Posted June 27, 2016
What strikes me most about the story of Jesus and the widow of Nain (Luke 7: 11-17) is that there’s no religion in it. God isn’t mentioned in the story itself, and what Jesus does for the widow is not prompted by any petition or act of faith on her part. We are not told that she was a pious person: maybe she was, but it doesn’t seem to matter. She’s just there in her desolation and Jesus appears from nowhere, brings her son back to life and gives him back to her. We are not told that she and/or her son subsequently became disciples of Jesus and followed him on the way, as happens in some other miracle stories. It’s all very human. It’s true that the people are astounded and start glorifying God, but that’s not the point of the story.
The point of the story is the woman’s plight, and Jesus’ instinctive compassion, and the fact that he gives the young man back to his mother. The story resonates with the finest of human emotions. How we would love to be able to give children back to their parents and families when we read in the newspapers about their tragic deaths! This is not, first and foremost, because we are religious, or because we feel bound by some divine commandment, but just because we are human. Our hearts go out spontaneously to anyone who suffers such awful distress. That’s what compassion means – sharing someone’s distress. It’s something you feel in your guts. It is interesting that in the Biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek, the word compassion derives from the word meaning guts. In the Old Testament it is God who famously feels this way about his people, when he sees their distress; and in the New Testament it is Jesus who is frequently described in those terms, as in this very passage.
The fact that there is no religion in the story tells us a lot about true religion. It is a shame that the Gospels are so full of scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees, and of Jesus constantly arguing with them, that we risk losing sight of the single most luminous element in the message of the Christian gospel, namely, Jesus’ tender compassion for the afflicted, his sheer humanity. It is a pity also that religious people nowadays are often so preoccupied with the ritual and regulatory aspects of religion, that we prevent Jesus’ compassionate humanity from shining through our lives into the world. Today’s humanists are able to play off their humanism against religion, and many religious people give them enough excuse for doing so. Mind you, it is fair to say also that today’s humanists would do the world a favour if they were not so preoccupied with decrying religion that they obscure what is precious in their own gospel. Theirs is the same humanism as ours, surely, except that ours merges with the divine; both kinds of humanism must spring from the same good instinct; both hear the widow’s wailing and would dearly wish to restore her dead son to her; both aspire to take away people’s poverty and hunger, to come to people’s help in their distress, to bring them relief when they suffer devastation. To feel for those in sorrow and affliction is the noblest part of being human; and it lies at the heart of our religion.
Sadly, the dominant culture of today’s world is not about compassion, or about any profound human feeling. In spite of much good in individuals and often in the popular mood, we are an uncompassionate society. For all its insistence upon rights and equality, the dominant culture does not encourage emotions that are noble and compassionate but instead works powerfully to make people coarse and selfish. Compassion is there, often, but it gets trodden down by more primitive instincts. I am not now thinking so much of those instances of spectacular inhumanity in today’s world, where in the name of religion compassion has been annihilated and humanity set at naught; or of horrible crimes of violence and bloodshed. There are lesser, but still appalling, instances of the coarsening of our humanity in our own society. The mid-Staffordshire NHS scandal, and the like, are symptoms of a wider malaise which just wouldn’t happen if society did not provide the climate in which such things could fester. Again, we destroy lives routinely but, far from weeping over the inhumanity of it all, we make of the practice a banner under which we stridently assert our rights. Countless people are prey to addictions that brutalize our humanity by turning persons into things, thus disfiguring the work of the creator. These and many other things have to be thrown into the equation when we come to judge whether ours is a humane and compassionate society.
The trends in our society towards what is ugly and coarse are at least as powerful as the tendencies towards humaneness and compassion. But let us look to ourselves. It is our Christian vocation to create for our children an atmosphere that will raise their minds to things lovely and sublime, and to protect them against all the ugly things the world thrusts upon them. That way they will grow up to be genuinely human and therefore also authentically Christian. ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this’, says St James: ‘to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself uncontaminated by the world’; or, in broader terms, as St Paul puts it, to cultivate in our minds and hearts ‘whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is noble, whatever is gracious’ – in a word, whatever is genuinely human.
We need our religion to keep us human: to foster in us those pure compassionate feelings that Jesus felt in his guts; to inject some graciousness, some tenderness, into a coarsened world. In this Eucharist may we experience once more the Lord’s tender compassion towards us so that we may reach out to others in their distress and identify with their sufferings. We cannot raise the dead, but we can at least feel for the living, and not only feel for them, but, in the ways that are possible to us, take action to bring them comfort.
Fr Tom Deidun