Entering a town, Jesus encounters a funeral procession. A widow is weeping for her only son. Jesus has compassion on her, and reaches out to touches the bier, saying, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The man comes back to life, and Jesus gives him to his mother. The crowd is pretty impressed, calling Jesus a “great prophet.”
Listening to this story, it is easy, I think, to miss what the story is really about. We get side-tracked by the big miracle: that Jesus demonstrates the power to reverse death. A dead man is brought back to life — Jesus is stronger than the big bad boogie man that we call death.
This is one of only three times Jesus is recorded to have brought a dead person back to life, the others being a little girl, Lazarus. Which begs the question, if Jesus had the power to do that, why didn’t he do it more often? I mean there would have been countless other people who died in proximity to Jesus during the time of his ministry – why bring back to life only three people?
The answer would seem to be that for Jesus, death wasn’t the big boogie man we make it out to be. He had seen our true home and knew that death itself was not something to be afraid of – that indeed, it the passageway to something quite wonderful.
The problem with death is 1) the pain we often go through to reach death, and, 2) the pain death brings to those who are left behind.
Another way to get at this is to ask the question, “Who is healed in this story?” The first answer might give is, well, obviously, the man is healed. But that assumes that death itself is something that needs to be healed, when, in fact, death might be better understood as the final healing.
In the story, the young man who died and is brought back to life is almost a secondary figure. The central figures are the grieving widow and Jesus. We hear more about the crowd and its reaction that we do of the young man and his reaction. For all we know the first reaction of the young man might have been, “Geez! I’m back here?! But, it was so beautiful where I was!” There have been countless people who have described similar reactions having been brought back to life after having been given a taste of the life beyond this one.
We’ll assume the young man loves his mother, and his love for his mom trumps his desire to hold onto the blessed peace he’d gotten a taste of, and he willingly lets go of life on the other side because his mother needs him in this one. So his mother really is the one who gets healed in this story.
There are at least two levels to her pain. The first is simply the pain of heartbreak, of grief — the raw pain of being a mother who loses the presence of the son she gave birth to — the son she cherishes.
The other level has to do with the fact that in their society, the death of her son means she is left absolutely destitute in this world. She has already lost her husband, and this was her only son, and since it was totally a man’s world, moving forward she will have no means of support, no male voice to speak up for her. She will be alone and utterly powerless.
The first level of pain is part of what it means to be a human being. If you live long enough, nobody gets spared the pain of grief. It is awful – going through it, it can seem absolutely unbearable. But if you have people who will love you, support you, carry you forward to that day when life begins to hold meaning again – then your gratitude for life will be restored. There are several people in this congregation that can readily testify to this.
The pain of grief also serves as a kind of bridge that links us human beings together. It has the potential to transcend every single culture on the planet. The pain of a mother losing her child is basically the same for a woman in New Jersey as it is in Somalia, as it is in Guatemala, as it is in Iran.
But the second level of pain doesn’t need to be a part of what it means to be a human being. It is a pain inflicted by injustice — by societal structures that isolate and diminish people — that cause people to be left all alone in the anguish of their suffering. I think that it is this level of pain that leads Jesus to act. The son is given back to the widowed mother so that she won’t be left all alone and destitute in world that is set up to render her invisible.
On one level it can feel as though it is impossible to relate to Jesus in this story. After all, you and I don’t have the power to bring the dead back to life, much as we might wish we could.
But if deliverance from death isn’t the real point of the story, then Jesus becomes an example for us to aspire to live like. He becomes a model of compassion.
The Greek word that is translated “to have compassion” occurs a dozen times in the New Testament, and only in the Gospels. In each instance is used to describe Jesus, with the one exception being when Jesus described a character in a he Jesus told — the Father who has compassion on his son who comes limping home after his sins have brought him to a place of misery.
The verb comes from the noun that refers to your bowels, your heart, your lung, liver or kidneys, which was, and often still is viewed as the center of human emotions. We talk about feeling something in our guts.
Compassion is that dimension of love that is felt in our own body in response to another’s pain. It involves what Frederick Buechner “the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin.”
So in this story, Jesus feels the woman’s pain in his own body, his own guts. The woman’s heart wrenching cries for the son she can no longer hold affects Jesus deeply.
If we would follow Jesus, we too must be willing to let the pain of others affect us as well.
It would be easier, in a certain way, to go through life without compassion — hardening our hearts — because by its very definition compassion is opening ourselves up to pain. If we don’t want more pain, so the logic goes, we shouldn’t feel compassion on others, or at least, be very careful about just who it is we are willing to feel compassion for. Being too compassionate is often viewed as a form of masochism.
But this isn’t Jesus’ way. Contrary to our human inclination, Jesus says that the way to save our life isn’t to keep ourselves safe, walled away from the pain of others. The way to abundant life involves living with more, not less compassion. Salvation comes not in protecting our hearts, rather, it is in opening up our hearts, thereby letting in both pain and joy.
Like the Good Samaritan, we are called to open our hearts to all people, whomever it is we encounter on the road of life.
There is an objection that may come up for us, and it is this: aren’t some people worthy of my compassion, and others not?
From God’s point of view, worthiness as we think of it has nothing to do with compassion. In our story, for instance, nothing is said regarding what sort of person either the mother is, or the son was. From our human point of view, we like to think that she was a nice person who deserved Jesus’ help, and that the son was an honorable fellow. But nothing in the story suggests that this sort of question ever enters Jesus’ mind.
He’s never met her before. Jesus doesn’t stop and ask folks, “Hey, has she been a good person?” The woman is in great pain – that’s all that seems to matter to Jesus.
Last week the same issue was raised when we focused on the healing story that comes right before this one. A Roman centurion asks for Jesus’ help in healing a beloved servant. He sends the request through Jewish elders, who take it upon themselves to make the case to Jesus that the centurion is “worthy” of his help. “He’s built a synagogue for our people. Even though he’s a Gentile, he’s a good man. He deserves your help.”
When Jesus heads towards the man’s house, the centurion sends word: “I’m not worthy of your help.” But he seems to get it that for Jesus, this isn’t about “worthiness.” Jesus’ compassion is grace – a gift given not because we’ve somehow earned it, but simply because the God Jesus reveals cares about the suffering of every human being. And Jesus commends the centurion’s faith as being unlike any he’s met in Israel.
We set ourselves up in the role of judge in part to avoid the pain that compassion involves. It’s easier to pass judgment on people than to open ourselves up to their pain. But Jesus specifically told us, “Judge not, lest you be judged.”
But does this mean that we can’t ever set any boundaries — that we are always obliged to do whatever we can to relieve the suffering of other people?
It’s important to realize that although the way of Jesus always involves compassion, discernment is often required regarding how one might choose to act out of that compassion on behalf of another person.
For instance, you can feel compassion for the suffering – the real anguish – an active alcoholic is going through when her life is falling apart – when all she really wants is a drink to relieve her excruciating pain. But that doesn’t mean that you will give her the money to buy the drink she feels she so desperately needs.
In such an instance, compassion might be expressed in words like these: “I can see that you’re really hurting. I can try to imagine how awful it feels, but I’m not where you are, so I can’t judge you. But I believe that although it feels to you like the answer to your pain is another drink, another drink simply postpones this pain that is yours to deal with. And that the only way for you to be healed is to go through this pain. And if you can find the courage to face this pain, I’m here for you.”
This gets back to the notion that some pain is part of being a human being, a pain each of us must go through, and compassion in such instances means simply standing with someone in their pain. And there are other forms of pain that a human being shouldn’t have to suffer, and compassion means doing what we can to relieve it.
But in both instances, compassion is the starting place.
And it’s important not to underestimate the just how meaningful it is to have a compassionate presence in our lives in those times when the pain is simply unavoidable.
There’s a tendency in this world that when a person reaches a point where life seems utterly hopeless, other people begin to avoid them. There seems like nothing to do for the person, and their pain seems just too intense. And so the person’s pain is compounded by a sense of abandonment.
For instance, when doctors conclude that there is no hope for a patient, there is a tendency for them – perhaps unconsciously – to begin to avoid such patients. In their eyes, death can only be seen as defeat – as failure.
But if death isn’t the boogie man, nor is it defeat or failure, but is actually the ultimate healing, than the time that remains left in a person’s life can be extraordinarily precious – something to be shared.
Tears and laughter – sorrow and joy — can be there, side by side in life. One of the most poignant essays I ever read describing this pairing was written by a man who describes the work he does visiting seriously ill children in pediatric wards in hospitals.
My idea was pretty simple at the beginning. I started to volunteer in wards with terminally ill children or burn victims–just go in there to cheer them up a little, spread around some giggles. Gradually, it developed that I was going to be a clown.
First, somebody gave me a red rubber nose, and I put that to work. Then I started doing some elementary makeup. Then I got a yellow, red, and green clown suit. Finally, some nifty, tremendous wing-tip shoes, about two and a half feet long, with green tips and heels, white in the middle. They came from a clown who was retiring and wanted his feet to keep on walking.
(Things) were very tough for me at the beginning — very. You see some pretty terrible things in these wards. Seeing children dying or mutilated is nothing most of us ever get prepared for. Nobody teaches us to face suffering in this society. We never talk about it until we get hit in the face…
Some of us were setting up to show (the movie) Godzilla in the kids’ leukemia ward. I was making up kids as clowns. One kid was totally bald from chemotherapy, and when I finished doing his face, another kid said, “Go on and do the rest of his head.” The kid loved the idea. And when I was done, his sister said, “Hey, we can show the movie on Billy’s head.” And he really loved that idea. So we set up Godzilla and ran it on Billy’s head, and Billy was pleased as punch, and we were all mighty proud of Billy. It was quite a moment. Especially when the doctors arrived…
Burnt skin or bald heads on little kids — what do you do? I guess you just face it–when the kids are really hurting so bad, and so afraid, and probably dying, and everybody’s heart is breaking. Face it, and see what happens after that, see what to do next.
I got the idea of traveling with popcorn. When a kid is crying I dab up the tears with the popcorn and pop it into my mouth or into his or hers. We sit around together and eat the tears. (From How Can I Help? By Ram Dass and Paul Gorman)
Most of the time we go to great lengths to hide our own pain from others. We try to appear invulnerable. We ask one another, “How are you?” without giving an honest answer, or wanting to hear one, for that matter. A shared conspiracy happens like unto the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes.
But our pain, when we acknowledge it – share it — becomes a bridge.
There’s a story I’ve told before from 25 years ago when I was buying a car from a private owner who lived in my community. He seemed like somebody with whom I had little in common. I didn’t like him — in the negotiation process we’d been in the position of adversaries, each of us trying to get the best deal, trying not to be taken advantage of – and he’d struck me as sort of a jerk. But once the deal was settled on, and our relationship over, it was necessary for me to give the guy a ride back to his home, which was about 15 minutes away, so we had time together we wouldn’t have otherwise chosen.
I asked him about himself, and he mentioned that he was going through a divorce. It just so happened I was as well. He said it felt awful. I agreed. As we commiserated that was an instant connection, like we were each other’s brothers.
Although neither of us could do anything to fix the situation of the other, at that moment it made a big difference to experience the fact that we weren’t alone in our pain, that there was a fellowship of men going through divorce, and beyond that a fellowship of human being going through divorce, and beyond that a fellowship of human being suffering the human condition where life is often hard, and often times the very thing we don’t want is what we get, and sometimes it hurts like hell.
But if love is present, we aren’t alone, and the suffering is redeemed. And God’s presence is known.