Proper 5C: The Compassion of Jesus
By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor
Anytime a story begins with something like “soon after this…” or “a few days later…” my nosey mind immediately wants to know what just happened before I even think about what is going on now. The reason for this may be that I was raised in the gossip culture of the rural south and I just can’t help myself, or it may just be that I like a more complete picture of the stories that I take in. Either way, that is my general practice and this time was no exception.
Just before Jesus encounters the widow and her son in Nain, he heals a Centurion’s slave in Capernaum. He goes to the Centurion’s house, heals the slave, commends the Centurion for his faith saying that there is none like it in all of Israel, and heads out. Were I a Jewish reader around the time this text was written, I might have been a little offended by this story. A rabbi of ours went to a Gentile Centurion’s house and healed his servant (totally socially unacceptable). Then, to make matters worse, this rabbi commended the faith of the Gentile over our own (excuse me?). The fact that the master was a Centurion and part of the armed wing of our oppressors wouldn’t have helped matters much either (Jesus, what a sellout!). Regardless of whether I was offended by all or just part of this situation, I would certainly have doubted that Jesus was of God. Or at the very least I would have thought Jesus was uncouth.
So, all of that happens before we get to the story of the widow and her son in Nain. Here we see Jesus coming to town and bumping into the both of them at the main gate. “A man who had died was being carried out” says the Scripture. It also goes on to note that he was his mother’s only son and that his mother was a widow. Luke tells us that Jesus had compassion for the woman and, not for the sake of the man who died but for his mother, he revived the deceased. The crowd loves this. Not only is it a really awesome thing to see someone revived from the dead, but it has distinct allusions to the popular story of the well-respected prophet Elijah healing the widow’s son. In that story, found in 1 Kings 17:17-24, the woman was able to confirm that Elijah was indeed a prophet of the Lord because he was able to heal her son. If I were a first century Jewish reader, I would have loved this story! I would have liked it about as much as I hated the scene with the Centurion’s servant.
Speaking as my 21st century Gentile self, I think that tension is kind of the point here.
Jesus Christ healed, not only to show his power as a prophet, but to herald the coming of the Kingdom of God. He did it to begin turning the world broken by sin, sorrow, fear, and loss into a glimmer of the redemption which is a part of God’s ultimate salvific work in the world now and in the world to come. Jesus crosses formerly impermeable boundaries to heal the favored company of the enemy, and then just after that, goes and revives the dead using imagery of the great prophet Elijah, which confirms for the people Israel that he is, indeed, of God.
This is a challenge, to folks back then and to folks now, to consider how faith can be found in the most unlikely of houses, in the neighbors you don’t like, in the people you think are strange. It can also be found in the people like the widow who are marginalized and put to the side and don’t have the trappings of success, privilege, and power that we so cherish as a society.
The story of the revival of the widow’s son at Nain is a confirmation of God’s faithfulness, it is a confirmation of the compassionate heart of Jesus, and it is a confirmation of the Gospel call to prioritize compassion in all of our dealings. Taken just on the heels of the story of the centurion’s slave, it shows that our God honors the promises, people, values of the past while at the same time pushes the boundaries in radical ways. What is important to remember above all of this is that the central operating force in both stories is Jesus’ own compassion, and it is good news indeed that his compassion is for everyone, whether male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile, living or dead. Thanks be to God!
The Rev. Caleb Tabor is Vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, a bilingual congregation in Oxford, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from North Carolina, he has settled down close to home in Mebane, North Carolina where he lives with his husband Logan and their parrot Tiki. Theology, coffee, creative writing, and history are just a few of the things keep him occupied in his spare and not-so-spare time.