05 June 2016


Luke 7:11-17

Third Sunday after Pentecost

5th June 2016

On the day Jesus arrived in Nain—about six miles south of Nazareth, in Galilee—as he approached the gate of the town, death crossed his path. Coming toward him was a funeral procession.  He saw the funeral bier heading to the cemetery just outside of town, to the west.  It was carrying the body of a young man.  Near the body Jesus saw a grieving mother, crying.  Behind her was a large crowd of mourners from town.  Jesus soon learned something about the dead man.  He was his mother’s only son.  And he learned something else about his mother.  She was a widow.

A widow—a woman without a husband meant no means of support and no real identity apart from her husband.  At least for a time she had a son to care for her, but now he’s gone.  Sure, there’s a community supporting her, for a time.  But she’s destined for a life of poverty.  Alone in a hostile world.  The enormity of her grief and suffering are beyond our ability to fully fathom and understand. 

Luke tells us, “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”  He moved forward.  Touched the bier.  The pallbearers stopped.  No doubt confused.  And then Jesus said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”  The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.  Luke tells us that, “Fear seized them, and they glorified God.”  Word quickly spread through Judea and beyond.

~ ~ ~

What are we supposed to do with a text such as this?  What do we do with the miracle at Nain?  If we focus exclusively on the miracle it’s a very troubling story.  It’s tough for us—tough for me—to approach this text, especially this week, knowing there are people in this congregation who would give anything to have Jesus show up and bring their loved ones back to life.  This text raises a lot of questions, questions we don’t have answers to.  Is this text even relevant today?  Maybe we should just skip over it.  Is it true?  Should we approach it symbolically, not take it literally?  Taking it literally leads us into all kinds of problems.

One word caught my eye this week; it’s the word “compassion.”  When Jesus saw the widow, he had compassion for her.  Not pity.  He didn't feel sorry for her.  He had compassion.  

Splagchnizomai the text says.  It’s a rare Greek verb meaning something like “torn up in the gut.” Splagchnon is the Greek word for viscera, internal organs, intestines and bowel.  When Jesus considered the young man and his mother his stomach turned in knots.  It tore up his insides.  It was gut-wrenching.  That’s where compassion originates—in the gut.  That’s where compassion begins to emerge, not in our heads, but in the gut.  That’s what compassion feels like.

To feel in this way is to suffer.  Suffering is required.  To suffer means, literally, “to undergo.” It often has a negative connotation, but we can suffer joy as much as suffer pain or sorrow.  To suffer means that we allow a situation to touch us deeply, to affect us, to wash over us, to stir us, to move us; we allow a feeling to come upon us.  We might resist it, fight against it.  There are times when we don’t want to acknowledge a particular feeling; perhaps we’re afraid where it might take us. To suffer means we allow the feeling to flow. 

Still, we can either acknowledge the feeling or we can ignore it.  We can either honor what we’re feeling when we’re confronted with pain or grief or we can deny it.  Sometimes we prefer to keep our distance.  Judging often allows us to do that.  Judging people or judging a situation is often a strategy that we use to protect ourselves from actually suffering with or for others.  Perhaps that why theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1909-1945), writing from Tegel prison in Berlin, 1943, said, “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit it do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”[1]  Sometimes we intellectualize everything, keep it all up in our heads, and never allow our humanity and the humanity of others who stand before us and shape us.

In order to suffer with or for another we need to be fully present.  And we can’t be present without feeling.

One of my favorite novelists and essayists is David James Duncan, a man with a deep, mature faith with piercing insight into the human condition.  Back in the 1990s he tried to absorb the consequences of sanctions against Iraq—the deaths of thousands of children—because of our destruction of water systems and our unwillingness to allow importation of either plumbing or chlorine.  A mentor once said to him, “If you don’t know how to take something, take it on the physical level.”  One day he took this advice, “with regard to Iraq’s children.”  He relied on:

…the physical senses, eyes, and heart of a woman named Gerri Haynes.  At the time, Gerri, a nurse from Woodinville, Washington, headed a group called Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility.  She had been on three missions of mercy to Iraq, and ten months before the most recent war in Iraq, she returned yet again.

Before this recent trip—amid all the flag-waving and war-rumblings—Gerri’s oldest daughter tried to persuade her to stay home. …after finally accepting Gerri’s sense of mission, her daughter offered her mother an old-souled piece of advice. “If you do go,” she said, “be completely present, wherever you go.”

These words returned to Gerri in an Iraqi hospital virtually bereft of medicine and hope.  While her group moved from bed to bed, Gerri approached a woman sitting next to her dying child.  Gerri speaks no Arabic.  The woman spoke no English.  Trying to be “present” anyway, Gerri looked at the child, then at the woman, and placed her right hand over her own heart.

The Iraqi mother immediately placed her right hand over her own heart.

Gerri’s eyes and the mother’s eyes immediately filled with tears. 

The hospital was crowded.  Gerri’s visitation was short. She started to move to the next bed, but then remembered her daughter’s words: “completely present…” She and the mother were already crying, their hands over their hearts. There was nothing Gerri could do, despite all her medical training, for the child.  ‘How much more present,’ she wondered, ‘is it possible to be?’

She stepped forward anyway. With no plan but vague allegiance to the commandment “completely present,” the nurse without medicine stepped toward the bed of the dying child and inconsolable mother.  She then put both of her hands out, palms up.

The Iraqi mother fell into her arms.

“If only this experience were unique!” Gerri told [Duncan.]  “But I can’t tell you, any longer, how many mothers I’ve now held in this same way.”  

Her voice grew faint over the phone. [Duncan] heard her say: “…diseases that children would almost never die from in the U. S…  Medicine so basic. 

Duncan said, “I’ve never taken interview notes while sobbing before.”[2]

How much more present is it possible to be?

If Jesus was the fully human one, then we need to look to him to discover what it means to be authentically human.  He was fully present to what crossed his path that day in Nain.  He allowed his feelings to move him.  That’s what feelings are supposed to do.  His grief stirred him to take action.  It’s true, he had the capacity to revive the dead man and restore the well being of the widow.  While we don’t have the power to raise the dead, Jesus does show us what compassion looks like, or, better, what it feels like.  It means facing what comes across our path, suffering through the feelings and facing the grief in our guts, allowing what’s before us to touch us, affect us.  And the wisdom found in the gut will show us what we can do or should do.  

We might not be able to raise the dead, but through compassion we can bring about new life. Maybe that’s when the miracle occurs.  

The poet Christopher Fry (1907-2005) once said, “The human heart can go the lengths of God.”[3]  When we are fully present to the moment, fully present to the pain and suffering of others—not running from it or becoming numb to it—when we’re fully present to the pain and suffering in our own lives, and then respond to each situation from our gut in a loving, life-giving way, we actually become more human. As Jesus showed us, the more human we are, the divine becomes all the more apparent—in us, shining through our humanity.  Our lives then become the occasion to glorify God.

Image: Louisa Ann Beresford (1818-1891), Christ Raising the Dead, Tate Collection, London.  

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Touchstone, 1997), 10.
[2] David James Duncan, “When Compassion Becomes Dissent,” Orion (Jan-Feb, 2001), 22-24, cited in Sharon Daloz Parks, “How Then Shall We Live? Suffering and Wonder in the New Commons,” in Sam M. Intrator, Living the Questions: Essays Inspired by the Work and Life of Parker J. Palmer (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 305-306.
[3] Christopher Fry, Sleep of Prisoners (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951), 47.


Janet Townsend said...

thank you I have always had trouble with that passage and you have opened a new way of looking at it. Janet

Kenneth Kovacs said...

Many thanks, Janet! Hope you're well.