesus came to wipe away our tears, to soften our pain, and to lighten the burden of life. Jesus shows us the compassion of God and repairs us.
I personally can’t even conceive of something worse than losing a child. Imagine how painful it must have been for that widow on her way to the cemetery to bury her only child – a son. Even though she was surrounded by people who cared for her, at a time like that, no matter how many people were around her, she was as good as alone. Unfathomable pain and unshakeable grief were the only companions she recognized. Her grief-induced tunnel vision only allowed her to see two graves – that of her husband, and now that of her only son.
Jesus feels her pain. And he feels that pain deeply. The word that is translated as “compassion” is actually a much stronger word in the original Greek. The verb literally means to “be moved to one’s bowels,” for that was where the people of Jesus’ day thought was the seat of pity and love – in other words, the deepest and most intimate part of ourselves.
So we could rephrase the passage to read, “And when Jesus saw her, his heart broke.”
That is how deeply Jesus cared about this woman. That is how deeply he felt her pain. This was no academic exercise.
Now we might think that this is simply the tragic story of one woman. But isn’t it really everyone’s story? Isn’t it really our story, too? Life can be beautiful for a while, even a very long while, but inevitably the day comes when it is no longer. There is suffering; there is trouble; there is war; there is death. There are other forms of death than physical death. There is the death of relationships. There is the death of hope. There is the death of a way of life. The result of all this is grief – an utterly painful experience, and all of us must at some point in life come to terms with it.
But the great news for this morning is that we don’t have to face it alone. Jesus comes to us, not despite our brokenness, but because of it!
Jesus feels our pain. More than that, he lives it with us. And he does something about it.
Today’s Gospel lesson shows us the compassion of Jesus triumphing over death. It makes me think of the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” where we find these words: “Jesus, Thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love Thou art.”
Today’s lesson is one of the three Gospel accounts where Jesus raised a dead person. The other two accounts involved the raising of the daughter of Jairus, and the raising of Lazarus. And the motivator for each of the three cases is the compassion that Jesus felt for people in pain.
Jesus finds wrecked people. And helps them, fixes them, makes them whole.
This is what God does.
It calls for a response from us. What are we to do in the face of this overwhelming compassion toward us?
Quite simply, we are to pass it on, and spread it around. As God has dealt compassionately with us, so we deal compassionately with others.
Compassion is not simply a feeling, it is an action.
Let us be people of compassion!
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.