Saturday, February 21, 2015

The widow at Nain

Only Luke's gospel contains this wonderful story of Jesus:

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.

We may find a number of wonderful truths in this passage. I want to focus on three: first, that Jesus has compassion; second, that Jesus has compassion for women; and third, that Jesus has compassion for mothers.

In the first place, Jesus has compassion. We find here that Jesus acts out of compassion for a widow whose situation was dire indeed. This ought to motivate us to think of God as acting compassionately, feeling for the creation and for its suffering and pain. Some preachers and theologians talk about God as if what he were primarily concerned for in everything is his own glory. I don't need to name names; I am sure you can think of such persons. My conviction is that this way of thinking is poorly mistaken, from the perspective both of Scripture and from church tradition.

The scriptures depict God from the beginning as acting out of unconcerned, disinterested, selfless goodness towards the world he has created. In Genesis, we find that God creates everything in order, each in its proper place, and commands all the animals and the creation to flourish and to do well. He has no expectations of any of it; he has no needs to be satisfied by them. Moreover, when he sees that the man he created is alone, he notices that it is not good and sets out to create a proper helper for him. This is in stark contrast to Babylonian creation mythology, according to which humanity was created to solve a divine labor dispute. Because the lower class laborer gods got tired of their hard work, they started rioting and disrupting the sleep of the upper class divine bourgeoisie. In order to restore the peace, the gods created humanity to do the work of the gods. On this view of things, humanity is a means to some other divine end; but in Genesis, the world and humans within it are created for their own sake, to flourish and to enjoy life with God. More than that, humanity is created in the image and likeness of God, so as to display this same selfless abundant goodness and benevolence towards the creation under its dominion.

More than that, church tradition is rife with talk of God's φιλανθρωπία, God's love for humanity. Gregory of Nyssa says that the Logos took on human flesh and saved humanity out of his love for humanity. Likewise Eusebius says, The Savior of the whole world, who loves humanity [φιλάνθρωπος], having liberated the souls of the human beings from death . . . removed every tear from every face . . . impeding the perdition of so many souls because of his love for humanity (quoted in Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, p. 320). Indeed, when Athanasius describes basic Christian doctrine in his On the Incarnation, you never hear him reference divine wrath nor concern for divine glory as motivation for his salvific work, but only ever the love of God for humanity and his goodness. The ancient Christian theologians would say that God is a philanthropist! He loves humankind!

Finally, we see here in this passage that Jesus Christ has compassion for the widow whose son has died. The Greek word here is σπλαγχνίζομαι, which refers to a feeling in one's bowels. When he sees the pain and the tears of the woman crying over her son's dead body, it hits him right in the gut, like it would affect any one of us who have a heart and who stumbled upon such a scene. It hurts him as much as anyone else when he sees suffering of this sort. So he acts, much like we would in that situation, out of concern for the suffering person. When you feel compassion, you don't need any other reason to act; you simply do it because that is what you know is right. Jesus does exactly like this.

Now why is it important to know that God is compassionate? Because this means that we can pray to him knowing that he is as much bothered by the things which trouble us as we are. He feels our pain, too; and he loves those who suffer even more than we do. So we should approach our compassionate Father all the time in ceaseless prayer, begging his mercy and his action in a world of so much trouble and toil.

More than this, we can see that Jesus has compassion for women. In many societies, women occupy uniquely vulnerable social positions, and there is often little they can do to improve their lives. This widow's situation was doubly dire: in the first place, without a male protector left in her life, she has no economic security for the future; but secondly, even if her neighbors should help her in some way, the whole meaning of her life -- the family which she has come to love and serve -- has been taken away from her. She is now completely alone in the world.

Jesus was aware of her difficulty, and felt compassion for her. He told her, Do not weep. In the same way, he is aware of the struggles and pains of women all over the world. He knows what their problems are, and he knows that their pain is great. But we who are not women ought to learn from him to be sensitive to the needs of others. Jesus has left it to us who are men to listen to the women around us, to hear what they have to say about the way they are treated; more than that, he leaves it to us now, in following his example, to do what we can to help them. We are supposed to say, Do not weep, and do what we can to help the women around us who are suffering in various ways. This is what it would mean to follow Jesus.

But finally, Jesus has compassion for mothers. It may be that we can find ourselves in the various aspects of this story.

Perhaps you are a mother whose son or daughter has died -- not physically, but spiritually. He has abandoned God and the church, and doesn't want to hear anything about the Lord Jesus Christ. This breaks your heart. You remember when you first learned that you were pregnant, the joy that seized your heart in anticipation of the birth of your child. You remember when you gave birth -- it might have been a problematic birth; you nearly gave your life giving life to this child of yours. Think back to the first time you held him in your arms, how small and beautiful he was. He looked a bit like you; you had a little replica of yourself in your hands. You remember the nights spent sleeplessly caring for the child, whether he was crying or sick or whatever it may have been. You remember watching with joy as he grew up, first crawling, then walking, then speaking. You remember how much he loved you, how he would kiss you and give you hugs. You remember when you took him and his siblings to get portraits made, because you wanted reminders of the time when they were young and innocent, and you were the world to them. You remember noticing the beginnings of adolescence, when childish features gave way to more mature contours. You remember feeling unsure about the company he kept, and the friends and circles he frequented. He disregarded what you said, and told you to mind your own business; they're his friends. You remember as he seemed to be increasingly uninterested in knowing anything about the Lord; he doesn't want to go to church anymore. You remember when you first caught him high on drugs, or having committed a crime with his urchin friends, or whatever it may have been. Your heart was broken. You prayed to God and you cried endless rivers of tears for your son. At first it seemed like he felt bad for the pain he caused you, but over time he got increasingly hardened and unconcerned. Again and again you would beg him to change his ways, to turn his life around, but his cold face left no hope. Years pass and the pain in your heart is as heavy as it has ever been; it is never easy to see your child throw his life away in the prime of his youth.

To you, the Lord Jesus Christ says: Do not weep. The Lord loves your son even more than you do, if that were possible. He knows the pain in your heart; he has heard your countless prayers, offered late into the night when everyone else had long since fallen asleep. He knows the tremendous burden you carry in your soul over the salvation of your son. He tells you, Do not weep; cast this burden upon me, and I can carry it for you. Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ to answer your prayers, because he hears them.

Or perhaps you are not the mother, but the father in the story. You haven't died, but for a long time now you have checked out. The stress and pain and heartache of it all, knowing that your child is throwing away his life, is too great. So you withdraw into yourself, with the exception of the occasional angry remark and deep resentment over your wayward child.

The Lord Jesus Christ gives you an example. You must be a comfort to your aching wife; you have to do what you can to help her in her pain. Jesus felt for the widow in the same you way you feel for your wife -- that pain in your bowels. You must act upon it to comfort her, same as Jesus did.

Or perhaps you are the son, who has been dead for long time now in sin and godlessness. You do your own thing, though it causes such pain and suffering in the family. You don't want to hear about Christ, you don't want to hear about God, you don't want to hear about the church -- all those things are mere obstacles in the way of your enjoying yourself.

To you, the Lord Jesus Christ says: Young man, I say to you, rise! Get up out of the muck and the mire of your sinful way of life. Get up out of your vices and bad habits which have turned you into something less than human, a person so incredibly selfish and incapable of sacrifice for others. Get up out of the quicksand, out of the devil's grip, while you are still in life and while God, with every passing moment, is yet giving you breath. And when you rise, just like the young man in this story, you too will begin to speak. You will tell others about the good that the Lord has done for you, how he healed you and transformed you and changed your life. And the word will spread far and wide, as the salvation of God is made known.

Perhaps, however, you find yourself in none of these characters. Your children are well behaved, or at least too young to be destroying themselves in the ways I've described. You don't have the familial problems other persons do. You are just here at the funeral, watching as a mother carries her dead son out to be buried.

You too must feel for the suffering in their times of pain. You too ought to have that feeling in your gut. You too ought to go and be alongside them in their travail, to wail and moan and to cry to God for their children to return to their senses, to their families, and to God.

Above all else, what we have here in this story is compassion. Compassion is the very essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ: God, out of his compassion, stooped down to our level and died for our sins, so that we could enjoy life with him; in doing so, he leaves us with an example to follow, so that we can feel for others in their times of difficulty and ease their pain. In everything, we ought to act with compassion, feeling and embodying that same φιλανθρωπία of God which motivates the divine work of salvation. This is what it means to be God, and this is what it means to be truly human -- to be compassionate.

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