You’d be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu with today’s Gospel reading. It seems like we’ve heard it before – only minutes earlier, in fact – in our reading from the Old Testament; the story from 1 Kings.
In both readings, we hear of a great faith hero – Elijah and Jesus – and their coming into contact with a woman – in both cases a widow, who is mother to an only son, who, in both cases, has died. Again, in both readings, the dead son is raised and is given back to his mother – the same phrase, in fact, is used – by the hero of the faith. Finally, in both readings, there is a recognition that the man is a holy man.
This is surely not coincidental. Luke, our Gospel writer, clearly knew of the story of Elijah and the widow, and wanted to refer to it when he gave his account of what happened that day in Nain, when Jesus met that funeral procession. The similarities are too many for Luke to have not been purposefully referencing the earlier story.
When people refer back to, and re-tell older stories, however, the bits I find really interesting, the pieces that I think the story-teller most wants us to notice, are not the bits that are the same, but the parts that are different. The parts that they’ve taken the time to point out did not happen in the same way.
So… let’s look at these two tales of resurrection to see what Luke wants us to notice about Jesus’ miracle. Let’s see what’s different.
Probably the first thing that’s noticeable is that Elijah goes through an elaborate ritual to gain his miracle. His takes the dead boy away from his mother, commanding her to give him the child, and carries him upstairs to the room where Elijah is staying. He lays him on the bed, and prostrates himself on the child three times whilst praying.
Christ, however, comforts the widow in his encounter, simply touches the funeral bier, and commands the dead man to get up, instead of commanding his mother. For Christ, there is no routine to go through. The resurrection is almost matter-of-fact. Luke is telling us something about the power of Christ as opposed to the power of Elijah.
I’m going to come onto the second thing to notice in a few moments – and that one is a biggie. Before we come to it though, in order to properly understand it, we need to look a bit more at this passage from Luke.
This text is a pivot-point in Luke’s Gospel. It might not seem it at first, but it is. Luke does something here that, in movie terms, is equivalent to the background music changing and suddenly becoming the theme tune of the film itself, the moment when the Indiana Jones, or Star Wars, or Superman motif kicks in, and you feel your emotions rise and the hair start to stand on the back of your neck.
This passage is the first time in Luke’s Gospel that the narrator calls Jesus ‘The Lord’. Yes, other characters in the Gospel have called him that, but Luke is now specifically signposting it. This man, says the narrator, this Jesus, is God. Other people in Luke’s story have said it, and we could make up our own minds as to whether they were mistaken or correct, but now Luke himself says it; there is no getting around it. Luke tells us here, for the first time, that Jesus is Lord, the Messiah, the Saviour.
And this is where we come onto the second difference. Because, whilst the story from 1 Kings is a story about resurrection, Luke’s tale is, despite all appearances, not about that at all. It’s about something completely different.
When Luke declares Christ as God, it’s not when he raises the dead man. Luke declares him as God a bit earlier in the story. Let’s have a look again:
As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her ‘Do not weep.’
Did you spot it? "When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her". Luke does not link Christ’s Lordship to the raising of the dead, but to Christ’s compassion. Elijah and the widow in his story seem to blame God for the death of the son. Luke says that this Jesus, who shows compassion, is God.
‘Compassion’; what do you think of when you hear that word? Being kind to somebody? Perhaps a hug when someone is feeling down? Feeling a bit glum when bad things happen to people we care about?
I said this was a pivot-point, and it is with regard to ‘compassion’ too. Luke only uses that word three times in his Gospel. This is the first time. The other references are when the Good Samaritan sees the man who had been mugged lying half-dead by the side of the road (verse 33), and in the parable of the Prodigal Son, when the father sees his lost son returning and runs out to meet him (verse 20). All three are major images in Godly behaviour – compassion is key to who God is.
There’s a deeper meaning to this word than the English translation can portray too. The word in Greek is σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai), and it literally means ‘being moved in one’s bowels’. It’s, appropriately enough for the week in which we lost boxing legend Muhammad Ali, a gut-punch.
|Splagchnizomai. Or something like it|
Have you ever felt that? Been so affected by a situation that it feels like you’ve been punched in the stomach? Actual physical pain and discomfort when your stomach churns and you’re almost bent double? Perhaps you’ve felt it when someone you love has died. Perhaps you’ve felt it, too, when something good that causes an outpouring of love has happened? When your children were born? When a reconciliation has happened? When someone you love did something to make you feel especially proud?
That’s what the Good Samaritan felt, and it caused him to stop his day in its tracks to care and tend for the man by the side of the road who believed him to be his enemy.
That’s what the father of the Prodigal Son felt, and it caused him to throw off his dignity and his pride and run with wild abandon to meet his son who did not deserve his forgiveness.
That’s what Christ felt, and it caused him to ignore religious and sanitary rules about touching the dead, and put right the wrong of a child dying before his parents.
That’s what God feels. That gut-punch, that stomach-churn and physical pain when he sees his creation - when he sees us - in our needs and our hurts, and in our joys too. When he sees you. Every time.
This is the mark of God – not displays of power, but displays of compassion; of love. In every case, compassion leads to action. It's not simply a feeling. It becomes a verb.
Compassion - love that hurts. It’s what today’s story is about. It’s what the whole Gospel is about. God is love. And God loved the world so much that he gave his only sonthat whosoever would believe in him would not perish, but have eternal life. Compassion has an effect.
Compassion - it’s what the people of God need to be about. We need to look beyond the resurrection in today’s story and see the reason and the care behind it; the gut-wrenching love that caused Christ to stop what he was doing and put that woman’s world right. “So what?”, Luke seems to be saying, “Christ can raise the dead. Forget the ‘how’, though – it’s the ‘why’ that’s important!”
“So he can raise the dead,” Luke says, “Big whoop. Did you know his love for you makes him feel like he’s been punched in the stomach?”
I pray, not that you will give us compassion, Lord, but that we will strive to seek after it. Compassion is active, and so I pray that we won’t sit around and wait for you to make us more loving, but that we’ll hunt out ways to do it ourselves; that we’ll go after opportunities to be the Good Samaritan, to be the undignified, shamed father of the Prodigal Son, to be Christ to all those people we meet who need to be shown more compassion.
For, if we speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, we are noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. If we have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and have faith enough to move mountains, but do not have love, we are nothing. If we can raise the dead, but have no love for the bereaved, we are nothing. Let us seek after compassion – for that is the miracle in today’s Gospel, and the mark of Christ.