Year C, Proper 5 (Track 2)
June 9, 2013
“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ ” (Luke 7:13). May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.
In the readings for today, we are presented with two stories of widows. In both of these occasions, women who have already experienced the loss of their husbands are faced with a new loss: that of their sons. While their grief is certainly justified, I think it is important to realize that their grief goes beyond simply losing people they loved. As you can imagine, life is difficult for women in those times. They have very little rights--did you notice that neither of them even have a name?--and are completely reliant upon the men in their lives to provide for them. When their husbands and then their sons pass away, it is essentially a death sentence for the women as well. They will no longer be able to move about in society as they once did. Instead of relying on their family, they will have to rely upon the generosity of strangers. Fortunately for these two particular widows, they run into Elijah and Jesus.
The prophet Elijah is on the run from Israelite King Ahab and his Canaanite wife, Jezebel. Jezebel has convinced King Ahab to allow worship of the Canaanite god, Baal. In response to Ahab’s religious infidelity, Elijah informs him that the Lord will bring a drought upon the land to prove God’s dominance over Baal. The two-year drought has just begun, and Elijah is hiding in the wilderness. Just prior to the reading for today, God sends ravens to bring Elijah food. Then God sends him to the home of a widow who is not just a stranger, but a woman who lives in a town at the center of Baal worship. Imagine what this encounter might have looked like: Elijah has been in the wilderness for quite some time. There’s a drought going on, so there are not too many opportunities to bathe and nowhere to get a haircut or beard trim. Think wild man. Think wild like John the Baptist wild. The woman he meets is not in such great shape, either. As Elijah approaches her, she is collecting firewood to make a loaf of bread--her final meal with her son before they die of starvation. The prophet from the wilderness asks the starving widow for a portion of her last meal, and in response to her protest, he assures her that the Lord will provide her with more food if she complies. She obeys and is rewarded with a way to feed her family during the drought.
What happens next catches everyone off guard. Following the widow’s act of faith and hospitality, her son becomes ill, so ill that “there [i]s no breath left in him” (I Kings 17:17). The widow, holding her son, confronts Elijah, accusing him of causing her son’s death as punishment for her past sins. Rather than agree with her or pat her hand and say, “I guess he’s in a better place” or “God needed him in heaven,” he gently takes the boy in his arms, lays him on his bed, and “crie[s] out to God” (1 Kings 19-20). He protests the injustice of the situation and prays for God to restore the boy back to life. God listens to his voice and the child wakes up (v. 22). He then brings the child downstairs and “g[ives] him to his mother” (1 Kings 23). The story of Elijah and the widow doesn’t name it, but Elijah is reacting with compassion to the widow’s plight.
Jesus also demonstrates compassion. As we heard last week, he has just healed the slave of a centurion--a leader of Roman soldiers who is uncharacteristically kind and generous to the Jewish people. After the healing, Jesus walks about 23 miles to the city of Nain. As he approaches the city gate, he sees a large procession. Cemeteries in this time are located outside of the city; the crowd is going to bury the only son of a local widow. Jesus sees the mother weeping for her son and “ha[s] compassion for her” (Luke 13). He touches the bier they are carrying the young man on and tells him to rise. He wakes up and begins talking, and, like Elijah, Jesus “g[ives] him to his mother” (vv. 15). At this demonstration of power, the crowd is stunned and becomes fearful. They are familiar with the story of the prophet Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. There has not been a prophet this great since his time, and so they glorify God for the miraculous healing. Faith is revived in the people because of Jesus’ act of compassion.
Compassion is more than just a feeling of empathy. The translation of the root word is a movement of the inward parts (Merriam-Webster online dictionary). Historically, people believed their affections were located in their bellies, so if your inward parts were moving, it meant it wasn’t a simple tummy rumble going on--it meant that whatever was happening was completely gut-wrenching. If something affected you this deeply, you were compelled to respond. Compassion implies action.
The word compassion is found 12 times in the New Testament, and it only occurs in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Every time compassion is mentioned, it is either felt by Jesus, told in a story by Jesus, or asked of Jesus. Compassion is found three times in the Gospel of Luke: in today’s encounter with the widow, and in the well-known and beloved stories of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. The Samaritan has compassion on the injured man by the side of the road and is moved to take care of him. The father has compassion on his prodigal son and is moved to run toward him and welcome him home. And Jesus has compassion on the widow and is moved to resurrect her only son. Faced with a gut-wrenching situation, all three are compelled to act.
A more recent example of a person who modeled compassion is one of my heroes, Archbishop and martyr Oscar Romero. At the beginning of a brutal civil war in El Salvador in the 70s, the humble Roman Catholic priest was appointed archbishop, primarily because the leaders in Rome believed he would follow orders and stay out of politics. But Romero was no pushover. He began to see how much his people were suffering. And they were suffering--during his visits to churches in the archdiocese, he made a point of visiting the slums, where he saw his people living in squalor. On one of these visits, Romero was proudly presented with an apple...that was partially eaten. He thanked the person and then turned to the priest beside him in confusion, asking why he had been given a half-eaten apple. The priest replied that it was all the man had to give. If that doesn’t cause a visceral reaction--if that doesn’t make your insides squirm--I don’t know what will.
The people were suffering in other ways as well: the government was assassinating or disappearing dissenters, including several priests who had been vocal in their opposition. When his close friend and priest Father Grande was assassinated, Romero “suspended masses” in the churches in the capital the next Sunday, “demand[ing] the punishment of the responsible parties” (United Nations’ report on Romero). His friend’s death was a punch in the gut and compelled him to action. Moved with compassion, the soft-spoken man began to use his authority and position of power to speak out against the violence of the government. He broadcast his sermons and speeches challenging the government on the radio. He halted the reconstruction of the cathedral and gave the money to the poor. Because of his activism, Romero made enemies within the Church and especially in the government. One Sunday, 3 years after his appointment, he was murdered by members of a Salvadoran death squad as he celebrated the mass. The “Voice of the Voiceless” had been silenced, but he lives on in the memory of the people who evoked his compassion, the people he loved.
So where does this leave us today? We do not have the ability to raise people from the dead, like Elijah and Jesus. We do not have the influence or position of authority that Romero had. But we do have eyes that see what’s going on. We have ears to hear when there is discord. And we have the ability to speak out, to educate, to challenge, and to question. We are not voiceless, but there are so many people out there who are. This next week, pay attention to when things provoke a visceral reaction in you. It may be that God is calling you to compassion. As the collect for today says, may we not only think things that are right, but be inspired and guided to actually do them.