Well here we are once again, part of the entourage of the Lord of Life. In last week’s Gospel we were in Capernaum where we saw Jesus heal the slave of the Centurion and today we see Jesus interrupt and invalidate a funeral procession. Last week we saw that Jesus can heal and is willing to do so, this week we’re told that He sees us and has compassion for us.
There is a theme here. Our Lord Jesus Christ not only has the authority to heal the sick and raise the dead but also uses his authority to unleash his compassion into the world and proclaim in no uncertain terms that he unswervingly stands with and for life.
This is a short little story but it is rich in meaning when we pay attention to the details that Luke found important enough to include. At first glance our wonder may be about the fact that Jesus brought a man back from the dead, which is certainly no ordinary event, but the real message here has to do with the widow.
Did you know that Luke has more references to widows in his Gospel than any of the others? There’s Anna celebrating the arrival of the baby Jesus to the Temple (2:37); there’s the story of the widow’s mite (21:1-4); Jesus’ reference to the widow in the Elijah story (4:25-26); the parable of the widow and the unjust judge (18:1-8); and Jesus’ denouncing of the Scribes as those who devour widow’s houses (20:46-47). Widows were particularly vulnerable in ancient times and very much on our Lord’s radar as those in need of care and compassion.
So back to the Gospel—last week Jesus was on his road trip to proclaim the good news in Capernaum and this week he and his entourage are entering a town called Nain, when they happen upon a funeral procession. It was probably much like our funeral processions that leave the church to go to the cemetery to bury the body, but unlike our processions everyone was on foot.
The body was not encased in a coffin inside a hearse but laid upon a bier carried by mourners. Those who grieved were not inside cars going by at speeds that would keep spectators from seeing the grief on their faces. This was death up close and personal—reality that brushed you as it passed by. But Jesus was not content to merely be a spectator. Rather he sees the procession for what it is, the loss of life for an only son, and the loss of a future for his mother, a widow.
You see, in ancient times a widow was completely dependent on the men in her family—first her father, then her husband, and later her children. Women had no careers and owned no property so without a husband or son to support this widow, she was very likely, or would soon be, destitute. Her son would have been her sole means of support and Jesus saw not only her grief at the loss of her only son but also her plight.
We can know this as we read:
When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”
Notice that he uses the feminine pronoun three times in this little sentence. Notice also the use of the title “Lord.” Luke does not say, “When Jesus saw her…” but rather “When the Lord saw her…” I bring that to your attention because it’s the first time in his Gospel that Luke has referred to Jesus with this title.
The sentence is also unique because Luke typically sticks to just the facts in his story telling. His intention is to tell about the life and ministry of Jesus not to give a psychological profile and describe his emotional state. The fact that Luke takes the time to tell us that Jesus saw the widow and felt compassion for her is significant.
He sees her loss, her grief, her plight and it affects him. He is vulnerable to what he sees. This is not another PR opportunity to show the world that he is the Son of God—our Lord is not so opportunistic—but rather he is compelled by compassion to act.
Luke wants his readers to know that Jesus is the Messiah that Isaiah foretold, the fulfillment of the prophecy that at the time of God’s return and restoration of Israel, the blind would see, the deaf would hear, the lame would walk, and Luke adds—the dead would be raised. This is the One for whom they were waiting and Luke wants us to understand Jesus as Lord is merciful not judgmental, vulnerable not bulletproof, compassionate not stone-hearted, willing to take action not oblivious or inert.
This is the pattern of Christ’s Lordship and one commentator asks the question, might this also be the pattern for discipleship? Ok, just to be clear, I’m not saying you’re supposed to go out and raise the dead in Jesus’ name, although I promise not to be surprised if you do. What I am saying is that if the Lord had compassion on others and was compelled to act on that compassion, then should we not also?
You know what it’s like to see something and not to be able to stand it. It’s the Carpenters Kids you had to sponsor; it’s the orphans in Nicaragua you had to help; it’s the elderly shut ins that you visit; it’s the outsiders you include; it’s even the dog or cat abandoned by the side of the road that you had to take home. Every time you open the eyes of your heart and allow yourself to be vulnerable to the plight of another so that you can’t stand to not do something, that is the moment that you share with your Lord Jesus as he watched the funeral procession pass him by.
I want to encourage you to start looking for those moments in your own life. Tell each other about the acts of compassion you’ve seen in each other. Become aware of those times when you’ve been vulnerable to what you see and had to do something about it. We are followers of Jesus and his mission had as its focus, care and compassion for the most vulnerable among us. If we start by learning to identify this work of God in our individual lives we will be prepared to answer the question of how St. John’s can embrace this ministry of compassion to those around her.
May God bless you as you live out your call as God’s children;
Hold close the reality that God sees your plight, has tender compassion for you, and acts on your behalf;
Be courageous in your vulnerability to the plight of others;
And may you know how deeply you are cherished and loved as you share in the peace and joy of Christ’s compassionate ministry.