February 5, 2017
A lot of modern folks find the healing stories in the Gospels troublesome. Especially in the cases where Jesus tells the person who is being healed that their faith has saved them, we wonder if those stories have anything at all to say to us today. After all, many people have both great faith and great illness; many people have faith that can move mountains while they can’t move their legs; many people have incredible hope in Christ, but can’t see the sunrise or their grandchildren’s smiles. Where is their miracle? Thus we find the healing stories hurtful, because we’re not seeing that kind of healing around us today, even among people who are committed followers of Jesus.
Some will give explanations that are frankly unsatisfactory: Those stories happened while Jesus was walking the earth in the flesh, and since he isn’t here like that now, we can’t expect such miracles; or that was another dispensation, and the age of miracles is now over. If either of those explanations carries the day, then there’s no point in reading these stories, because they have no relevance whatsoever for our lives today.
A lot of preachers skip the healing stories altogether; but I don’t think we should do that. The healing stories in the Gospels are as much about showing us who Jesus is as they are about an actual healing that took place. We saw that last week when Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, displaying his authority as lord of the Sabbath and giving a foretaste of the wholeness that will be part of the age to come. In Luke’s Gospel, healing stories carry the added duty of proclaiming “good news of great joy…for all the people,” as the angel announced on the night Jesus was born.
So the question we might wish to ask as we approach the two stories in our reading for today is, “Where can we find ‘good news of great joy…for all the people’ in these two healing miracles?”
In the first story, we have a Roman centurion whose slave is sick. The centurion is a representative of the enemy of Jesus’ people. Yet he has apparently been a friend to the Jews in that area, even financing the building of their synagogue; so Jewish leaders intervene with Jesus on his behalf. “He is worthy,” they say, to have you do this for him.
But notice they’re asking Jesus to do something for the centurion, not necessarily for his slave. And the language indicates that the centurion values this slave highly, not because he is a fellow human being who is suffering, but for the work that the slave does for him. So the centurion comes to Jesus with mixed motives, but Jesus sees through them and recognizes his great faith—greater than that of many of his fellow Jews, who continue to argue with him about whether he has the authority to heal, to forgive sins, to decide what may or may not be done on the Sabbath.
Where is the “good news of great joy…for all the people” here? First, Jesus recognizes the faith of a foreigner, even an enemy. And second, Jesus heals a marginalized person, a slave. We might wish that Jesus would also transform the relationship between the centurion and his slave, so they might be brothers rather than one exploiting the other. And who knows? The text doesn’t say, but maybe the centurion, like so many people who are radically changed when they encounter Jesus, does begin to think differently about the people over whom he has authority.
That story is interesting, but given that we don’t have slaves and are not a subject people in a country occupied by a foreign empire, it might have fewer points of contact with our life today than the second one has.
In this second story, Jesus encounters a funeral procession, headed by a widow who is having to bury her only son. In every time and place, a parent having to bury a child upsets the natural order of things; but in the time and place in which Jesus lived, this widow’s plight was much worse than that. A childless widow at that time was about as vulnerable as a person could get. Women didn’t really have any way to support themselves; they were dependent on a man who took care of them—their fathers, then their husbands, and then their sons.
The widow leading the funeral procession out of the town of Nain had been left utterly alone. She had nobody to depend on, nobody to provide for her, nobody who cared whether she had food to eat or a roof over her head. As she walked out of Nain following the body of her only son, she had to have felt utterly lost, and utterly hopeless.
Jesus met up with this parade of despair making its way from the city gate to the cemetery, and he had compassion.
I think we often picture Jesus as calm and serene, almost entirely untouched by what’s going on around him. If he feels compassion, it’s a detached sort of pity that isn’t really involved with the suffering person he’s encountered. That is most emphatically not what we see in the Gospels, especially not in this story.
When it says Jesus has compassion, the Greek word tells us in what part of the body he experiences that feeling. Jesus’ compassion for this desolate woman is gut-wrenching. He enters into this woman’s grief and despair and feels them right alongside her.
And because, as the first story in our reading reminded us, he has authority over sickness and even death, Jesus raises her son from the dead; he sits up, throws off his shroud, and starts talking. (I wonder what he said.)
What’s the “good news of great joy” in this story? This time it seems obvious, at least in some ways. The good news is that Jesus has compassion—deep, gut-wrenching compassion—for people who are suffering. I think, in some cases, it’s very healing and very comforting just to know someone has come alongside us in our hard times.
And you know, that’s where we come in—it’s where we have the opportunity to stop being mere observers and instead become part of the “good news of great joy” we have in Jesus Christ.
We are the body of Christ, you know. We are the ongoing, living presence of Jesus in the world. And as Jesus had compassion for those who were in pain, in despair, hopeless, and marginalized in his time and place, so we also have compassion in our time and place.
We may each be moved to compassion by different things. In some cases, we suffer alongside people who are going through things we have previously dealt with. In other cases, we’re cut to the heart by circumstances we will never experience.
What moves you to the kind of gut-wrenching, deep compassion that Jesus had for the widow he met on the way to the Nain cemetery? Is it the suffering of abused or neglected children? Is it the loneliness of a person who has outlived all their friends? Is it the fear and uncertainty of a family who leaves their war-torn home to seek refuge among strangers? Is it the emptiness that follows a terminal diagnosis? Is it the anxiety and degradation of grinding poverty?
Whatever kind of suffering, whatever kind of need, ties your guts in a knot: that is the place where you could be called to act as Jesus’ hands, feet, heart and voice alive in this world.