"Compassion is Divine" – Luke 7:11-17
Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep." Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen among us!" and "God has looked favorably on his people!" This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
Once I have read a passage of scripture, I ask a question in order to open myself to the scripture’s significance for my life. The question I ask is, “Why is this story in the Bible in the first place?” Why, of all the accounts of Jesus that were witnessed and passed along through generations, why was this one preserved?
Early this week I asked that question as I engaged with today’s gospel text. And I had to sit in silence for quite some time. The silence then turned to anger.
Why is this story in the Bible? I didn’t know. In fact, I didn’t like this story one bit.
After all, what good is it to tell a story about Jesus raising a widow’s son from the dead when such miraculous raising from the dead does not happen today?
What good is it to tell a story about Jesus raising a widow’s son from the dead when sons and daughters today die fighting in wars, die by gunshot in the streets or schools, die in police custody…when sons and daughters die by suicide, die by cancer, die by car accidents, die by preventable disease, and die because they lack adequate access to food, shelter, and clean water.
Sons and daughters today die in any number of unfair, unjust, and unthinkable ways. What good is it to tell a story about Jesus raising a widow’s son from the dead when Jesus doesn’t raise our dead sons and daughters? Why is this story in the Bible, when it seems like God either does not or cannot act to prevent evil, suffering, and death in our world?
The question about why God would permit evil and death in the world God created has been a topic of endless reflection and debate for millennia, so don’t think I’m going to tie it up nicely with a bow in the next few minutes. In fact, I’ll go ahead and throw one more thing out there to consider. I’ll show you a clip by a British actor/humorist Stephen Fry from last year that has been viewed well over one million times and it is framed as an “epic takedown” of religion. The title of the YouTube video is actually “Stephen Fry Annihilates God.” See for yourself…
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-d4otHE-YI (I stopped the clip at the 2:10 mark)
There are any number of ways to respond to Stephen's speech. This week, sitting in silence and anger, I choose to respond with empathy. There are so many people in the world just like Stephen Fry – people who choose to discount the notion of “God” because there is evil and suffering in our world, be it purposeless, unexplainable phenomena, or calculated evil actions. I cannot blame him or anyone else for thinking this way.
But the more I think about his argument, I find it underwhelming and unhelpful. And I’m thinking that this opinion might have to do with that story in the Bible – the one about Jesus raising the widow’s son from the dead.
In that story Jesus, with a growing crowd following on his heels, witnesses a mother grieving for her dead son. Luke tells the story with the words, “ When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep.”
This sentence marks the first time Jesus is referred to as “Lord” in the Gospel of Luke. Up to this point Jesus had accomplished a multitude of amazing feats and yet remained “Jesus.” But seven whole chapters into the gospel, and Jesus finally did something that warranted the title of “Lord.” “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.”
Amazing feats and profound wisdom are all well and good; but compassion is divine.
David Lose, the President of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia writes,
“[I]t’s not just the title ‘Lord’ that helps describe Jesus, but that his act of compassion describes and even defines what it means to be Lord. To be Lord, that is, is to be vulnerable to the suffering of another. To be Lord is to feel compassion. To be Lord is to not just feel compassion but to act on it, to do something. To be Lord is, finally, to heal, restore, renew, and in all ways to help.”*
That story paints the picture of a God who is intimately involved in our world, not as a puppet master or manipulator or sadist, but as an engaged, healing, holy, and powerful presence that leads people still today to the realization voiced by the awestruck crowd gathered about the once-dead, now-breathing, widow’s son, "God has looked favorably on his people!"
That changes things, folks. Recall your experience of suffering and imagine what it would mean to know that God saw you and had compassion for you in your suffering.
Imagine that God is not distant but near. Imagine God doesn’t delight in your pain, but weeps with you. Imagine that God is not callous, but completely vulnerable.
That truth wouldn't negate the anger we justifiably feel when our sons and daughters die. It doesn’t change our frustration with God’s apparent inaction in the face of suffering. But surely it would teach us how to respond to others in this world where death is all around us. Surely it would teach us to have compassion on others.
“Have compassion on others” is a bland and uninspired message better served to sell a product rather than be a divine and transformative word. I would be a poor preacher, indeed, if my message was for you to be nice to people. That’s the message Stephen Fry stands for.
Instead, as a Christian, I am called to preach the divine and transformative word that “God has compassion.” God, as evidenced by Jesus Christ, looks upon our suffering and responds with empathy, compassion, and, we pray, action.
I could rant and rave and plead and implore you to go out into the world in the name of Jesus to look for and show compassion toward people who are suffering and have compassion; but unless you have experienced compassion from God, you would not be able to do so.
Instead, I’ll leave you with the words of my spiritual muse, Henri Nouwen, who himself traveled a long road of suffering as well as compassion. He writes,
"When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares."**
* David Lose “Dear Working Preacher” June 5, 2013
** Henri J.M. Nouwen, Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life