Sunday, September 09, 2007

Becoming Compassionate Christs

"As Jesus 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 Jesus saw her, his heart broke and he said to her, ‘Do not go on weeping.’ Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And Jesus said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.” - Luke 7: 11-15


I know I have read this passage before whether in seminary or as part of the lectionary or some bible study or another, but it never stood out to me until this week as I read it while listening to the stories of mothers who lost their children in the war in Iraq. Perhaps, I never had the right context to understand it.

This passage comes at the end of a series of events Luke narrates as the first part of Jesus' ministry. It is stuck right in the middle of an action packed sequence of healings and miracles. Jesus is off and running, no time to be spared. Everywhere large crowds follow, incessantly demanding healing and help. Usually, it is the townsfolk who bring to Jesus’ attention someone in need…whether it was the centurion who came for help for his partner, or a father for his daughter, or a leper or paralytic who cried out for their own healing. But here, no one brings the young man or the widow to Jesus. Rather, the funeral procession passes, and Jesus’ heart simply breaks.

Now a good biblical scholar will highlight the historical and textual significance of the passage. The text tells us the woman has lost her only son. The word there for "only" is monogenes, the word used by the earliest Christian creeds to describe Jesus--the "only begotton Child of God." This highlights and frames the loss in a way that must have made the earliest hearers of this story shudder with knowing…the "only begotten one" dead. You can sense the parallels.

But the women’s sorrowful situation is further emphasized when the text explains she was a widow. Widows were infamously poor and vulnerable and this one has lost the one last person who can care for her, her son.

At a literal level, this is an absolute miracle, an exercise of divine power. The crowd responds with awe at the wondrous and powerful deeds of this Jesus. Contemporary scholarship, on the other hand, tells us the story is symbolic, mere metaphor and urges us to make sense of the unfathomable by seeing it as a mere literary device.

Either way, tales of magical resuscitations are problematic in a world of suffering and death. I wonder how painful this story is to all the women who have lost their children. Why not their child? Why not bring them back to life?

Something is seriously missing if we imagine that our faith depends on such short-cuts to human suffering. Give it to God and if you are faithful enough, God will heal your child. This simplistic faith in an omnipotent, yet capricious god, is naïve, if not offensive in the face of real human need and those struggling in it.

The problem with these interpretations is where they choose to place the miracle moment. Both interpretations, whether literal or symbolic, focus the miracle on the act of raising the dead to life. But resurrection is what this whole business is about, isn’t it? Resurrection should not be unexpected, after all we know the end of this story.

What is unique about this particular passage is the emphasis on Jesus’ own heart breaking. The Greek words are vivid: Jesus poured out his inner viscera upon her. The word here is from splanchna, which most often is translated “to have compassion” or “to have mercy.” Yet, the real meaning is much stronger, much more physical. It describes that gut wrenching response of empathy we have when we see another in pain. Jesus was deeply moved, shaken up. Jesus’ gut, his heart, his very soul was rent at this woman’s plight.

The verb is rare in the New Testament. Normally Jesus is said to "have mercy" on the crowds, but in Luke the only three usages of the verb splanchno—all refer to individual contexts. (William Long, exegesis of Luke 7:11-15) Here the focus seems not to be on that larger vision of peace and justice that will overturn the domination system and break through the institutions of oppression. Here, it is an individual act of compassion.

Sometimes in the midst of our struggles for larger causes, whether they be the grand scheme of bringing down systems of oppression or our more individual plans for our careers, our families, our futures, we forget to stop and care for those immediately around us. In our busyness of looking at the larger pictures of life, we forget to open ourselves to the plight of another in compassion and vulnerability.

When we take time to feel and act on our compassion, we nurture our own humanity and practice being Christ to the world. In each small act, whether a coin to a beggar, an embrace for a stranger, a kind word to a child, or rescue for a sidewalk stranded worm struggling against the rising sun, we become more fully human, closer to the divine image in which we were made. Each act of compassion molds us more and more into the likeness of Christ, the likeness of our human nature.

The thing we must remember is that the gospel is not an either/or kind of story. The call of God we meet in Jesus is not either institutional or individual. It is both/and all at the same time. This passage serves as a balance. It reminds us of the equally important call to address real human need. This, too, is indeed Jesus’ mission, our mission.

This blend of political activism and individual human compassion is embodied in the work of Military Families Speak Out, an organization of military families who relatives in the war in Iraq. In the midst of campaigning to end the war, they never once forget the call to individual acts of kindness, consolation and compassion. Georgia Stillwell has dedicated her life to this organization, spending her days ministering to families and vets the best she can.

She writes,

“A few days ago I was in South Dakota speaking with a Vietnam vet. We sat in a 24 hour McDonalds till the wee hours of the morning. Tears in both our eyes. He is still affected by the war. He talked of the toll he took on his Mother and I wept. He apologizes for how he treated all that cared for him. All I could do was hug him and tell him it’s not his fault. That I loved him. This complete stranger. He could not give me comfort for what lies ahead for my son.

Last week I welcomed a soldier home. He didn’t know me, I didn’t know him. But when I hugged him and reached in my pocket and gave him some of what little money I had, I said “My son served in Iraq.” And our eyes met. That same look of sadness was there that I have seen all over the country. That I have seen in my own son’s eyes.

I spoke with a Gold Star mother last night. Her marriage of 20 years disintegrated. She now lives alone. She stated to me what do you think I can live with, the loss of my son or the loss of my marriage.

I talk with other Mothers. One her son currently hospitalized for a suicide attempt. She cries. I can not hug her through the phone.

The war is taking a toll. It is claiming victims that have never even been in combat. Some say to me just take a break, get your life back on track. I reply I can’t. Another Mother is getting that dreaded knock on the door.”

Jesus calls us not only to the political bandwagons of activism, but also to the tiny small moments of holding hands, hugging strangers, and whispered comforts. William Loader reminds us, “In the midst of the complexity of human need is hope and the possibility of renewal and life. It is built on the foundation that all people are of value and none is to be dismissed or despised.”

It is the hope that in moments of allowing our hearts to break we become more fully human and christs to the world.

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