Compassion and Healing

Scriptures: Luke 7:1-17; Psalm 119:105-112

As we begin our study today in the Gospel of Luke, I just want to say that while I am a firm believer in the day of the Lord and the resurrection of the body, if I’m ever doing a funeral here and the corpse sits up, I’m beating you all to the door.

As noted by the liturgist, these two stories, in the passage we read today, go hand in hand, and they are an interesting pairing. I’d like to point out some things of note about both of these instances, to help us frame it a little better now, and perhaps understand it a little deeper.

The first thing I want to mention is that we have the word “centurion” used. This tells us a lot about this man. First of all, he was a Roman, and probably a pagan (at least at birth). He may have been a “God-fearer,” since he had helped the Jewish people build the synagogue – and donated enough that the leadership felt beholden to him. After all, they were the ones who asked Jesus to heal the centurion’s slave.

He was a man, however, who was an outsider, a Gentile, and would never be allowed in the inner courts of the Temple. He was separate from the people of God.

But he understood the “holiness” of a prophet – and the authority of someone who could claim “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” He related that to his own authority in responding to Jesus’ assent to come. And it is remarkable to hear his humility.

Jesus marvels at the centurion’s faith. And I have to say that, as wonderful as that faith was, as good as that healing was, I’m not sure that it wasn’t a barb, a little bit, to the leaders who had asked him to heal the centurion’s slave.

What Jesus does when he turns around, is he says, “I have not seen any faith this great in all of Israel.” So apparently this Gentile, outsider, God-fearing person had more faith than the people of God. Think about that for a moment.

As to the widow of Nain, we have no idea who she was, or how Jesus knew of her. The town of Nain is so small that the nearest “big town” is Nazareth. (Remember, Nazareth only had about 200 to 250 people. It was much smaller than Wapello or even Morning Sun.) Probably Nain had thirty to fifty people, or two to five extended families. So I find it fascinating where it talks about a “large crowd” following her – it was probably everybody in town

Given its size, that is, of Nain, she is probably a Jewess, and now completely alone – and possibly destitute. Remember, during that day and age that Jesus was here, women were second-class citizens. I know we see some examples in the Scriptures, like Dorcas and Lydia, there were very few women who were independently wealthy or who owned their own business.

Most of the time, you were dependent upon your husband or your father to provide for you. Or your son, in the case of a widow. We know she had lost her husband already. Now she lost her only son. So presumably she had no means of income whatsoever. It is this understanding that the Jewish people had that led God to give them the commandment to take care of the widows and the orphans, because they could not care for themselves.

Now a couple of observations about these passages. While at the request of the Jewish leaders, we see God here responding to the faith of Gentiles. This would seem unthinkable to most Jews – despite the wealth of evidence in their own histories that God does so (for instance, Rahab the prostitute, the widow at Zeraphath with Elijah, and Naaman with Elisha).

I would note that Jesus did not arrive in Nain by accident, in my opinion. It was too small a town, and the timing was too perfect. As with Lazarus, when he stayed away for two days, but showed his love for his friend in his tears even as he followed the will of the Father in waiting, so in this case his heart was moved with love and compassion for the widow that all through the Torah God claims to be partial to.

So together in these two stories in this passage, we see Jesus showing God’s mercy and grace to the widow and the outcast, completely consistent with everything we hear about and read about in the Old Testament.

But as we hear about this story of the healing, and even raising from the dead, there are questions that at least I have struggled with this past week. This season is not the easiest time for me. My father died twelve years ago on New Year’s Day, and it impacts for a while afterward, and after twelve years I have not forgotten it. He died in a car accident, suddenly.

So I struggle with this question that some people might have: What do we do with those who have faith at least as great as that of these two individuals, but who didn’t see their son or daughter or mother or father or friend healed? What do we do if we have faith as great as these two individuals, but we have suffered the sudden death of someone close to us? And we ask, “Why?” Why did God take him or her?

It’s a question that’s been asked throughout all time, and much has been written about it. We have a book by a rabbi, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? There are countless books on suffering and evil and pain. And it is still something to be struggled with.

As I struggled with this and I came to an understanding, I can’t say that I understand it in its entirety. I can’t say that I can give you a pat answer. If you’re looking for that, I am sorry, as your pastor I have failed you.

But I can tell you this. The plan of the Father is often more than we can grasp; but always it will be to the praise of His glory. Even Jesus struggled at times with the will of the Father. In the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed, “If it’s possible, take this cup from me. Nevertheless, thy will be done.” He was scared. He knew what was coming. Don’t think for a moment he didn’t.

When he was told Lazarus was sick, and he waited those extra two days; Jesus wept when he got there, and probably wondered why he had to put Mary and Martha through the same kind of pain that we have sometimes felt. Just look at Martha’s tortured statement to Jesus, and you know what she was feeling. “If you had been here, he would not have died.” He would have been healed.

Yet we know that Jesus not only had compassion for her, but loved that whole family deeply. He gave Martha two answers — one that got her thinking about who he was, and the second (given in his prayer) that the Father might be glorified.

He did that as he said, “Do you believe in the resurrection?” And she said, “I believe in the day of resurrection, yes.” And he said, “I am the resurrection and the life… He who believes in me will never die.” Then when he was saying his prayer, before he called Lazarus forth, he said, “I know why you have asked me to do this, Father, that you might be glorified.”

There are a couple of other examples in the Scriptures. There is a man born blind, and the disciples asked whose sin caused his blindness. That was the thought of the day, that if you were born with something like that, it was a curse from God and it was caused by sin.

So it was a totally reasonable question as far as they were concerned, to ask whose sin caused the man to be born blind, his parents’ or his. I am sure both the man and his parents had asked themselves many times why God was doing this. Jesus tells the disciples the man’s blindness was neither party’s sin, but that God might be glorified.

In another story in the Gospel of John, a man was paralyzed for 38 years. He sat next to the Pool of Siloam, and it would bubble up, from what I remember of what I have read, and people would go rushing into the water for healing when the waters were bubbling. But he was paralyzed and he could never make it to the pool on time.

Jesus was walking by and saw the man. He asked the paralyzed man a question: “Do you want to be healed? And the man said, “Yes.” It wasn’t as straightforward a question as you might think, given the customs of the time, the age of the man, and his family. After all, no more begging. How do you learn a skill this late in life?

For both the blind man and the paralyzed man, how does the family interact now? Relationships have to be completely readjusted. And what about the rest of the town? What will the leaders say? In the case of the man born blind, we know – we see it a little later in that story, that they were not pleased, when they asked who healed him and he told them Jesus. And God was glorified.

Jesus addressed this issue, this struggle, directly in Nazareth, when He read the scroll from Isaiah (do you remember from three weeks back or so?). While we focus on his meaning there, telling the Nazarenes that God would show them no special favor, and would in fact even be offering healing to their enemies and Gentiles and others who they felt didn’t deserve it, at its core it is the same question we always struggle with — why did God heal some, and not others? Why did God put my mother through the debilitation of cancer early in life, or take my father so abruptly in his car accident?

As I said, I don’t know the answer in full, and I am in good company. But this much I am sure of. God has compassion upon us, and is loving us all through the pain of our experience and our questioning. That was always His promise. He strengthens us, gives us perspective, and gives us a hope that cannot ever be taken away from us — the assurance that we will see loved ones again, and that they are with Him in a place that we can only imagine and want to go to ourselves someday.

He showed that love and compassion ultimately on the cross as Jesus suffered and died for our sins, so that we might be cleansed and have that hope, and then was raised again so that we might have new life and be new creatures in Jesus, trusting in Him. The Father did not even prevent His own Son from suffering for us.

The second thing I am sure of is that somehow, in some way, if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and focus on Him and His love for us, God will be glorified. That is always the other part of it. In each case of healing that we see in Scripture, it was for the Father’s glory that it happened.

If we love God, then we have to believe that likewise if our loved one wasn’t healed, then it must be for the Father’s glory in some way. There is a plan. The blind man had no clue it was coming. The paralyzed man waited 38 years for it to come to fruition. We may not see the fruition of this plan and understand it this side of eternity, perhaps, but we must trust that it is so.

We remember that God did not prevent His own Son from suffering, every time we take Communion. We recognize the love God had for us, in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup. The sacrifice God made so that we could be with Him

As we struggle with those moments of pain and loss, in those moments perhaps, the healing God offers is for us. The mercy God shows is on us. The promise God has is for us. The compassion God has is for us. He weeps with us even as Jesus wept with Mary and Martha, and his soul is pierced even as it was with the widow of Nain.

He strengthens us, such that others might marvel (even as Jesus did with the centurion) at our faith, and desire to know its source and experience the blessed assurance that we have come to know in Jesus Christ.

God is with us. He is with you now. May your life reflect the assurance and comfort and hope that God has promised to each one of us, that we might reflect the love of God to others, and they might come to know Jesus as well. And they too can experience that compassion in their time of need.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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