To understand our scripture today, we need to know a bit about first century Israelite culture. First, funerals practices were nothing like we are used to today. The deceased were typically buried within 24 hours of death because 1) contact with a dead body or anything it touched made one to be ritually unclean and 2) the hot weather of the middle east would cause the body to decompose quickly. So the young man would not have been dead very long. His body would have been washed, anointed with fragrant oils, wrapped in linen, and then carried to the burial site – often a cave or a shallow ditch – on a funeral bier or a litter, not a coffin.
Secondly, we have to understand the economic situation of the widow who is burying her only son. The fact that Luke states, “and with her was large crowd from the town” is an indication that she is a woman of great wealth and prominence. And such families would not only have family and friends, but business associates in the community, as well as hired mourners to accompany the funeral procession as an indication of their high socio-economic status.
At the same time, the loss of her only son puts the widow in an economic crisis. The patriarchal culture of ancient Israel dictated that a widow shall not inherit her deceased husband’s estate. The entire estate is to be passed on to the son – who is to provide for his widowed mother. (Hence the commandment to “Honor thy father and mother.”) If the son later dies, then the entire estate goes back to the deceased husband’s family – leaving the widow with nothing to support herself financially or emotionally. Without a man, a widow is reduced to a poor, hungry, weeping, excluded, nobody by society. She will scrape by through begging or resorting to other, less socially acceptable ways of making money to survive – because this is the system that the male-dominated society put in place for women. And so, this widow not only grieves the loss of her child, she also grieves the loss of her entire livelihood. And so the text says, “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her…”
And this is an important distinction to notice. The focus of Jesus’ compassion is the widow NOT the son. And Jesus’s compassion for the widow is NOT because her son is dead, but because without her son, she will die – socially, emotionally, spiritually, and – eventually – physically. And so Jesus has compassion – which in Greek is splanchnizomai – and is derived from the word for entrails or guts. The Greeks believed that the seat of the emotions was not your heart or your head but your gut. And so for Jesus to experience splanchnizomai is more than "to feel sorry for her.” It’s an emotional response so deep that Jesus physically feels it in the pit of his stomach. This feeling of another’s emotion is what we call “empathy” – to put yourself in someone else’s shoes in order to see, feel, and understand things from their point of view. Jesus feels sick to his stomach upon seeing the widow’s grief due to the unjust economic system of this patriarchal society. Jesus could care less about the son. And despite our constant American Christian concern about getting into heaven, Jesus is more concerned about the widow’s life in the here and now than her son’s life in the hereafter.
And so Jesus breaks all the social norms and biblical regulations concerning funeral rites. He interrupts the woman’s grief, saying, “Do not weep.” And then touches the funeral bier – making himself ritually impure according to the scriptures – and commands the young man to rise. When the young man sits up and begins speaking, Jesus gives him to his mother – giving her back the hope that she needs to live once again.
And this is where the Good News of this text, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, should shake many us to our core. This is why the scripture says about the crowd of the wealthy and prominent attending the funeral that, “Fear seized them all.” The crowd is seized by fear because they realize that there is no escape from the biblically and prophetically mandated responsibility to care for poor among them – not even in death. If anything, Jesus actually tears the son away from the peace and comfort of heaven he already has – where there are no more responsibilities or religious regulations concerning the care of “widows and orphans” – and brings the son back into the physical world where he must continue to hold up his responsibilities as a son and as a member of the privileged class. The comfort of the poor, hungry, weeping and excluded widow is the responsibility of the one who holds the position of privilege. Even death is no escape from the responsibility. Jesus gives the son to his mother so that his privilege might experience the same empathy that Jesus has for the widow. And in experiencing empathy, the widow receives hope of survival once again.
Now you can argue, “But it’s not the son’s fault. He died. The culture, the society is the one who made these rules that kept the widow from having any means to care for herself after her husband and son died. Why should the son be held responsible? Why should the son be denied his right to eternal peace because of the ways of the culture in which he lived?”
And I would agree with you on that to a point. What responsibility does one of greater means have to those of lesser means? And if that’s just the way your world, your culture, your society is, then why is it your responsibility to make sure the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the excluded – all those that Jesus calls “blessed” in the Sermon on the Plain in the previous chapter – why are you responsible for making sure these “blessed” people are cared for?
And those are questions asked by those who struggle with empathy for people in those situations. But if you do not sow empathy within yourself, then you’ll never be able to reap the true hope of Christ. It all goes back to the meaning of the word splanchizomai. Because while for the Greeks, it refers to the guts as the seat of the emotions, for first century Jews, splanchizomai was also understood as a “characteristic of the messiah” – something that indicated the messiah’s presence. And in all the gospels, the word is only used to describe Jesus’ feelings of empathy and compassion. The only other places it is used is in parables of “The Unforgiving Servant”, “The Prodigal Son”, and “The Good Samaritan” and in each case Jesus applies splanchizomai to human figures in order to reflect “the totality of divine mercy to which human compassion is a proper response.”
And since this word is a characteristic of the messiah, NOT a description of human emotion, then you can only experience splanchizomai, you can only experience empathy if Christ is within you. That your own experience of empathy toward another only happens because Christ himself is within you experiencing the same empathy towards the same person. And if you do not feel empathy for those who struggle on the margins, then Christ is not in you, no matter what you confess to believe. It is perfectly possible to say “I believe in Christ” with your mouth while simultaneously denying that belief through your inactions towards the poor, hungry, weeping, and excluded. By denying your responsibility to show them care and compassion. By asking God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
And if you cannot sow empathy within yourself, then you can never reap the true hope of Christ. We think we can because, throughout the ages, the church has constructed this false idea of hope for the purpose of comforting and maintaining the status quo. As theologian Peter Rollins puts it, “Religious conceptions of hope approach it as something safe and secure – as a hope in something that will come to pass and thus doesn’t require our active involvement. It is a hope that encourages passivity, a hope that allows us to accept our current conditions in the belief that something better is galloping over the horizon” (The Divine Magician, 100-101). But hope isn’t passive. Hope is active. And so Rollins goes on to say: “To hope is to head a call – a call to act…To hope is to plant our efforts in a field of risk. It involves committing ourselves to the idea that better is possible, and opening ourselves up to the very real possibility of disappointment and depression…This type of hope isn’t safe” (101-102).
This type of hope may not be safe, may not be secure, may not be comforting, but this is the hope of Jesus Christ as found in the Gospel. This is the hope that transforms lives.
And just as the large crowd responds to Jesus’ active hope with fear, they also respond with praise. That is how you know the Gospel is being proclaimed AND believed: First the Gospel strikes you with fear because it calls you to turn your entire world upside down in order to follow Jesus. To die to yourself. To take up your cross and follow. And only the truly faithful respond to that fear, by praising God. By giving thanks to God for the opportunity to live a fuller and richer life in the here and now, NOT in the hereafter, because of the transforming grace of Jesus Christ. A life where you not only say that you believe in Christ as your Lord and Savior, but where you also live as though Christ is your Lord and Savior. And when you not only believe but also live your faith – you become an agent of active hope – taking responsibility for the promotion of God’s Kingdom in your community because now you have the empathy to see the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the excluded as blessed, just as Jesus proclaimed them to be.
Here are Grace, we are being transformed by our experience of God’s grace in our lives. We are experiencing the presence of Christ within us in ways we never have before. Church is becoming less of a building we go to or something we do on Sundays and is transforming into something that “we are” as a people. We are admitting to our flaws, faults, and failures so that we can be transformed into agents of active hope here in the community. And we can do this because our church’s values define hope as, “Like the Kingdom of God, we know that the best is yet to come and that the best is also here now.” This means that we don’t have to sit back and passively hope for Jesus to bring about God’s Kingdom in the hereafter. We have the time, we have the talent, we have the treasure here and now, already among us. Time, talent, and treasure that God has blessed us with for the purpose of sharing the Reign of God and serving the mission of God right here, right now, in this community.
And over the past year, we have reaped an increasing harvest of hope. As a result, we are growing as a congregation. And congregational growth in the 21st century cannot be measured by worship attendance alone – because the church is so much more than one hour of worship a week. The Church – our church – is also about sharing and serving the other 167 hours of the week. And in 2018 we saw tremendous growth in both our sharing and our serving.
We saw growth in the sharing of our treasure – with 15 new pledges and 21 additional increases to pledges, resulting in an overall growth of over $37,000 for serving God’s mission here at Grace. Remember, stewardship is a spiritual practice – just like prayer, worship, and bible study – and it is the most revealing spiritual practice when it comes to exposing just how much hope one actially has in God to provide. The more active your hope in God’s abundance, the more generous you are in sharing the treasure that God made you responsible for stewarding.
The work of the Seasonal Teams also reveals an increase in the stewardship of our time as a congregation. In just the last year, we went from having three committees of around 16 active members to having 8 seasonal teams with around 63 active members – that’s nearly a 400% increase in members actively serving in the mission and ministry of the church. This dramatic increase in sharing of our time shows just how committed this congregation is to the new mission, the new direction, and the new future hope of this church.
That’s not to say that everything was successful. That’s not to say that everything was easy. There were times where we failed miserably. And all growth come with growing pains – as long time friends quietly made the decision to worship elsewhere. We mourned as we let go of beloved programs in order to make room for new traditions to grow and evolve. And while these things were not easy, it wouldn’t be true Christian hope if there was no risk involved. It wouldn’t be true transformation, true growth, if there were no growing pains. It wouldn’t be a hopeful future if we continued to hold onto the past. As one of our elders put it so hopefully during our last Session retreat – “Today’s changes are tomorrow’s memories.”
I am so proud of the hopeful risks this congregation has taken this past year. I’m proud of the spiritual discernment of the Session as they made hard decisions in order to be faithful to God’s will for this congregation despite the growing pains. I’m proud of the Deacons as they’ve grown in their pastoral skills and worked hard to care for the congregation – especially as we’ve had many members who have been very ill. The Deacons have checked in on people after medical procedures, helped with basic needs, and provided a listening ear and a prayerful heart. I’m proud of the Seasonal Teams and the risks they’ve taken to bring wonderful new and creative ways for us to worship, share, and serve together – new ways for us to experience God’s grace so that we offer grace to others in return.
And I believe that all of this started, because, like Jesus, we shifted our focus away from our own hereafter and towards the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the excluded in the here and now. And in seeing them, we experienced splanchnizomai – empathy for them. And as we started sowing empathy within ourselves, we ALL began reaping hope. Not the comforting, lukewarm, false hope of the status quo, but the risky, dangerous, true hope of Jesus Christ. It was terrifying at first – and some of us are still responding out fear and grief – but the Holy Spirit is moving us towards praise as a congregation as we give thanks to God who called us to act upon this hope – not for our sake, but for God’s sake.
Thanks and praise be to God for the hard work of sowing empathy and the blessing of reaping hope!