Think about human sympathy and empathy. How crazy is it that, if someone so much as describes to us what another person has experienced, we can find ourselves experiencing almost visceral feelings on their behalf? And if we care about the people involved, or if we’ve had a comparable experience, or if we witness the events firsthand, those feelings can be even more vivid.
It’s why, on the most superficial level, when I watch those 90’s-tastic syndicated re-runs of “America’s Funniest Videos,” I spend a lot of time shielding my junk and getting that queasy feeling in my stomach. It’s why, when Sarah McLachlan’s vocals linger into an ASPCA commercial, the dog sees me coming for our bi-annual cuddle session. That’s cross-species empathy, man. It’s why people nationwide, Gamecock or not, keep voting Jadeveon Clowney’s “the Hit” as a top play – because in Clowney’s shoes we can almost feel the sweet booming justice that he throws down after a seemingly blown 4th-down call (seen here). It’s also why another nationwide audience, Gamecock or not, was deeply moved the year before after watching slow-motion replays of Marcus Lattimore’s season-ending knee injury. Sympathy and empathy.
More deeply, as a parent now I can’t believe how much stronger my reactions are when it comes to babies, kids, and parents. When I watch a local news station covering a soldier’s surprise return from deployment – where the dad walks into the kingdergarten classroom and his daughter sees him and then goes from disbelief to confusion to hysterics – I, too, have once or twice been close to hysterics. My bad, fellas. Or, when I see something like this dad’s chronicle of his premie’s first year of life, all bets are off in the department of man-tears (take a look):
These feelings on behalf of others are the underlying basis of how we are able to learn, to communicate and connect, to love, to share story, and more. Let it sink in and, first of all, let’s pause today and realize that empathy and sympathy are a gift from God. Most of us could stand to cultivate them in ourselves a little more.
Secondly, if these abilities come from God then let’s marvel a little bit at what that might mean about God. After all, over the ages nearly every faith tradition has wrestled with whether or not God can relate directly to human beings and, if so, to what extent. On a personal level, nearly every one of us has wondered if God knows what we’re feeling, and how much, and what he’s going to do about it (or why he doesn’t seem to do anything about it at all). The Scripture passage for today, I think, starts to engage that whole picture.
Read Luke 7:11-17 here.
I know it’s brief, and one of those odd little side-lights in Scripture. Given the gravity of what happens, we have little detail, and Luke’s gospel doesn’t rest here very long. Neither the widow of Nain nor her son has a name, and he doesn’t garner the fame of another more familiar dead-man-raised, Lazarus. But it’s a powerful occasion if we imagine it unfolding.
Right In My Spleen
A part of the value of Luke 7:11-17, in all its brevity, is the one little word in verse 13 that represents Jesus’ motivation for action; it’s translated in the NIV: “…his heart went out to her.” In the Greek, the verb is splangknizomai, and it offers a sense of one being moved with compassion, feeling sympathy, or taking pity on someone else. Splangknizomai. Its root, there in the first syllable (the “splangk” part), sounds a lot like the English for “spleen” because it literally means “an inward bodily part, an internal organ” or “the belly, bowels, intestines.”
It gives us the sense that Jesus’ compassion was a visceral, feel-it-in-my-guts experience at the sight of this poor widow who had lost her only child. So, it’s important to realize that this is God, and he is no faceless and fickle white-bearded-guy-up-in-the-clouds. He’s no emotionless robot of a divinity, or nebulous spirit-man, or aloof member of the pantheon who’s decided to slum it on earth for a bit. Quite the opposite. The scene illustrates exactly how God feels, even on behalf of a relative nobody whom he meets in a relative nowhere. And his actions seem to boil over out of those feelings.
He starts by doing what most of us would do; he says a word of comfort to the grieving mother. Initially, I wonder how she reacted to that. As far as we know the widow has no prior relationship with Jesus, and here he is interrupting her son’s funeral acting like he knows her, with the audacity to try to console her, saying, “Don’t cry.” At that point I imagine something inside of her thought, “Thanks for the kind words, buddy, but really?” I know that when I’m grieving, I don’t have a lot of patience for intrusions like this. I think most of us have felt that way before. Even if it’s just briefly, I think most of us who grieve go to that place of: “I can be thankful for the nice things people are trying to say, and I appreciate the support and the community and even the promises of faith. But right now I’m just a little bit done with it all, because the one thing I really want is just to have my loved one back, here and now.”
I think it’s a deep frustration that most of have deep down and leave unsaid between ourselves and God. On some level, even if we’re not the religious kind, in a childlike way we secretly wish and pray that God will show up just this once to do just this one thing and bring this person back to us. We would give anything to be with them again. We promise God that if he’ll make that happen, it’ll be the last thing that we ask for the rest of our lives. But what’s the response? Nothing. Silence. The universe doesn’t work that way. God doesn’t understand.
I wonder if the widow of Nain was thinking or feeling along those lines when Jesus took things a step further, as he reached out to the funeral bier and, before anyone could stop him, he commanded the boy back to life. The one thing that wasn’t supposed to be possible, it happened.
God understood the emotions of that day, which leads us to believe that, on any day, God does understand our grief and our secret hope and how it all feels. This is the first good news of Luke 7:11-17. But as soon as that news sinks in, it carries along a new set of questions. Something like: “Well, if Jesus feels for us so strongly and feels with us so deeply, then why doesn’t he act on my behalf when I need it? Why doesn’t he act on behalf of others when they need it, every single day?” In other words, what was so special about the people of Nain, and where’s my miracle?
When we find ourselves asking those questions, I think we try to answer them with a whole new set of unsaid assumptions that are heavily influenced by what we know about the limits of our own sympathy and empathy. Not to oversimplify, but when I take a look at myself, there are at least three scenarios when my compassion is hindered. Maybe you’ll be able to relate. And maybe, just maybe, we assume silently to ourselves that these same hindrances are what hamper God from intervening for us.
First, my decision to let my empathy/sympathy inspire me into action depends a great deal on convenience. It’s not that I don’t feel for others, but if I’m rushed, or tired, or preoccupied, or hungry, then too many times the needs of another human being get relegated to the back of the line. If you’ve ever thought, or said, “I really just don’t have time to care about [insert someone else’s problem],” then you know what I’m talking about. It is, after all, someone else’s problem.
Second, whether or not I act based on my empathy/sympathy depends pretty heavily on who will be the recipient. The more I relate to someone, or the more reliable and credible they seem, the more I usually have to give. Sustainability is big for me, and I am usually slower to help someone when it feels like they’re asking for merely a “band-aid” that doesn’t address the root causes of the issue at hand. Teach a man to fish, right? And if ever I get the sense that I’m being manipulated or taken advantage of by somebody, my concern for them can plummet to zero. I’ll defend myself as a pretty compassionate person, but I know that the object of my compassion sometimes influences my level of compassion.
Third, and last, I’ve noticed that my empathy/sympathy just simply runs short sometimes. No matter how I feel at the time, or who the person is, or what the need, sometimes I find that I am just temporarily tapped out in the face of human need. There’s a clinical condition called “Compassion Fatigue” or “Secondary Stress Trauma” that describes this effect, when we feel like we’ve given all that we have to give. Especially among people in service/humanitarian industries, it’s when sharing in the stress of others has started to overwhelm our own abilities to cope – when we’ve empathized and sympathized with people so closely, and so often – that we’re tapped out.
Those are just three compassion-limiting factors, but they carry weight every single day. If we apply them to the very human Jesus we see in Luke 7, assumptions start to form. We might wonder, is it just that the people of Nain caught Christ on a good day, well-rested and with a full stomach, when his “Jesus power” was at 100%? Was it just that Jesus happened to have the time? Was it that the widow was just so incredibly sad and hurt that she earned his favor? Was it a matter of the mother’s heart and faith, or the boy’s, that they were so devout that Jesus decided to act? Was it just the right setting, here with a crowd following at Jesus’ back and with another crowd in front of him coming out for the funeral? Was it the perfect moment and stage to really grow Jesus’ popularity?
If Jesus is the person of character and utterly dependable goodness that I know, then I have to feel like the answers are “No.” I can’t believe that if we pray just the right way, do just the right things, ask at just the right time, or give Jesus a big enough stage, that he’ll raise our loved ones from the dead.
But, then, how do we reckon with Luke 7, and what does it mean for the rest of us who aren’t from Nain?
If God’s empathy/sympathy for each of us is intact, and if it’s as powerful as it appears to be, and if it’s not conditional whatsoever, then we have to conclude that God is indeed acting on behalf of every single one of us somehow, and with equal compassion. What could he be doing on our behalf that’s as good as this funeral-interrupting resurrection miracle, but that isn’t as obvious to the naked eye? Well, Jesus kind of told us exactly what, over and over.
He came to do what no one else can ever do for us, and what we can never do for ourselves: he came to forgive us, completely and definitively. And not only forgive us, but to actively redeem us so that we can actually be new beings, living and growing in him towards a fullness and wholeness that we cannot manufacture for ourselves. He came to be connected to us, intimately, our first and greatest friend of all friends, even though the Lord of all things, with the promise to never leave us. He came to promise that through him we can (and must) have the same intimate connection to one another and the whole Creation, and that it will last forever. Like he demonstrated in Nain, neither death nor sin nor evil can stand in his way.
So, the second good news of Luke 7:11-17 is that this miracle of miracles is only a hint and a shadow of the fullness of how Christ had come to exercise his love and compassion for us. It was important, that day, that Jesus not stand idly by or merely share words of encouragement; it was important to him to demonstrate that the Messiah was present and that he had authority over death. But the son of the widow of Nain would go on to have a second funeral someday, we know that. In days, or weeks, or years, he would catch an incurable flu, or have a fatal injury, or simply die in his aged sleep, but it was going to happen again. And we have no record that Jesus intervened a second or third or fourth time. What, then, was Jesus to do except to continue his journey towards Jerusalem, Good Friday, the cross, and then Resurrection morning? That would be the ultimate and lasting act of compassion, for all.