February 7, 2021
Luke 7: 1-17
By the time we get to this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ healing ministry is well-established. Stories of his works have begun to spread through the region around Capernaum.
Because of this, crowds are beginning to gather and people are seeking out this teacher and healer.
The centurion follows a familiar course … one that is common in the world in which he functions … and one that he no doubt has followed before.
He gets the Jewish elders to advocate on behalf of his slave. The elders inform Jesus that the centurion has built the Jewish community a synagogue and “loves our people.” Now, it’s quid pro quo time.
Then, as Jesus walks toward the centurion’s home, the Roman official sends friends to ask him to heal from a distance … “But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”
The centurion claims that he isn’t worthy to have Jesus in his home … even though he offers details of his power and authority. So, a healing from a distance is fine.
So, neither the centurion nor the slave truly experienced Jesus. Dealing through intermediaries, they never come into contact with one another.
The centurion is dealing from “above” … taking a top-down approach … a position of authority that he enjoys in the world.
The same cannot be said about the second half of today’s reading.
Jesus and the disciples are among a crowd walking toward the town of Nain.
At the town’s gates, Jesus’ group meets a funeral procession for a widow’s son.
The widow doesn’t enjoy the same level of status and influence as the centurion. She doesn’t command others to do what she wants … others dictate the course of her life.
The loss of her son makes the woman’s future tenuous at best.
In Jesus’ time, women were dependent upon the men in their lives … fathers, husbands, brothers and sons … all were they key to her security and well-being. The widow in today’s story faced an uncertain and desperate future.
Circumstances had placed her among the most-vulnerable members of the community.
The woman doesn’t have the social connections or access to the system that the centurion enjoys … yet, she doesn’t make any plea to Jesus. She doesn’t ask a member of the procession to go over to the group heading in the opposite direction to get some help.
Instead, Jesus goes to her.
It’s interesting to note, that Jesus doesn’t rush to raise the widow’s son when he encounters the procession. He spends a few moments sharing her pain and sorrow.
Even in the case of the centurion, Jesus was willing to be a presence in the slave’s suffering … but the centurion kept him at arm’s length.
Jesus tells the widow not to cry and then with a touch and a word, he brings the son back to her.
The slave … the man … and his mother … are all restored to life.
After they disperse, the members of the funeral procession spread word of the healing farther out into the Judean countryside … just as the centurion … his friends … and the Jewish elders no doubt did in Capernaum.
Even though this passage from Luke shares two approaches of coming to Jesus … and of Jesus coming to the people … it is easy to overlook the similarity between the centurion and the widow.
Both are considered outsiders … one from outside the faith community … an oppressor who controls the lives of the people … and the other whose circumstances have pushed her to the margins and framed her life with uncertainty.
Yet, Jesus’ love is equally available for both. Jesus’ compassion is unconditional.
What those present in this story consider a miracle, we call an act of compassion … perhaps, sometimes, acts of compassions can seem like miracles.
Unexpected, life-giving miracles comes through compassion … enabling and enabled by being in relationship with one another.
Com … passion literally means “suffering with.”
Jesus is in the midst of the widow’s pain … showing that walking with a person in their grief … sharing the person’s or the community’s pain is a prerequisite for compassion.
Jesus doesn’t reach down to raise the man up or to heal the centurion’s slave … rather he stands with the people and raises them with a touch or a word.
Scholar Michal Beth Dinkler once wrote that compassion arises when life meets death, when hope and suffering come together. That is certainly true of today’s passage from Luke.
This story is the first of three times that the word “compassion” appears in Luke’s gospel. In all cases, a person experiences another person’s suffering and then acts on behalf of that person.
Acts of compassion occur frequently throughout this gospel, they are just not named as such.
In the gospels, Jesus chooses a path of pain, rejection, persecution and death … a path that calls him to suffer with the people … to be among the powerless … those who are oppressed and shunted off to the side.
It’s a path that runs counter to the world’s expectations … but it is one we are each called to walk. It is one that calls us to enter into the pain and suffering we witness and encounter … whether it’s physical or spiritual … and calls us … like the centurion … into an advocacy role.
It calls us to action … to act out of love and concern and … through this action … bring life and hope.
Theologian Henri Nouwen once wrote:
“Compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there. God’s compassion is total, absolute, unconditional, without reservation.”
You cannot build such a home from a distance … when we distance ourselves or stay above those we serve compassionate acts can easily become acts of pity … and diminish or extinguish the hope we seek to foster.
So, today’s passage begs us to consider if we are we compassionate … fully and deeply empathetic to the pain and suffering that we encounter?
Do we act top-down or head-on? Do we cut cheques or post comments and let it go at that? Or do we model the in-person presence of compassionate care that we heard about today?
Let’s think on that as we move toward and into the Lenten Season and as we search for attitudes and perspectives that should be abandoned or amended in order to bring life to the world.