A HEART OF COMPASSION
His heart went out to her.
Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it in his paraphrase The Message, “When Jesus saw her, his heart broke.”
This is how the translator tries to describe a Greek word that means compassion, but also much more. When Jesus saw the widow of Nain, he was deeply moved, in the depth of his being. His heart was touched in a profound way.
What prompted this response was an encounter with a funeral procession. As Jesus entered the town of Nain, a young man was being carried out in the other direction to the place of burial. A funeral procession would hardly have been an unusual sight, but Jesus didn’t simply let it pass by unnoticed. The presence of death was not something to be treated lightly. Even though Jesus had never met the man who had died, his eyes were fixed on this scene. The poet John Donne wrote, “Any man’s death diminishes me,/Because I am involved in mankind.” Jesus seems to have felt the same thing. Death is an enemy that we all face. We are drawn together by this common foe. The death of one affects us all.
And yet for all this it is not actually the sight of the man on his funeral bier that breaks Jesus’ heart. It’s the sight of the man’s mother. This woman is a widow, which means this is not the first time she’s been part of one of these processions to the cemetery. She has already lost her husband; now she has lost her son – her only son.
For the widow, this is not just a tragedy – it’s a life-threatening crisis. In Hebrew, the word for widow literally means, “to be unable to speak.” The widow was the one who had no voice. She had no-one to speak for her. She was invisible. In a male-dominated culture, she had no status, no worth, no future. Her only hope was to have a son who could speak for her – who could provide her with the protection and the support she needed. But now this son was dead too, and she was left with nothing.
It’s when Jesus sees this widow that his heart breaks. As tragic as the young man’s death was, the tragedy of the widow’s situation was no less profound. She had experienced a form of death herself – a living death that emptied her life of hope, comfort and peace. It is that death that Jesus is moved to reverse.
Jesus says to the widow, “Don’t cry.” For us that might not sound very compassionate. Usually the last thing you want to say to someone who’s grieving is “Don’t cry.” And it’s surprising that he says this, because it’s not as if Jesus himself never cried. The Gospel of John tells us that when he approached the tomb of his friend Lazarus, Jesus wept. There’s nothing wrong with tears. They’re not a sign of weakness. They’re not a source of shame. But Jesus is not saying tears are wrong. He’s saying that they are misplaced. He’s saying that death has not won. He’s saying that new life is breaking out.
Jesus goes up to the funeral bier and says, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” With that the man sits up and begins to talk. But this resurrection is not complete until Jesus gives him back to his mother. With that the widow herself is given back her life.
It is entirely out of compassion that Jesus has done this. In some of the other healing stories we see Jesus responding to people’s faith. “Your faith has made you well,” he often says. But in this case, faith never enters into it. The widow makes no declaration of faith in Jesus. In fact, she doesn’t even ask him to do anything. And there’s certainly no faith on the part of the dead man. Faith has nothing to do with it. Jesus raises the widow’s son simply as an act of compassion. It’s an act of mercy that comes completely out of the blue.
A powerful story such as this invites us not only to listen to it, but to enter into it ourselves. We do that by finding characters in the story we can identify with. It’s when we see ourselves in the story that the story can really take hold of us.
We might find ourselves identifying with the character in the story who displays a heart of compassion. That, of course, is Jesus. By identifying with Jesus, we’re not pretending that we ourselves are like Jesus in every way. We can’t pretend that we can raise people from the dead the way Jesus did. But we can see in him an example of compassion that we would like to follow.
Jesus acts in compassionate ways towards the widow and her son, but it’s clear that compassion starts in the heart – or, if we were to go by the literal meaning of the Greek, the pit of the stomach. The sight of this widow grieving over her dead son is like a punch to the solar plexus. Even though Jesus has never met this woman before, he feels her grief as if she were a member of his own family. Frederick Buechner once said, “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it's like to live inside somebody else's skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”
Muhammad Ali, who died on Friday, is being remembered as an extraordinary, if complex, public figure. His business manager was on the radio yesterday describing a side of Ali that many didn’t see. When he was in Zaire for his fight against George Foreman, a woman came to his training camp and said her son was sick. Ali said, “We’ll go visit him.” It turned out that the son was in a leper colony. The staff there wouldn’t go anywhere near the patients. They would bring the food for them, set it down, and then walk away. But Ali went right among the lepers, sitting next to them, and even embracing them.
That’s a compassion that comes from somewhere very deep within. It’s the kind of compassion that Jesus himself displays. And it’s the kind of compassion that we would like to be able to display ourselves.
But because compassion comes from somewhere so deep within, it’s not something we can just summon up on demand. We cannot have a heart of compassion unless God gives us one. Life in the world can do a lot to harden our hearts. Sadly, there are too many times when we search within ourselves for compassionate feelings and we just can’t find any. “Compassion fatigue” is the term you hear these days. The sheer weight of the suffering we see around us starts to overwhelm us, and we become numb. The only way we can truly be compassionate is if God makes us compassionate, attuning our hearts to his heart, and helping us to see that none of us is an island, entire of itself.
The closer we draw to God, the deeper our compassion will be. And perhaps the key to that is recognizing that we ourselves are people who need to be shown compassion. We ourselves are the ones who need to be given new life.
This calls for shifting the angle from which we look at the story. Instead of just focussing on Jesus as an example for us to follow, perhaps we can look at the widow, and even her dead son, as the characters who most closely resemble us. Let’s face it, before we can even begin to talk about being compassionate like Jesus, we need to come to terms with the fact that death has us under its thumb, and what we need more than anything else is new life.
For the widow’s son, that new life is a literal reality. And while we ourselves are not dead yet, in that sense of the word, we do know what it’s like for death steal away our joy, our hope, our peace. We know what it’s like to be crushed by an enemy who wants to take away everything that represents fullness of life as we know it. This is an enemy who attacks our health, thwarts our dreams, and undermines our happiness. This is an enemy who imprisons us in suffering and despair.
We are the ones who need to by raised to new life. We are the ones who need to be transformed by resurrection power. We are the ones who need to be told, “I say to you, get up!”
Jesus is the one who brings that new life. Jesus is the one who turns back death and unleashes resurrection by his touch. New life flows from his compassionate heart, and by its power we are raised from the dead.
Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself. Perhaps you know exactly what it’s like to be given your life back by the power of God. Perhaps you’ve felt the exhilaration of being freed from an enemy that wants to trap you in suffering and despair. If so, you’ll know all about the power of resurrection that Jesus sets loose. You’ll know all about the new life that he brings.
But perhaps that isn’t quite the part of the story you relate to most – at least not yet. Perhaps there are other characters in the story you identify with a little more easily. Perhaps you see yourself in the people of Nain who were bystanders – the people who witnessed this miraculous resurrection and didn’t know quite what to do with it.
The NIV says that when the people of Nain saw what Jesus did they were filled with awe and praised God. The King James Version and other translations don’t say they were filled with awe. They say they were afraid - which actually makes a lot more sense when you consider they’d just seen a dead man sit up in his coffin.
Witnessing someone being raised to new life can certainly be rather disorienting. It might even make us anxious. We might prefer to think that they haven’t really changed at all – that the transformation is just an illusion - because if they have changed, we will have to change too.
Emily Heath is a pastor who says that one of the first churches she was at used to share space a couple of nights a week with an Alcoholics Anonymous group. Some people in the church never really got used to this. It didn’t matter how many other groups used the building during the week, the AA group always got the blame if somebody spilled coffee on the carpet or left cigarette butts on the door step. As things unfolded, however, some members of the AA group started attending worship. And one Sunday, one of the main complainers in the church had a conversation with someone she had only just met. This person was a successful local businessman. The woman said to him, “These new people, they’re not the kind of people we want at this church. They’re all drunks, and they don’t even put money in the offering plate.”
The businessman paused for a moment, and then said, “You know … for over twenty years now I’ve been coming to this church on Saturday nights and sitting in a meeting. It’s only been recently that I got the idea that I might be welcome on Sunday mornings too.”
Emily Heath says she was struck by the irony of this exchange. She says, “We Christians are often called ‘Easter people.’ We live out our faith with the knowledge of the resurrection. We know that new life is possible and that even the ones left for dead can rise again. So why don’t we believe it when we see it? Why do we look at all those people getting sober in our church basement with fear when we could be giving glory to God? And why do we miss the countless other ways every day that God gives us signs of new life all around us?”
For the people of Nain, fear quickly turned to praise. They realized that only God could bring about the kind of new life they had witnessed. They realized that only God could release someone from the grip of death. They realized that only the compassion of God combined with the power of God could do this. They realized that this is what Jesus had come to bring among them.
Into this world where death reigns, Jesus has come to bring new life. He does this because his heart breaks whenever he sees anyone who is deprived of fullness of life. He does it because he refuses to let death have the last word.
Through the eyes of faith, we can see his hand at work. We can see him raising up people who were as good as dead. We can see him making resurrection a reality in many lives. We can see him turning Good Friday into Easter Sunday.
We can see all this and give glory to God.
And, by God’s grace, we might be able to do more than just witness this new life. We might just experience it ourselves.
So may it be.