TENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – 1 Kgs 17:17-24 Gal 1:11-19 Lk7:11-17
Our Duty To Be at the Same Time Prophetic and Compassionate
Our Tradition and Conduct toward the Unfortunate; Transformation, Resuscitation, and Resurrection; Helping the Bereaved.
Today’s Gospel is about compassion. It presents all the charm, colour, suspense, and pathos of a good short story. As Jesus entered the town of Nain in Galilee, two crowds met, approaching from different directions. One was the large crowd (v. 11) that accompanied Jesus. The other was the large crowd from the city (v. 12) in a funeral procession. Few processions, even today, evoke as much awe as that which wends its way to the cemetery. Today, the headlights of the hearse, followed by an automotive train of mourners, declare, “This is the march of death; stand back!” Cars stop at intersections; other drivers avert their eyes; children on their way to or from school, as well as some adults, gape wide-eyed at crosswalks.
The crowd in today’s Gospel funeral procession contained not only relatives and friends relatives and friends engaged in the merciful work of burying the dead, but also hired musicians and mourners whose flutes and cymbals and shrill cries created a kind of frenzy. St Luke’s description of the dead man as the only son of a widowed mother contains the ageless sorrow of the world, and the tears – the world of broken hearts. Whereas others held back, the widow can held back, the widow can hardly get near enough to her son’s body. This is the burial of her last hope. She is present now as she was the day she gave him birth, mother now as she was mother then. She grieves as one who would be willing to change places with the deceased, to enter death in order to restore life. Surrounded by friends, she is yet alone.
To all that pathos, Luke adds the compassion that underlaid Jesus’ being the best of what we mean by being human. Jesus, far from being, as some people picture him, apathetic and aloof, was again and again overwhelmed with pity, moved to his depths at tragedy. Luke adds to Jesus’ compassion his power. For the first of many times, Luke calls Jesus “Lord” – the only evangelist to use that expression before the resurrection. Jesus stepped forward and touched the coffin (v. 14). The coffin of the time meant the long open wicker basket in which mourners placed the linen- wrapped body. Then Luke the physician records that, to the surprise of everyone, the dead man sat up (v. 15).
Now, there are those who see here only a miracle of diagnosis – that is, that Jesus, with prescience beyond the times, saws that the man wasn’t really dead, but in a cataleptic trance. Jesus would thus have prevented the man from being buried alive, as then happened to some because of poor medical skills and quick burials. But we must remember that the one writing is Luke the physician, who we may presume was more observant than the ordinary person about things like this. Even more, the person performing the miracle is Jesus, who showed that he is Lord not only of life but of death.
It would have been lacking in compassion at such a time to speak to the lonely widow the lines that the unknown poet put into the mouth of God to parents upon the death of a child:
“I’ll lend you, for a little while, a child of mine,” He said,
For you to love while he lives, and mourn when he is dead.
It may be six or seven years, or twenty- two, or there.
But will you, ‘til I call him back, take care of him for me?
He’ll bring his charms to gladden you, and shall his stay be brief,
You’ll have his lovely memories as solace for your grief.
I cannot promise he will stay, as all from earth return,
But there are lessons taught down there I want this child to learn.
I’ve looked the wide world over in my search for teachers true,
And from the throngs that crowd life’s lanes, I have selected you.
Now will you give him all your love – not think the labour vain,
Nor hate me when I come to call to take him back again.”
I fancied that I heard them say, “Dear Lord, thy will be done.
For all the joy this child shall bring, the risk of grief we’ll run.
We’ll shower him with tenderness and love him while we may,
And for the happiness we’ve known, forever grateful stay.
And should the angels call for him much sooner than we planned,
We’ll brave the bitter grief that comes, and try to understand.”
Rather, Jesus gave him to his mother. Jesus must have taken him, and well-nigh carried him, and placed him in the arms of his mother. When the mother’s arms had closed round the body of her son, only then did Jesus step aside and go his way, possible to hide his tears.
Luke consciously relates his story of Jesus to similar stories about the prophets Elijah and Elisha. The story of Elijah in today’s First Reading is part of the “Elijah Cycle” of stories which, like so many other stories about the prophets, is told to enhance the reputation of the prophet and thus help give authority to his word.
The climax of the Elijah story isn’t so much the physical restoration of the life of the young man whose death made his widowed mother destitute as it is the widow’s profession of faith. The widow, who was a non-Jew from the region of Sidon, received the spiritual gift of salvation through looking after Elijah and hearing from him the word of God. Whereas Elijah had raised the son of the widow at Zarephahth and Elisha the son of the widow at Shunerm with dramatic symbolic rites, Jesus did it just by the power of his word.
St Paul, too, like Jesus and Elijah, was a prophet and, like them, had to face calumnies, envies, and mistrust. In today’s portion of his letter to the Galatians, Paul defends his Gospel; his thesis is that his Gospel is not of human origin (v. 11), but comes from God, and is the common possession of all the Apostles. This Gospel Paul received Damascus to kill Christians. This doesn’t mean that the facts about Jesus were communicated miraculously to Paul. He did have to depend in addition on traditional teaching.
Paul’s life proved what trust in God can do. His former way of life in Judaism (v. 13), humanly considered, hardly provided the psychological background from which his Christian Gospel would have developed. As a Pharisee, he had persecuted the Church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. As a Pharisee, he had strongly rejected everything that departed from the Mosaic Law and its interpretations by the rabbis. Toward the Church of God, which he would eventually come to see as reflecting the First Testament assembly of the People of God in the desert (qehal Yahweh, Num 16:20; 20:4), he had a scorched-earth policy.
But the time came (v. 15) when all that changed. When that profound conversion happens – when a person completely changes values and does a thorough turn- about in life – there has to be an explanation. Paul’s explanation was the intervention of God. And God’s action wasn’t haphazard, but planned. God chose for honour, however, but for service – the same as the housewife who prepares her children for school or the engineer who builds a bridge.
To think through what had happened to him and to speak with God before hr in turn spoke to people, Paul first went on a retreat. His next stop took courage. It was Damascus, to which Paul had been travelling to persecute the Church when he was knocked off his horse. All Damascus knew that. And the Christians knew what kind of man Paul had been. They wanted no part of him.
Paul’s next step took an equal amount of courage. He went up to Jerusalem (v. 18). The Christians in Jerusalem, as his former victims, unable to believe that he had changed, might well ostracize him. His former Jewish associates there, too, might well have nothing to do with one whom they considered a deserter and a traitor. But we have to have the courage to face our past. There are, after all, at least a hundred ways of falling and only one way of standing up. Paul wanted to confer with Kephas – Peter, the head of the Church – and to do that he had to pay the price of facing whatever in Jerusalem might await him. His fifteen-day meeting with Peter was successful, and he also met James, a relative of the Lord. Both Apostles broaden and deepened Paul’s faith and trust in the Lord.
All the people in today’s readings – Elijah, Paul, and Jesus – are prophets – that is, people who speak on God’s behalf to others. And they are all compassionate – that is, they feel for the needs of others. Paul didn’t get either prophecy or compassion correct at first, but he learned. Jesus, unlike Elijah, wasn’t asked to intervene; what moved him was his extraordinary degree of compassion. We are all, like them, expected to be both prophetic and compassionate – persons who by word and example show people how to be God-like but who at the same time understand people’s weakness. Some good people try to speak for God, while being oblivious of the needs of people. Other good people feel deeply for others but, because they aren’t in touch with God, their feelings are only on the surface.
No matter where we find ourselves, like Paul we can learn. We can learn today to cooperate with God’s grace to raise us beyond the limits this world imposes, so that we may be free to love as Christ teaches. That love is life-giving, supporting, transforming, healing, and compassionate. Like Jesus, our compassionate must take us, even when not asked, wherever there is the misery of crushed hearts and tears of the bereaved, so that we may promote the unending praise of our heavenly Father and the honour of His Son.