Melkite Church of the Annunciation, Jerusalem
(Creative Commons image by Seetheholyland.net on Flickr)
Dear Working Preacher,
There’s a poignancy to this week’s gospel reading that is easy to miss. We tend to focus on the miracle of raising a young man to life. I understand that; it is, after all, a pretty astounding miracle. Nevertheless, I’d invite us instead to focus on the motivation behind the miracle and the response to it.
Like his three compatriot evangelists, Luke doesn’t often give a lot of insight into Jesus’ psychological make-up or affective disposition. Rather than embellishing his stories with descriptions of Jesus’ emotional state, he usually focuses on “just the facts” of the story at hand.
But this story is different. After reporting the sad scene of a mother following the funeral bier of her son, Luke tarries for a moment and reports that Jesus “had compassion for her.”
That reaction is easy for us to understand. For the dead man wasn’t just her son, but her only son. And she’s not just a grieving mother, but is a widow, which means that she is not only mourning but also incredibly vulnerable, as she now has no one to provide for her. She stands, that is, on the brink of destitution as well as in the abyss of grief.
And so Jesus has compassion on her.
Interestingly, however, Luke doesn’t say “Jesus” had compassion on her, but rather says, “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” It’s easy to miss Luke’s subtle change of title here because we are so used to addressing Jesus as Lord, yet this is the first time Luke describes Jesus with this title, and I can’t imagine this was an accident.
Could it be that Luke is not just upping the ante of how to regard Jesus but actually giving us a clue to understanding who the Messiah and Lord really is? That is, I suspect that it’s not just the title “Lord” that helps describe Jesus, but that his act of compassion describes and even defines what it means to be Lord.
To be Lord, that is, is to be vulnerable to the suffering of another. To be Lord is to feel compassion. To be Lord is to not just feel compassion but to act on it, to do something. To be Lord is, finally, to heal, restore, renew, and in all ways to help.
And so Jesus the Lord and God’s anointed One sees this widow who has now lost her only son and with him any real chance of survival and Jesus has compassion on her, comforts and encourages her, and then raises her son to new life. That’s what it means to be Lord.
But Luke isn’t done yet. Because he not only gives us insight into what it means that Jesus is Lord, but also invites us to consider what it means for us to be his followers. Notice the reaction of the people. They are first gripped by fear as this incomprehensible miracle takes place, then they glorify God by giving thanks for what God had done, and then they spread word of what they have seen throughout the region.
So here’s my question: If Luke is helping us understand better what it means for Jesus to be Lord -- not to be judge but to be merciful; not to be all powerful but vulnerable; not to be stoic or stalwart but to feel compassion; not to be reluctant but to take action to heal and restore -- if Luke in this story is laying down the pattern by which one can recognize true Lordship, I wonder if he is also outlining the chief characteristics of discipleship: holy awe followed by praise and thanksgiving followed by sharing with others the source of your amazement and gratitude. Or, more briefly: wonder to thanksgiving to sharing.
Perhaps this Sunday, then, we might clarify the Gospel’s understanding of Lordship as the One who responds to our needs with compassion and action, and then clarify the Gospel’s understanding of discipleship: to see in awe, to thank, and to tell. If so, then I wonder if we could encourage our people to share -- whether in small groups or with a person sitting near them or through writing or simply through reflection -- I wonder if we could encourage our people to share a story of when they believe God acted in their lives and their reaction was also wonder followed by gratitude and sharing what had happened.
Or perhaps you can do this before the sermon and collect some of those stories about moving from seeing to thanking to telling on Sunday morning. However you approach it, remember this: our people have had those experiences, but they’re not used to sharing them with anyone and so often have lost the capacity to do so.
Our task, Working Preacher, is to give them a chance to practice identifying God’s work in their lives and tell someone else about it. It doesn’t have to be as spectacular as receiving back a dead relative; it might instead be as simple and as profound as repairing a broken relationship, or renewing a friendship, or coming through a difficult time, or meeting a goal. Who knows?
I just know that if our people don’t gain some practice in identifying and talking about where they’ve seen God active in their lives and the world they will soon lose that capacity altogether and eventually wonder why the keep coming to church at all.
So remind us, Working Preacher, about this woman who occasioned and received the compassion of the Lord and encourage us to give voice to our gratitude and praise that we might spread the word about Jesus and his love.
Thank you so much for your hard work, Working Preacher. What you do matters and I’m grateful for your partnership in sharing the Gospel.
Yours in Christ,