Friday, February 3, 2017

“He Had Compassion” - February 5, 2017

Text: Luke 7:1-17

Last Sunday we left Jesus up on a mountain with his twelve disciples.  After that, he comes down from the mountain and speaks to the crowds from a level place.  Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount; in Luke this is called the Sermon on the Plain.  Jesus pronounces blessings on the poor and weak and woes on the rich and powerful.  He says that his followers must love their enemies, see the log in their own eyes before they worry about the speck in their neighbor’s eyes, and build their houses on a solid foundation, not on sinking sand.  They are to live in a different way.

That brings us to today’s scripture.  After getting his team together and giving a summary of his teaching, Jesus goes on the road and he heals.  We read about the healing of a slave who was near death, and then the raising of a widow’s son who actually had died.

First, a Roman centurion has a slave for whom he is concerned.  This man had heard about Jesus.  A Gentile, he has good relationships with the Jewish elders in Capernaum and sends a delegation of these elders who make a request that Jesus come to heal his slave.  They vouch for the worthiness of this man.  But while Jesus is on the way, the centurion sends friends to intercept Jesus.  The elders have called him worthy but he says, “I am not worthy to have him under my roof.”  Along with his humble attitude he may have known that it might be awkward for this Jewish teacher to enter a Gentile home and he perhaps wanted to spare Jesus that awkwardness. 

But regardless, he has friends go and tell Jesus that he doesn’t have to come all the way to his house; he just needs to say the word and the slave will be healed.  And so Jesus does.  Jesus heals this person he has never met, upon the request of a Gentile whom he has never met. 

And what does Jesus say? “Not even in Israel have I seen such faith.”  So far in Luke, Jesus has repeatedly praised Gentiles for their faith while sticking it to religious leaders.  By healing the slave of this Roman soldier, Jesus again aggravates the Pharisees.

Soon after this, Jesus and his disciples travel to the village of Nain, and on the edge of the town they encounter a funeral procession.  Funerals in first century Palestine were community events.  Each village had its own professional mourners – women who helped to express the sense of loss felt by the community, especially the loss felt by family members.  They would wail and cry.  They would sing loudly and mournfully.  They would play cymbals and flutes and other instruments.  They did not hold back on the emotion.

Walking behind the mourners was the mother of the young man who had died.  There may have been friends with her, there may have been extended family members, folks from the synagogue, but make no mistake: this mother was alone.  She had already lost her husband.  Now she had lost her only child.  As a widow with no male family member to support her, she faced a very bleak future. 

The pallbearers are carrying the body of the young man on a funeral bier, which at that and place was something like a stretcher.  The body was covered with a shroud.  First century Jews generally buried their dead outside of the city, and quickly, usually on the day of death or perhaps the next day.  Embalming was not practiced.

It was a dramatic scene already – the throng of mourners making their way to the graveyard, the death of a young person, a grieving mother.  Jesus approached the funeral procession with his followers, a crowd of his own in tow.  He had just healed the slave of a Roman centurion.  But now he goes a step further, from healing to resuscitation.

Now, Jesus did not know these people.  He was not from this village.  He did not know this grieving mother.  Nobody asked him to intervene.  But Jesus noticed her.  He saw her tears, tears for this son she had lost and tears for her husband she had lost and tears for herself, who would now find herself in a desperate situation.  Women had no legal rights and a widow such as herself was subject to losing property.  To be a widow without a son was to be extremely vulnerable.

Jesus saw this mother, grieving yet another loss.  The text says that when Jesus saw her, he had compassion for her.

“Do not weep,” he said to her.  Now, generally, this is the last thing you want to say to somebody who has suffered a loss.  “Don’t cry, it will be OK, cheer up” – this is what you should not say.  “God had a reason, God needed him more than we did.”  Don’t go there.  Don’t say that.  It’s not helpful.

Never tell someone who is grieving not to weep – unless you can raise their loved one from the dead. 

Jesus reached out and touched the bier, touched the body, and the procession stopped abruptly.  By doing this, Jesus signaled that he was about to say something, about to do something.  And by doing this, he had made himself ritually unclean. 
Jesus said, “I say to you, young man, rise!”  And the next line is a great verse: “The dead man sat up and began to speak.”  In case it wasn’t clear this man’s condition, we read, “The dead man sat up and started to speak.”

If you had asked me to give the times in scripture when Jesus raised a person from the dead, I don’t know that I would have come up with this story.  Of the instances in which he raised a person, this seems the most obscure.  We remember Jesus raising his friend Lazarus.  And then there is the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue official. 

This story is different from the other two.  Lazarus was a good friend of Jesus – in fact, on learning that Lazarus had died, we read that Jesus wept.  And with Jairus’ daughter, Jairus comes and tells Jesus that his daughter has died but that he believes Jesus can yet bring her to life.  Lazarus was one of Jesus’ best friends; Jairus comes with great faith asking Jesus to act.

We don’t find anything like that here.  Jesus just happens to come upon a funeral.  He doesn’t know this woman or her son.  And she has not asked him to do anything.  Jesus does not raise this young man because of the mother’s faith; he doesn’t know anything about this woman.

It is simply a matter of compassion.  Jesus saw her and he had compassion.

Perhaps Jesus saw this woman and thought of his own mother, who by tradition was widowed at a young age.  You may remember that Joseph is a figure in the gospels only until the story where the family goes to the temple in Jerusalem when Jesus is 12 years of age.  After that, he is never mentioned again.  The presumption is that Joseph died while Jesus was a teenager.

The focus for Jesus is the mother, the one who had lost her husband and now her son.  This widow would be doubly hurt by the loss – she would not only lose her son whom she loved, she would lose her source of income, her provider.  Her son was her pension.  He was her Social Security. 

Jesus heals a lot of people in the Gospel of Luke.  People who come to Jesus in faith and ask for healing, for themselves or for a loved one.  People like the centurion in our first story.  “Just give the word,” the man says, “and I know he will be healed.”  Jesus praises the centurion and attributes the healing to his faith.

But this woman does not ask Jesus to raise her son.  She doesn’t fall on her knees and beg for her son’s life.  She doesn’t express faith in Jesus’ ability to raise her son.

And when Jesus does raise her son, she doesn’t bother to say “Thank you.”  Well, maybe she did, but Luke does not report such a response.  And what about the woman’s son?  Luke reports that “the dead man began to speak,” but we don’t know what he said.  Maybe one of the things he said was “Thank you,” but the scripture doesn’t say.  Maybe he was wondering if he had been dead and missed the Super Bowl.  The crowd praises God and calls Jesus a great prophet, but we don’t hear anything from the mother or the son who was raised.

In other stories in Luke, people’s healing is attributed to their faith.  Or if the healing happens without a request for it, like the bent-over woman who Jesus heals in chapter 13, the person at least says thank you or begins praising God.

Here we have none of that.  And so, it seems to me that this story is not about faith.  And it is not about gratitude.  This is a story about grace -- pure, undiluted, unearned, un-asked-for grace.  This raising does not happen because of faith or worthiness, it happens solely because of Jesus’ compassion. 

The mother didn’t have to act faithfully. The son didn’t have to live gratefully.  It could be that both mother and son were faithful, and it is impossible to think that they were not filled with gratitude.  But that is not the point of the story.  This is about Jesus’ compassion.

Stephanie Weiner told a story about Doug, a 15-year old who was diagnosed with leukemia.  The doctors told him in frank terms about his disease.  They said that for the next three years he would have to undergo chemotherapy.  They didn’t sugarcoat the side effects.  They told him he would be bald and that his body would become bloated.  He heard all of us this, and Doug went into a deep depression.

His aunt called a florist and sent him some flowers.  She told the clerk that they were for her teenage nephew who had leukemia.  When the flowers arrived, they were beautiful.  Doug read the card from his aunt, and then he saw a second card.  It said, “Douglas, I took your order.  I work at the florist shop.  I had leukemia when I was seven years old.  I’m 22 now.  Good luck.  My heart goes out to you.  Sincerely, Laura.”

Doug’s face lit up.  Somehow, this note lifted his spirit in a way that nothing else had.

Here he was in one of the best hospitals in the country.  He was surrounded by state of the art medical equipment.  He was being treated by expert doctors and nurses.   But it was a sales clerk in a flower shop who took the time to care, who identified with him, who did what her heart told her to do, who gave Doug the hope and the will to carry on.

This is a story about Jesus’ compassion and a call to us to be compassionate.  You might say, “Well, I can’t raise the dead like Jesus did.”  Well, we’re all in the same boat on that one.  And we could spend a lot of time asking why did Jesus raise some people – a very few people - and not others?  Why did he heal some, and not others?

I don’t know the answer to that.  I do know that this was a resuscitation and not a resurrection.  While this boy lived, he would not live forever.  Jesus’ healings were not permanent.  So far, every person who has ever lived has died, even those who received divine healing.

The point of this story – what we are given to see – is Jesus’ compassion.  Jesus’ compassion brings this boy to life, and our acts of compassion are life-giving to those who are suffering. The word compassion literally means to “suffer together.”  Sharing someone’s suffering means sharing life in such a way that you share in another’s joys as well as sorrows.  We don’t have to be able to raise the dead to act compassionately. 

To know that you are loved and cared for is a major contributing factor in being restored to wholeness.  Those recovering from illness will often say that knowing people were praying for them and caring for them gave them hope and played a large role in their recovery.  Those who do not recover from their illness often find peace knowing that they are loved and cared for by others, and the one expressing compassion likewise receives a sense of peace and fulfillment in the expression of compassion, in the “suffering together.” 

Rather than a story about a miracle that happened long ago, this is a story for us.  There is someone in your life who needs your compassion.  It may be someone you know and see every day.  It may be a stranger, like this grieving mother that Jesus comes across or the young man with leukemia whom the florist sent a note.  This story is a call to compassion, and compassion is life-giving for both the giver and receiver.   If you live without compassion, if you live with a heart closed to the pain of others, you are not fully living.

Like Jesus, we are called to care for people in need, whether they have expressed faith or not, whether their faith is like ours or not.  Our ministry beyond the walls of our church really has a foundation of compassion.  In compassion, we support ministries that help people in need here in our community and we work to make our community a fairer and more just place.  Because of compassion, we make blankets for newborns, we put together hygiene kits for refugees, we support mission work around our country and around the world.  Out of compassion, we are going to Oklahoma over spring break to help minister to children in need.  We can disagree over methods and strategies and how best to get things done, but whatever we are doing, if we do not have compassion, we are being less than Christian.

The early Christian movement grew by leaps and bounds because of the way Christians cared for the poor and marginalized and sick and dying.  It was a witness to the world, and even among its detractors and opponents, the Church was known for its compassion.

What if we were known, above all, as having compassion?   What if compassion were our calling card? 

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