A reflection on 1 Kings 17:8-24; Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17 by The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt
There is a bad word in today’s Gospel. Right in the middle. Luke 7:13.
The word is translated into English as “compassion” but that is an inadequate translation. In Greek it is splanchna, and it means bowels, guts, innards. It was used to describe the anatomy of that part of the body, but it was also used symbolically to mean the “bowels of mercy,” to indicate deep, gut-wrenching feeling, more physical than mere sympathy.
In this story no other word would do to describe what Jesus felt on seeing the funeral procession for this woman’s son. Was it her grief, her alone-ness, her courage that moved him to such gut-wrenching compassion? That moved him to act so powerfully?
We know in ancient times that women alone were as good as dead. In the stories of women alone, we have often glimpsed the divine, have often seen God at work, bringing these women out of their isolation and into social balance. God’s gut often wrenches when God sees poor women, marginalized women, grieving women, women without status, without men or fortune to protect them, women without children and hence without hope of a future.
God stepped in, in the person of the prophet Elijah to save the life of the son of the poor widow. Now this woman was not a woman of the covenant; she was a pagan, a Ba’al-worshipper, like the other Ba’al worshippers Elijah had denounced. But this woman was compassionate. She gave the prophet a meal out of the little she had. Her son then becomes sick, and is near death, and Elijah performs this wonderful and strange miracle. The son is brought back to life. The larder is full. Life in all its abundance is given to this poor woman.
It was the grief of the widow of Nain that caused Jesus to act. It was her plight that wrenched his gut. It almost doesn’t matter if the son was really, truly dead or not. Maybe he was just in a deep coma, just seemed to be dead – who knows. This was not an emergency room, a “code blue,” a get-out-the-crash-cart-stat kind of setting. He was not in the tomb, three days dead and stinking as Lazarus would be when Jesus raised him. But there, on that road outside of Nain, he was dead and his mother the widow was as good as dead, and the deep pathos of the scene stopped Jesus in his tracks. In his gut-wrenching compassion, he brought them both back to life.
We are all called to compassion. It’s not an easy calling. The Greek word for how much it hurts your gut is aptly descriptive. That is the depth of compassion to which we are called, as disciples of Christ, as followers of the one who brought the widow and her son back to life. In a book called, The Search for Compassion, the author says, “The practice of compassion is the practice of ministry. Compassion means ministry. … [It] means getting involved in another’s life for healing and wholeness.”
In each of our church communities we are listening for what God is calling us to do. Exploring gut-wrenching compassion could be one way to describe that journey of discipleship, that process of discerning our mission in these sacred places in which we find ourselves, these places God wants us to be. Dutch priest Henri Nouwen, who wrote frequently about ministry and healing, wrote this about compassion:
Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human. … compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there.
Jesus’ gut-wrenching compassion took him to those people and places, to people like us and to places like these, where we live and work. This is the place where Jesus has built a home, where Jesus has pitched his tent, where God dwells among us. If it is good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for us. Let us begin.