1 Kings 17: 8 - 24; Luke 7: 11 - 17. 10.6.07
There are very strong parallels between our two readings this morning. Both are about widows, and widows in biblical times were in a very precarious position; no such things as pensions or income support then. The nearest you got to that in First Testament times was the right to take the grain that was left at the edge of the fields after the harvest, or the left over olives from the olive harvest. A widow was completely dependent on her family for support.
Both the widows in our stories had sons. In one case the son almost died and was revived by Elijah, some would say perhaps by mouth to mouth resuscitation; Elijah stretched himself out three times on the boy. In the other case, the young man is being carried to his grave, presumed dead, (but was he just in a coma?), when Jesus tells him to get up, and he does.
Elijah was a major prophet in the scripture and traditions of the Hebrew people, second only in importance to Moses. The stories about Elijah are interwoven with legend, but there's a lot of real history there too. He's a larger than life figure, remembered for his mighty deeds, which he carried out in obedience to the word of God. The mighty deed in this instance is a deed of compassion.
The people around Jesus would have been very well aware of the stories about Elijah the prophet, so when Jesus intervenes to restore the young man of Nain to life, the point is not lost on them.
“A great prophet has arisen among us.” is their response.
How do we 21st century respond to these stories?
In particular, how do we respond to the story of the son of the widow of Nain?
Well, we could respond in the same way Luke's readers responded to the Gospel story of the young man, and take it quite literally. To them, it was sheer miracle; an exercise of divine power.
The story is one of a considerable number in the Gospels which demonstrate Jesus' miraculous ability and add to his reputation.
We can imagine the kind of conversation that might have taken place between neighbours: “Have you heard about the teacher from Nazareth? You wouldn't believe it. There was this young man down the road at Nain, his mother's only son.
He died and they were carrying him out to the cemetery, when along comes this Jesus, stops the funeral procession and says
'Young man, get up!', and he does just that, pulls away the shroud and starts talking. We could hardly believe our eyes. Some people just about fainted on the spot!”
No wonder Jesus had crowds following him around the countryside.
Now I know some people are sceptical about miracles, even find them an embarrassment. Personally, I have no problem believing in Jesus' power to heal. There were other holy men at his time who had similar reputation as healers, but there are more healing stories told about Jesus than about anyone else in the Jewish traditions. We must take these stories seriously; and we would be missing the point if we got bogged down in a “Yes it happened”, no it didn't” kind of argument.
However, there is something seriously wrong with a faith that requires miracles to sustain it. There are no short cuts to alleviating human suffering; we know that's just not how life is. I get uneasy when I hear about faith healers who make promises to seriously sick people, who are buoyed up with unrealistic expectation, only to be let down when there is no healing. If we concentrate too much on the stories of miraculous healing around Jesus, we run the serious risk of alienating people for whom the struggle with illness and disability is a day in day out, year in year out reality.
We also run the risk of making Jesus into an irrelevant, fantasy figure.
Remember too, that this is a representative story. We can quite rightly assume that in the Palestine of Jesus' day there would have been hundreds if not thousands of similar situations; widows, already vulnerable, pushed to the edge of society, and in danger of being pushed over the edge if a bread- winning son dies. The widow of Nain stands for these hundreds or thousands of her sisters, and for the millions who have been in a similar plight right down till today, especially in today's poor countries. Imagine what it must be like for desperately poor people in he countries of sub-Saharan Africa, in parts of India or South America.
The important thing about this story is that it is one of only a few where the emphasis is on compassion.
“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, 'Do not weep' ”
So while the story is one of the miracle stories surrounding Jesus, we should avoid being fixated on the miraculous, and try to focus on the deeper meaning.
I feel sure that Luke, when he planned his Gospel and included this story, had his eye on its deeper meaning and on its symbolic value. “This Jesus”, he's telling us “came to raise people from death to life, to make possible new beginnings.” And by “death” here I mean not physical death. There are plenty of living people around who are just existing in varying degrees of deadness; people whose lives have been taken over by drug addiction, people who can't see beyond their money and material possessions, people who are totally selfish and turned in on themselves.
You see, the Easter theme is there. It's an Easter story! Easter, resurrection, is something we celebrate not only on Easter Sunday, but on every Sunday as we gather for worship. If the new life Jesus offers means anything to us, then our weekly celebration of Easter will spill over into our daily lives; into the way we live. And that will involve compassion,
During the past week I came across two stories about compassion, or rather, one story about compassion and another about the lack of it.
I went to see a film, “The Lives of Others”. I was particularly interested in viewing this film because it is set in the closing years of the German Democratic Republic. (Anything less democratic would be hard to imagine). Cornelia and I spent eight days in that part of Germany in 1985, when the repressive communist regime was still firmly in power. I remember the nervousness we felt when we crossed the border and had the car examined. The policeman on duty had a good look at the boot load of gifts we'd brought with us for friends. We got through with no problems, though we'd heard some pretty grim stories about the way some people were treated, having their cars thoroughly gone over.
A few years later, when we went to live in Germany just a few months after the fall of the iron curtain, we began to hear and read stories about the Stasi, the state security police, and about the intricate system of
control which had neighbour spying on neighbour, workmate on workmate, and yes, even ministers on their congregations. To people like us, accustomed to living in freedom, it was unreal.
But the film I speak about, though a work of fiction, brings out the stark reality of the brutal Stasi system with no holds barred.
Captain Gerd Wiesler, is a Stasi officer; he is a grey, ice cold personality whose task it is to pry into the most intimate details of the lives of people suspected of being traitors to the state.
In the film, he sits in the attic of an apartment block with his headphones on, listening in to everything recorded by the “bugs” planted in the apartment of Georg Dreyman, a writer who survives by appearing to toe the party line and keeping his nose clean. At one point he learns that a writer friend has been driven to despair by the system and takes his own life. Devastated, Dreyman goes to his piano and begins to play a piece of music “Sonata for a Good man”, given to him by the dead friend as a birthday present.
Even the repressed Wiesler is moved by the music, and you see tears falling down his face as he sits there, surrounded by monitoring equipment, listening in. As Wiesler learns more and more about Dreyman and his actress girlfriend in their struggle to survive in the repressive state, he begins to care about them. When a Stasi colonel gets on the trail of the artists, Wiesler even risks his career to try to save them from arrest. A spark of compassion is aroused in even this most unlikely of men. When his involvement is uncovered, he pays the price by being relegated to the lowliest of Stasi jobs, steaming open letters in a basement office.
Later in the same week the Otago Daily Times published an article by Chris Trotter. Some of you may have read it. It's about the death of the Samoan woman, Folole Muliaga, who died shortly after the electricity was cut off from her home, depriving her of the oxygen she needed to live. The event has held the undivided attention of the media for the past ten days or so. I read most of Christ Trotter's articles, but I've never found him so angry as in this piece. His anger is directed at the attitude of New Zealanders who want to blame Mrs. Muliaga for her own death: - she was fat, not assertive enough, she should have paid her bills. Trotter sees a vicious attitude in our national psyche. To quote: “There is a certain kind of New Zealander who experience a surge of self confidence whenever his )and it nearly always is his) prejudices are shown to be in the ascendant. He's the sort of person who feels violated and unmanned by feelings of compassion and empathy. In the shrivelled husk of his moral universe, these are the 'soft' emotions of women, children, 'poofters'.”
Strong stuff. Is Trotter exaggerating? I would like to think not, but I suspect he has put his finger on an unpleasant truth. But I would also like to think that there is a strong compassionate streak in our national psyche also. It's a bleak outlook if I'm wrong.
Chris Trotter, as I understand it, would not claim to be writing from a Christian perspective, but for me, his article certainly reflects everything I understand by compassion.
Compassion. It is by no means an exclusively Christian attribute. It's a human one. There's nothing “Christian” about the story of the film, “The Lives of Others”, but is does show how compassion can be sparked off, and how it can redeem even is a small degree, situations that seem to be hopeless.
The ministry of Jesus, and our ministry, is about addressing real human need, - whether it be through the social services offered by our Methodist Mission here in Dunedin, or through giving to tsunami relief in the Solomon Islands, or through innumerable, unsung acts of kindness by one caring individual for another. There is very rarely anything obviously miraculous about this ministry of compassion; there are few short cuts.
What is usually needed is hard work, dedication, and sometimes, daring; daring to take a risk, or daring to go against prevailing compassionless attitudes.
A cross stands in the road of compassion, the symbol of self giving. But the cross points beyond itself to hope and to new life.
Jesus, in his life of compassion, reminds us that every person is unique and precious; every person is to be included and valued.
This is the Good News our world needs, and our task as followers of Jesus, our task as a church, is to be the Good News and help others hear and become the Good News as well.