When my Grandpa died my Dad was in the military. My Granny was trying to take care of her younger children by herself. She had just lost her husband and several months earlier her oldest son was killed at Heart Break Ridge in the Korean War. Overwhelming grief seized her. Two neighbors and a doctor wrote to the military and requested that my Dad be relieved of duty and be sent home to help his mother. The military graciously complied. They could have said something like “Well, that is sad, but this kind of thing happens all the time. We need private Clark for the Korean conflict. Let her neighbors take care of her.” My Granny’s situation was not unique. She was one woman in the midst of many left to struggle with raising children on her own. And the military saw her situation and had compassion.
Luke 7:11-17 is about a very common event and the compassion of the Lord. Jesus, his disciples and a large crowd walked themselves some twenty-five miles south to the city of Nain. This would not have been an easy hike. Nain was located on the southern border of Galilee in the midst of the mountains. This is the only place in the Bible where this city is even mentioned. Why Nain? Did Jesus go specifically for the ensuing encounter? Or was he on his way somewhere else? I cannot answer that question with any amount of confidence. Some, however, do posit the possibility that he made this twenty-five-mile trek purely to encounter a funeral procession. Some also suggest that he did this so that he could tell John in the next section that the dead have been raised. That seems unlikely to me. Whatever drew Jesus to Nain, the story is about compassion.
As Jesus and his crowd approach the city gate, they encounter another large crowd coming out. Picture two large throngs converging on each other. The crowd exiting the city is carrying a dead man on a bier. The word for “carry” is a technical term for carrying a body. They are exiting the city, because a dead body is unclean and most of the time buried outside the city walls. In the crowd of mourners, who were most likely weeping and wailing, as was Jewish custom, was the mother of the dead man. She is what Paul would call a “widow indeed.” This is her only son and her husband is dead. In her world, she cannot go out and get a job to provide for herself. Does she have friends in the city who will make sure she has enough to eat? She has few options. So, on top of her grief, she is surely aware of how hard her life has just become.
When Jesus sees her, he feels compassion for her. Her situation is not unique. Jesus didn’t have to travel all the way to Nain to encounter this situation. It was happening every day all around him. This woman was not the only recent “widow indeed” in the area. Does the common place rob us of compassion? Do we some times say, “Well, that is sad, but it happens all the time”? Can our compassion be minimized by the mundaneness of the situation? I don’t know why Jesus walked to Nain. I know that when he saw a very common event, he was filled with compassion. The word “compassion” is literally “bowels.” We might say, “he was deeply moved by what he saw.” And his compassion drove him to action. First, he told the woman to stop weeping. The word implies loud wailing. And doesn’t this seem like an odd command in the middle of a funeral procession? He then touched the funeral bier, which was a gentle plea for them to stop.
The procession stopped and he said, “Young man, arise!” Up until now we didn’t know he was a young man. Young men die all the time, don’t they? This no-longer-dead young man sat up and began to speak. Can you imagine the reaction in both crowds? Well, we know they were gripped with fear and began to glorify God. They began excitedly talking about Jesus being a great prophet and that God visited or cared for his people. Fear, awe, excitement all swirled among the crowds of people. Jesus gave him back to his mother, which most likely echoes 1 Kings 17:23. It is not that Jesus was the eschatological Elijah. The echo is all about the powerful movement of God; the compassion of God. Just like God had compassion for the widow of Zarephath, he also had compassion for the widow of Nain. And the report of this spread all over the place.
People are hurting. Their situation is common. Don’t let that steal your compassion. We believe in a God who is moved deeply by the plight of widows and the marginalized. It is not that they are rare. Their situation is far too common. And yet God is still deeply moved. Whatever pain you have, God is deeply moved. Whatever pain you witness in others, follow God’s example. Compassion in the common. Grace.