It's About Compassion

June 5, 2016

Luke 7:11-17

If you are like me and have been at your son or your daughter’s funeral, there may be a sense of wanting to skip over this story. To not give it too much attention. For it doesn’t sit easily with our own anguish of when our child died. We did not see the compassion of Jesus bring our son or our daughter back to us. The story makes us feel uncomfortable. What do we do with the sense of the God who can do anything but doesn’t do everything?

Let’s draw close and watch the story unfold: Jesus and his disciples and a crowd of people who are following Jesus, are approaching the town of Nain. It’s a small town or village, about 35kms, a day’s journey on foot from Capernaum – or from here to Oakura and back. The distance from Capernaum matters because this chapter of Luke’s gospel weaves together two stories of people being healed in different ways – the Centurion’s servant being healed comes just before today’s reading, and then our story of something that is amazing – a dead person being brought back to life.

Can you imagine it? Jesus and his disciples, and a crowd of people, stirring up the dust as they walk. Conversations mingling with the sound of feet on the unsealed road. Men, women and children no doubt in conversation, wondering, discussing what they had seen and heard as they are follow this man, Jesus. And then as they approach the village of Nain, a hush comes over the people. Coming towards them is a funeral procession.

It was the practice then that people were generally buried within 24 hours of dying. Those closest caught in the fresh and very raw reality grief. Burials were outside the town. As you watched this funeral procession you see a group of people carrying the body of the dead man on a bier, a frame for carrying a dead person. You would recognise that this is the funeral of someone without means, a poor person. There is the bier with the dead person, no coffin just a clothed body. And as your eyes are drawn onwards there is the family, just a solitary figure of an older woman, wracked with grief. And as you gaze, it dawns on you: this is the body the woman’s son; she has no other male relatives. The significance of that is not lost on you for you know that in this society this woman is now alone and unsupported. How deeply she is grieving not only for her son, but also for what she now knows is her fate: a life of poverty. Then you become aware of that the whole town seems to be with her as they wind their way out of Nain, towards the place of burial – would it be the family tomb where this man’s father already lay buried?

As you watch, Jesus comes towards the funeral procession. You gaze into his face. What is he feeling? He walks straight up to the bier and reaching out his hand, he touches the lifeless body. There is silence everywhere. What is he doing? He is now unclean for he has touched the bier carrying a dead body. No one dares move. They watch as the eyes of Jesus turn from the dead body to that of the older woman. And then you hear the words, “Do not weep”. Do those words sound callous to you? Who would not weep for their son or their daughter? How can this man be so cruel? But then come more words, “Young Man, I say to you arise!” You hold your breath. This man Jesus has just uttered an impossibility. What is he doing? But as you watch, the dead man, sits up and begins to speak! You strain your ears trying to hear what he is saying but his words are lost in the murmuring of the crowd. And then as you watch, Jesus gives the man back to his mother. There are tears afresh as they embrace. And the crowd around you is gripped with fear – not the type of fear that is dread but awe, a holy awe because they know they have just watched a miracle. And then worship and praise fills the air. They cry out to the God of grace, the God of compassion, the God who is love.

But what about us, as we look at the story and look at our own lives and the lives of our community and our world. We know the hope we have that our loved one rest with God, they are at peace, they are held in love, for love never ends, be that the love we still hold for them or the love God has for each one. So it is not what has happened to them, but the life we can no longer share with them that is the anguish.

After raising to life this young man, Jesus gave him back to his mother. It is an obvious thing really, isn’t it? The young man is alive. Did Jesus need to give him back? Couldn’t he have simply walked? Did the gospel writer need to include that bit? What does it mean to give back a dead person? There is a role that we can all be part of long after the casseroles and cards have ceased arriving in caring for those who are grieving. Not a physical giving back, but a sensitive honouring of a loved one’s life. We can give back a loved one, by saying their name. By retelling memories and sharing that remembering. By refusing to act as if they have never lived. By allowing and being comfortable with conversation. To refuse to surround those who grieve with the silence that implies the dead person never existed but rather a sensitive remembering and honouring of life. That is to give back to those of us who grieve.

What prompted Jesus to act as he did when he came to the funeral procession? He was filled with compassion as he approached this sad scene of a widow who was about to bury her only son. What is compassion? The word has in its origins a sense of to suffer with. Not simply to feel sorry for, but to have a deep sense of love. Compassion has a very close relationship with action. Such was the compassion Jesus experienced that he was prepared to touch the bier, the carrier of a dead person even though it would make him unclean. His compassion was not simply that he felt sorry but that he was moved to action.

Who was the compassion for in this story? Was it the dead man? Or was it the grieving mother? If we believe that the dead man was at peace with God, it has to be the mother. It was the mother who was in sorrow: she was the one who would miss sharing in the life of her son, and she was the one who now had no means of support. It was to her grief that Jesus said, “Do not Weep”. Not because he thought it inappropriate to weep at the death of a loved one – think of Jesus as he approached the tomb that held Lazarus’s body. He wept. Think of Jesus on the cross as he gazed at his own mother, and had the compassion even from the cross to make sure Mary would be cared for.

Think of other times Jesus showed compassion. After the crowds had been with him for 3 days listening to his teaching, he knew they would be too faint to travel home, and moved with compassion he invited the disciples to feed them and the story of the loaves and fishes unfolded. Compassion prompted action. Remember when Jesus speaks of the crowds who he taught, preached and healed, and where he was filled with compassion sensing that they were harassed like sheep without a shepherd, and so invited the disciples to pray that there might be workers in the harvest field. Compassion prompted action.

When do we experience the deep feeling of compassion? What moves us with compassion? The hungry? the lost? the disempowered? the abused? the desperate? Who are the grieving and helpless in our community and our world? Do we respond by feeling sorry or does the compassion we experience drive us to transforming action? How might we give back life?

And finally as we reflect on the mother, the widow in this story. A woman that has already buried her husband, and now is preparing to lay perhaps alongside her husband, the body of their son. We notice that simply she just wept. She didn’t fall on her knees begging for action, for healing, she didn’t ask for anything. She was simply there in her grief. And it was in that grief that God met her. God came to her without begging or working for it. God just came.

The words of a poem seem to speak into that sense of helplessness. The helplessness that grief brings. And the hope for life within and beyond the grief.


I know how your mind
rushes ahead
trying to fathom
what could follow this.
What will you do,
where will you go,
how will you live?

You will want
to outrun the grief.
You will want
to keep turning toward
the horizon,
watching for what was lost
to come back,
to return to you
and never leave again.

For now
hear me when I say
all you need to do
is to still yourself
is to turn toward one another
is to stay.

and see what comes
to fill
the gaping hole
in your chest.
Wait with your hands open
to receive what could never come
except to what is empty
and hollow.

You cannot know it now,
cannot even imagine
what lies ahead,
but I tell you
the day is coming
when breath will
fill your lungs
as it never has before
and with your own ears
you will hear words
coming to you new
and startling.
You will dream dreams
and you will see the world
ablaze with blessing.

Wait for it.
Still yourself.

 Jan Richardson “Circle of Grace”

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