Restored Life -- A Sermon for Pentecost 3C (Luke 7)
John the Baptist was sitting in jail waiting to be executed. As he sat there in that cell, he wondered if he had fulfilled his calling. Had he prepared the way for the one would bring God’s salvation to the world? Was this Jesus, whom he baptized, the one they were waiting for? (Lk 3:1-6). With all of these questions running through his mind, he decided to send a few disciples to check things out. These disciples asked Jesus: “Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else?” (Lk 7:18-19 CEB). Jesus told them to tell John how he healed people of their diseases, gave sight to the blind, raised the dead, and brought good news to the poor. Look around you: What do you see? What do you hear? Go back to John and report what you’ve seen and heard.
This question comes after the Centurion’s slave was healed, from a distance, on the basis of the Centurion’s faith (Lk 7:1-10). It comes after Jesus travels from Capernaum to the village of Nain. A large crowd of people followed Jesus and his disciples as they made this journey. They were probably wondering what he would do next.
As Jesus and his entourage approached the village gate, they encountered a funeral procession. The deceased was the only son of a local widow. Just like a New Orleans funeral procession, this probably involved a slow walk to the burial place, leaving room for mourning to take place.
When Jesus came upon the funeral procession, Luke tells us that “he saw her.” That’s important. He saw the grieving mother and he felt compassion for her. It’s interesting that Luke doesn’t say Jesus saw the deceased man. He doesn’t tell us that Jesus felt compassion for the one who died. Instead, he had compassion for the mother, who was herself a widow. His death left her without a safety net. Who would take care of her? We have Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other safety nets. They might not always work well, but they’re better than anything available to a woman living in a first-century patriarchal culture. If she didn’t have a husband or a son, she would have to fend for herself.
When these two crowds of people came together, many of the people would be watching to see what Jesus would do. Since the young man was dead, this didn’t leave any room for healing. He could comfort the widow, but that wouldn’t put food on the table or a roof over her head.
Again, Luke says that Jesus saw her and had compassion for her. It was out of this compassion that he touched the funeral bier, bringing the procession to a halt. Then he spoke to the dead man: “Young man, I say to you, rise.” With that, the dead man sat up and Jesus gave him back to his mother. We can only imagine what these two said to each other. I expect there was a lot of joy at that moment, and a lot of relief as well.
Luke tells us Jesus acted out of compassion for the mother. The word translated here as compassion also appears in the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Remember how the Samaritan looked upon the man in the ditch? He had compassion for that man. After pulling him out of the ditch, he bandaged the man’s wounds and put him up in an inn until he was well (Lk. 10:29-37). In the parable of the Prodigal, it’s the father who is moved with compassion for his lost son. So, when the son returned home, the father raced out and embraced his son, welcoming him back into the family (Luke 15:11-32).
It’s out of this same kind of compassion that Jesus acts. In fact, compassion defines who Jesus is. It defines his ministry that reaches out and embraces people who were sick, injured, and hurting. He embraces people living on the margins, people who are poor. This was his calling, which he embraced the day he went to the synagogue in Nazareth and read from Isaiah: “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” (Lk 4:14-30).
When you read a story like this, where do your eyes go first? Do your eyes go where mine went the first time I went through the passage? Do they go to the young man lying on the funeral bier? That’s where mine went. It’s why I titled the sermon “Restored Life.” I focused on the miracle and not the widow, but that’s not where Jesus put his attention. Eventually, with the help of commentaries, I was able to see this story from a different vantage point. Yes, this is a miracle story, but what is more important, it’s a story about compassion. While this miracle is a powerful moment that left everyone awestruck, it’s Jesus’ compassion that stands at the center of the story. We may not have the power to raise people from the dead, but we can live lives filled with Jesus’ compassion.
This story is very different from the preceding one, which reminds us that there isn’t a formula for spiritual success. Sometimes things happen because of a person’s faith. Other times, God just acts. The Centurion’s slave is healed on the basis of the Centurion’s faith. It’s the Centurion who initiates the event. In this case, it’s Jesus who initiates the event. The crowd might be wondering what Jesus would do, but no one asked him to do anything. The widow doesn’t ask Jesus to raise her son to life. She doesn’t express faith in Jesus. I doubt she even sees Jesus. After all, she was filled with grief at her loss and perhaps fearful about her future. I can see her walking behind the bier with her head down and her eyes, filled with tears, looking at the ground. She didn’t see Jesus, but Jesus saw her with the eyes of compassion.
I confess I don’t know what it’s like to lose a child, though I know some you know what this means. But even those of us who haven’t lost a child, know that children shouldn’t die before their parents. Such a loss is incalculable, and this was the widow’s experience. Before long it also would be the experience of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Luke doesn’t say whether Mary was there at the cross to see her son die, but in the Gospel of John, she’s standing at the foot of the cross. Jesus sees her and has compassion for her, even though he’s experiencing great suffering. When he sees her, he entrusts her care to the Beloved Disciple (Jn. 19:25-27). But, who would be there for the widow of Nain? It turned out to be Jesus, who told the young man lying on the funeral bier to rise from the dead. Then Jesus gave him to his mother. In that act, life was truly restored.
Jesus’ act of compassion illustrates the realities faced by so many people living on the margins of society. It’s no wonder that James wrote that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27). Jesus embodied this pure and undefiled religion, and he models it for us.
When Jesus acted out of compassion for the widow, he felt her grief. He also recognized the dire nature of her situation. He knew that her son’s death left her without a safety net. So, the first thing he did was comfort her, and he said: “Do not weep.” Then, he turned to her son and raised him from the dead, restoring her safety net.
Where might the compassion of Jesus lead us today? Where might we live out this vision of compassion for others? The father in the story of the prodigal son acted out of compassion and restored a broken relationship. In this case, it was an unwelcome death. If Jesus embodies God’s compassion for us, how might exhibit compassion for others?
This week we heard about the plight of children living in horrific conditions in detention camps at the southern border. There was a debate about what to call them, but whatever name we use, the fact is that young children are having to fend for themselves. They’re sleeping on cold cement floors and they lack access to showers, soap, and even toothbrushes. To make matters worse, a representative of the Justice Department told a court that the government isn’t required to provide such basic necessities for these little children. What would the compassionate Jesus say? What would he do? What would he have us do?
John asked: “are you the one?” Jesus answered that question with acts of compassion. In doing so, he showed us what the realm of God truly looks like. It’s a realm defined by the love of God, but also the love of neighbor. When the people saw God at work in their midst, they were awestruck and they glorified God. They pointed to Jesus and declared him to be a great prophet. They also rejoiced that God looked favorably upon them. Might we do the same?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
July 30, 2019
|Picture Attribution: Gerung, Matthias, approximately 1500-approximately 1570. Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56154 [retrieved June 29, 2019]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ottheinrich_Folio081v_Lc7B.jpg.|