June 9, 2013
Some of the most important lessons I learned in my Intro to Pastoral Care class in seminary could be summed up in one scene in the movie Steel Magnolias. In the original movie, Sally Field plays M’Lynn the mother of Shelby. Shelby is her only daughter and the movie begins with preparations for Shelby’s wedding. Shelby is also a diabetic and has been diabetic since she was a child. M’Lynn worries about her constantly because she realizes how fragile her body really can be – especially when Shelby makes the decision to have a baby.
The pregnancy takes too much out of her. Her kidneys fail, and M’Lynn donates one of her own kidneys to Shelby. Eventually that kidney fails too and Shelby is put on life support. The decision is made to stop the life support and Shelby dies.
Her funeral is held in the same Presbyterian church in which she was married. And after the graveside service, everyone begins to drift away from the grave. Except M’Lynn. She can’t leave. She is joined by the other women, the other magnolias, who have surrounded her throughout the movie. Truvy, Clairee, Ouiser and Annelle. Over the course of the film Annelle becomes the stereotypical version of born again Christian. She drops on her knees to pray every other second. She considers other churches outside of her own to be suspect. And in a moment of trying to comfort M’Lynn, she says, “We should all be rejoicing. Shelby is with her king!”
M’Lynn responds, “You go on ahead. I’d rather have her here.”
Annelle saves this moment by explaining what she means by that. And it’s beautiful and it allows M’Lynn to express this raging grief she has at her daughter’s death. She goes from weeping to anger to denial to weeping once more. There’s a wonderful moment of comic relief which makes them laugh. Finally, there’s some semblance of acceptance.
But what Annelle said has stuck with me. According to my Intro to Pastoral care class it is a classic example of what NOT to say. Never tell someone who’s grieving anything along the lines of “this is God’s will.” “Your loved one is in a better place.” “God needed his special angel with him more than we needed this loved one with us.” You get the idea. Even if you believe all of it sincerely, even if they believe all of it sincerely, don’t say it! Don’t impede their grief with bumbling attempts at comfort.
If you knew nothing else of Jesus except this passage, you might think that he violates this primary rule. He says exactly what shouldn’t be said to the widow who has lost her only son. “Do not weep.”
Imagine what this scene must have looked like. Jesus and his disciples have just left Capernaum, where, as we read last week, Jesus had compassion for the slave of a Roman centurion. In the process of this healing even Jesus is amazed at the faith shown by a so-called outsider. Now Jesus and his disciples and the crowds who were following them have left Capernaum and travelled what some commentators believe was about 25 miles southwest to the town called Nain.
At that same time a funeral procession is leaving the town to bury the only son of a widow because according to law the dead could not be buried within the town’s borders. So at this precise moment these two crowds meet, most likely at the gates of the town. Jesus and the crowds with him are going to Nain. The widow and the crowds of mourners surrounding her are leaving Nain to bury her son.
Jesus sees this crowd and he must have understood immediately how dire the situation really was. There’s a reason why widows and orphans are given so much attention in both the Old and New Testaments. They were the ones who were most marginalized in that culture. To be a widow meant that you had lost the protection and status that came with your husband. It would be up to your children, hopefully your sons, to care for you. This woman had already lost the protection of her husband. Now her only son was gone as well. There was no one left to care for her. Not only would she have been mourning her child, she was also in great danger economically and socially.
Jesus sees this. He sees her. He has compassion for her. It is his compassion that moves him to walk over to her and tell her not to weep. The Greek verb “to have compassion” is splagcnizomai. This verb is used approximately ten times in the New Testament and it’s only found in the gospels. It is what the father of the prodigal son feels when he sees his son from far off. It is what the Samaritan feels when he sees the man beaten and left for dead by robbers. The verb stems from the noun which means the bowels or the internal organs of one’s body. That was considered the central part of the body and feelings were believed to come from there. For me this gives the phrase “gut response” new meaning.
Essentially Jesus has a gut response to this woman’s need, to her terrible circumstances, to her grief. He feels compassion and without being asked he goes to her to help. He touches the bier, which was like the stretcher the corpse would have been carried on, and everyone stops. Think about how dramatic the silence that ensued would have been. All of those people, all of the wailing and weeping that would have been an expected part of the funeral procession, all of it ceases. Jesus says to the son, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The son sits up and begins to speak and Jesus gives him to his mother.
The crowds who witness this understandably respond with amazement, fear, awe and, as one commentator put it, almost like a Greek chorus they praise and glorify God, saying “A great prophet has risen among us!” “God has looked favorably on his people.”
Jesus says something that in pastoral care parlance should have been the wrong thing. But he followed it with a miracle, a resurrection. Out of his compassion for the widow new life is found in the midst of death and despair.
A story that I often tell about the power of compassion is this. When I was first living and working in Richmond, a young man I went to high school with committed suicide. He was two years behind me in school, but we were in Varsity Choir together and he was one of the sweetest, dearest guys I knew. We all became very close when we put on the musical South Pacific, and I just adored him. Everyone did. He was much loved, popular, a good student, the student body president his senior year. I could go on and on.
My senior year the choir took a big trip to Orlando, Florida for a choir competition. At one point in the trip, I was experiencing challenges with some of my girlfriends. I was standing in a hallway, on the outside of this group of girls, probably looking desolate. My friend saw this and in his own moment of compassion came over and talked to me. He listened to me. It was what I needed most at that moment. His compassion made a difference for me at that moment. My great regret is that I couldn’t offer him that same compassion before he made the decision to end his life.
When he died, my mother called me at work. She was worried about me hearing this news at home, alone. At least at my office there would be other people around. When I got off the phone with my mother, I was beside myself with grief. I was very involved with the Presbyterian congregation I’d joined, so I called the church office hoping to talk to one of the ministers. The associate pastor that I knew the best was out of town, but the senior pastor took my call. This was a rapidly growing, busy church. Yet he dropped everything and met me at a local restaurant, bought me coffee and let me grieve. This pastor’s compassion not only made a difference for me in that heartbreaking moment, it opened me to the possibility of my own call to ministry.
I don’t need to tell anyone here that our call as disciples, as followers of Jesus is to show compassion for others as he showed compassion. I think for most of us that is a given. But our challenge comes in that when Jesus showed compassion, there were results. People were healed. The dead were resurrected. Our compassion can’t accomplish what Jesus’ did. Children die and are not given back to their mothers and their fathers. People, who we think have everything, feel so much despair that they decide the only way out is to take their own life. Our loved ones and our friends fall ill and we can’t give them health. But even if we can’t do what Jesus did, our compassion for others is perhaps the most life giving, most necessary and most essential part of our humanity. Showing compassion may not change someone’s circumstances, but it might give them hope. Offering compassion to someone else might give them a reason to get up in the morning, or the belief that new life is possible even in death.Showing compassion, even in a small way, even when we falter with what to say or do, can make all the difference. When has it made a difference for you? What difference have you made for others? Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”
Thanks to WorkingPreacher.org and The Journey With Jesus website for the scholarly contribution to this sermon.