Year C, Proper 5 June 5, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her…”
I do not think that there is a more important lesson in all of scripture then the one contained in this short passage from St. Luke’s gospel. This story (the one mirrored by the Elijah story in 1st Kings), is a story about compassion.
I had a long (and fairly decent) exegesis and textual commentary about these two passages prepared, but it is hot and I was moved with compassion for all of us, so let’s get right to the meat of it, the raising of the widow’s son.
The tragedy of the death of the man is not the story here. We don’t know anything about him. This story is about his mother, the widow. The tragedy of the death of a son is a given, a horror that far too many then, and now, face. In that time, though, the tragedy of the death of a widow’s only son was compounded by the fact that women had no property rights, no rights to anything, really, and a woman’s survival was inextricably linked to the men in her life. Being widowed, the material responsibility of a husband for his wife was transferred to the son (if she had borne no children, she would have been married off to the husband’s brother). But in this case, being a widow and losing an only son, her options for survival were limited basically to begging or prostitution. She faced the end of life as she knew it, what lay before her was a pitiable existence. Jesus had compassion for her.
What does that word mean to you, compassion?
Webster’s defines it as “Sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” That’s hard to argue with, it pretty much sums up the meaning of the word, but it doesn’t seem to go as deep enough, it seems that there is something more that we are being called to.
The word compassion has its roots in ecclesiastical Latin, basically think of com- with, and passion, like the passion of our lord, suffering. In a spiritual sense, compassion means “to suffer with.”
Compassion is not charity, though charity is a fine and requisite Christian practice of reducing suffering. Compassion is not relieving suffering through some balm or change or gift, compassion is about embracing, encountering, experiencing the suffering of another. That is what Jesus is, does, compassion. His death on the cross was his compassion for us, His experience with us, for us of all of the suffering of the world. He walked with all of us, each of us with compassion. And His compassion was so complete that it changed things. Everything, even. Compassion.
There is suffering in the world. Immense suffering. Overwhelming suffering. Our Buddhist brothers and sisters say that life is suffering, that is the first Noble Truth. I don’t agree, I don’t think that life is suffering. I believe that life is a gift from God, an experience of the glorious creation held in the ever loving arms of Jesus Christ. But as I grow up, as I encounter more and more of the world outside of the polite picket fences erected by my white, male, professional class upbringing, the sinfulness of the world is becoming more and more glaringly apparent. Sin upon sin upon sin make it very hard for far too many of us to fully realize the love of God, union with God like the great saints John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila write of. Oneness with the creation and all the souls who inhabit it. That glory is obscured by the sins of humanity, the evil done to each other, done on our behalf, just done all over the world, every day, all the time. And there is one sin that is really behind it all, that perpetuates the suffering of the world, that prevents the coming of the kingdom of God and we each commit every time we walk out of our door, every time we read the paper or listen to the news. That sin is ignoring the suffering of others. Not noticing it. Not engaging it. Not feeling it. Not having compassion.
Can you imagine what it must be like on one of those boats off the coast of Libya? Can you imagine scrounging for food in the rubble of Homs, Syria? Or the fear of a choking death from the tumors in your lungs? Or with each thing you forget you are reminded of your mother’s early onset of Alzheimer’s? Can you imagine what it feels like for it to be 100 degrees and having no where to not only get out of the heat, but nowhere to get water? “Paying customers only.” Can you imagine having to make the choice between taking methamphetamines and falling asleep at night where you risk any kind of assault that you could imagine? Can you imagine those kinds of suffering?
“I don’t want to think about that.” I hear that all the time. Of course, who wants to think about it? “It is too upsetting for me.” Well, so much of the experience of the world is upsetting. “What’s the point? The problems are so massive, there is so much suffering. There is nothing that I can do about it.” That is where we are wrong.
Having compassion, entering the suffering of others, that is the Christian model of conduct in the world. It is precisely what Jesus did for us and it is precisely what Jesus asks us to do in return. “Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me.” That is a teaching on compassion.
We are all one. Whatever the little cloud of energy that is our being, our selves, whatever that is, whatever this is, the stuff we consist of, the atoms, the mass that makes “us” up, we are all one, made of exactly the same things, given life through the miracle of physics and biology and evolution all the way back to the breath of God moving over the deep, we are children of God, all of us together. And when one of us suffers, when situations or conditions prevent us from experiencing the full joy of God and everything, the fabric of it all is rent, it is disordered. Martin Luther King said that the arc of the universe is long and it bends towards justice. It is long because all of the suffering prevents justice from being realized.
We are all one. You know this. When you encounter suffering, see someone on the side of the road, sick, tired, dirty, hungry, thirsty, addicted, when you notice them, a lot of feelings arise. Those feelings you have, discomfort, wanting to look away, revulsion even… those feelings are not about the person. That would sound pretty awful to say aloud, right? “I was too uncomfortable with that person because they were suffering so much.” That is pretty lousy particularly because we all do it sometimes. All of us. But remember, it is not the person suffering that is revolting, it is the suffering itself that we know deep in our beings to fear, to turn and run from. What Jesus Christ tells us/teaches us/does is to vanquish that fear and embrace the person who suffers. And we do that by sharing in THEIR suffering. Walking with them in their suffering. Trying your best to feel what it is they are feeling and realize that all of us, everyone suffers when anyone suffers. That is the compassion Jesus felt for that widow. That is what we are called to do.
That’s what changed young Francis. He was the libertine son of a wealthy textile merchant, up to no good, mostly. But then following his own traumatic wartime experience, he encountered the suffering of a leper colony. He encountered and experienced their suffering, had full and holy compassion for them and with that compassion changed the world. Dorothy Day did that, too. Walking with the poor and destitute, the homeless and the tenement dwellers, having compassion, feeling their suffering, living with those who suffer and knowing in her heart that until all of us are free of suffering none of us are free of suffering.
Those are pretty high bars to shoot for, Francis and Day. But those are models for us. Perfection is the archenemy of good enough and that’s what we’re shooting for. It is too hot to go on much longer, but know that having compassion for your brothers and sisters will hurt, it is unpleasant, upsetting; that’s the nature of it. (It might even lead you to try to change the structurally sinful systems that contribute to so much suffering). It’s a dirty business, compassion. But having compassion, taking on the suffering of others, walking with someone else in their suffering will take away the suffering of the world starting with that one human being. In fact it is the only thing that ever has. AMEN