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‘He was gutted’

Trinity 16 BCP

23 September 2007 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

‘And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her’

We have all seen this picture – and on far too regular a basis. The picture of a weeping widow and a mother in grief. The picture of unbearable grief and unspeakable sorrow. From Palestine, or Israel, or closer to home as a direct result of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. We get worryingly familiar with these images and it is almost as if compassion has been killed within us, or is well on the way to withering away, due to our emotional fatigue. In its place creeps in cynicism, despair, impotence. The head of the Army, General Dannatt only this weekend has referred to the marginalisation of our Armed Forces who return from active service to meet only indifference. In our cynicism and despair we are like the dead young man being carried on a bier to the grave. When compassion has died within us then we are doubly dead – or even thrice dead. Dead to each other…dead to ourselves… and most assuredly dead to God.

Those for whom St. Luke was writing saw his interest in the resurrection of the dead as the great new thing about Christianity – an innovation. However in today’s gospel there are striking resemblances to the miracles of Elijah and Elisha in the older Testament – both of whom restored life to the sons of widows. In their case, many words, prayers and rituals were required, whereas Jesus merely uttered a sentence and laid his hand on the bier. In the New Testament we know about the raising of Lazarus, and the daughter of Jairus as well – both of whom Jesus brought back from the dead…although in each case this was a response to a direct request to do something. On this occasion at Nain, Jesus’ response is spontaneous.

He needs no asking. Jesus is moved with deep compassion for the widow of Nain. The Greek word ‘esplankhnisthe’ means literally that he was gutted for her…a gut wrenching feeling from the depths of his stomache, because not only is she bereaved but left totally abandoned and destitute as well, with nobody to care for her and look after her. Another context would have the Greek word refer to entrails. This is all rather more than simply feeling sorry for her, or having compassion on her as the King James translation has it. This is a response of love with an earthy and gutsy reality to it. From a man who himself is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and who on the cross experiences dereliction and abandonment. It is hardly surprising that Jesus is moved in the core of his being because apart from the widow’s lamentable state, people of the time would have regarded her predicament as a punishment visited upon her by God. (‘She must have done something wrong for this to have happened to her’)

Jesus might look upon us and regard perhaps funereal processions in which are carried the coffins of our own dead hope, our cynicism and impotence, to be buried. Jesus tells us not to despair, and brings our hope – which is the most fundamental of Christian characteristics – back to life again. There can be many areas in our lives that have become quite dormant, inactive and fruitless. Times too, when we feel as dry as the desert. It is at times such as these that we can reflect on the Spirit being like a fountain – a stream of life-giving water rising up from within us. We all encounter the widow of Nain in our lives from time to time. But the good news of today’s gospel is of the triumph of hope over despair. The patient and persistent compassion of Christ endures when all appears lost. He invites us to place all the intractable problems and enduring sufferings of the world within his heart…within his guts...and to remain open to the transforming grace of God.

‘Young man, I say unto thee…Arise.’
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