Summary: We can learn a lot about feeling compassion and acting on it from the actions of Jesus at Nain.
Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost 2016
In the letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul famously tells his Catholic listeners that the task assigned to us by our baptismal consecration is to “watch carefully how [we] live, not as fools but as wise persons, redeeming the times because the days are evil.” The thought underlies what he is telling the people of Galatia in today’s Epistle. And don’t forget, St. Paul’s words are for all times. He is addressing us in our day, because, once more, the days are, indeed, evil. I’m not going to give you a gazette of the many murders that have plagued us this year, whether they were inspired by Islamic extremism or hatred of people of color, whether it be black, white, brown or blue. I am, however, going to suggest that for the first time in our nation’s history, we have major national political contests in which nobody is plausibly claiming the ethical or religious high ground. The political race for the highest offices in our land is being waged on an entirely secular level. Economics and foreign policy are dominating the conversation, and, as usual, the enormous injustices being done to families and the unborn are being generally ignored in the hypersonic speeches and ads.
What are we to think? I am certainly not going to tell you how to vote. But do please register to vote and participate. That means research the candidates’ history and positions, discuss it among the members of your family in light of the Gospel, and don’t grow weary while you do it. Then vote according to your well-formed conscience. That is part of our responsibilities to bear one another’s burdens, and to do good to all human beings.
Now let’s consider a parallel teaching that comes–uniquely–from St. Luke’s Gospel. Jesus, a divine person who was both fully human and fully divine, encounters a tragic scene in a little village a short distance from Mt. Tabor. A widow has lost her only son, and Jesus comes into the village as the funeral procession is leaving for the graveyard. There’s a reason why the Scriptures are constantly talking about helping widows and orphans. In the first century there was no Social Security, no life insurance, no welfare benefits, especially in the impoverished area of Palestine. There were no equal rights for women; if a woman was widowed, her sons had to support her for the rest of her life, or she would starve. In this story, this woman has literally lost every possible means of support, both her husband and her only son.
Jesus looks on this scene and–in this translation–was “moved with compassion.” That language is a poor translation of the original Greek. Think of the most emotional moment of your life–a birth, a death, something that happened to you that you felt like a blow to your abdomen. That’s the feeling that is conveyed here. The Master of the Universe felt this woman’s profound pain in His gut.
The next two statements Jesus made were seared into the memory of everyone in the procession. The memory was vivid even twenty or thirty years later when St. Luke was researching his Gospel. Jesus, in His most sensitive voice, told the grieving mother not to weep any more. And then He removed the cause of her grief by addressing the dead: “Young man, I say to you, arise.” The powerful Word of the Word of God brought him back from death, and the young man responded with speech. Jesus then gave this incredible gift to the grieving mother.
So why did fear seize them all? The ones carrying the boy, the mourners around, even the companions of Jesus feared because with this one action, everything changed. This fellow Jesus said wonderful things, He fed a big crowd, and he healed all kinds of sickness. But this guy was dead, probably several hours dead. The fear was a fear of God–not a servile fear but a holy fear. The same kind of fear that Isaiah felt when he saw the Lord in the temple. It’s the fear we would all have if we saw perfect goodness and realized how imperfect and sinful we are. Then the fear turned into praise and a spirit of evangelism. They went out and told everybody what they had witnessed.
A few decades ago a song called “From a Distance” achieved some popularity. It had a line that reads “God is watching us from a distance.” The Gospel shows that to be totally bogus. The only distance between me and God is one I impose. It’s the same for all of us. God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. And because Jesus is as human as a human being can be, He has felt our pain more profoundly than anyone else. His response to our pain is infinite mercy.