Fierce Compassion


Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (7:11-16)

Jesus and his disciples came to a small village in Galilee called Nain which still exists. In the time of Christ only a few families lived there. It is an Arab village and not much bigger now. Eusebius the church historian and St. Jerome mention it as near the village of Indur which was destroyed in the 1948 partitioning of Palestine. Nain rests at the foot of the hill called Moreh not far from the Tabor, the  Mount of Transfiguration. 

Here Jesus demonstrates his nearness to us in the details of life. He is present in our eating, our sleeping, our daily chores and in our death.  He warns us not to listen to those who say he is “over there” for he is not someplace else remote from us, he is in us and around us.  Do not look for him anywhere than in your own heart and then you will see him everywhere.

The miracle he performs is not to demonstrate his power, but to heal the widow’s broken heart. God is not interested in power. He does not need to prove himself. The thing he wants us to know is that he cares for all of us personally in every detail of life.

I saw recently a criticism leveled by a very rigid preacher towards Christians who, like me, who are more progressive.  It went something like this:  those so-called Christians believe in a namby-pamby Jesus who loves everybody.

Well, I am happy to agree with him (except for the namby-pamby part) because I do believe that Jesus  loves everybody completely and unconditionally.  The critic’s mistake is that he equates compassion with weakness.  On this I must disagree. Compassion is courageous and strong and sometimes fierce.  It was gentle compassion that healed the broken heart of the poor widow of Nain and fierce compassion that told death, “No, not today!” 

Compassion is how Jesus defeated death forgiving his persecutors and executioners as he suffered.  In a contemporary example, Gandhi brought low the British Empire with his teaching on nonviolent resistance based on a belief in the power of compassion. No, compassion is not weak, it is strong and courageous and fierce.

Jesus chose the way of Compassion even over the scripture. How many times did he tell people, “You have heard that it was said, but I tell you…”?  In other words, “the scripture says this, the law proscribes this, but here is what I say.”  He touched lepers and dead bodies, consorted with women, both prostitutes and foreigners, all of which were strictly forbidden by scripture.   He released his followers from the tyranny of the Sabbath, saying that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. This is what raised the ire of his enemies more than anything.  Clearly Jesus was not a biblical literalist or a legalist.  He released us from the tyranny of religion. I remember Fr. Alexander Schmemann who told us many times, “Christianity is not religion.”  Not, religion, it is life.

I like Frank Schaffer’s take on this from his excellent book WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD.  “Jesus undermined (the idea) of the inerrancy of the scriptures in favor of his version of pragmatic empathy. The message of Jesus’ life is an intervention in and an acceleration of the evolution of empathy.”

So, the Lord of Compassion reached out and touched the bier of the poor widow’s son and raised him from the dead. This was a kind and fierce act of pragmatic empathy stronger than death and stronger than fear.  Jesus, clearly did not let anything stand in the way of love.  Compassion is what drew the common people to Him. It is what separated Jesus from the religious authorities who had lost the respect of the masses. The willingness to walk the way of Compassion is what separates true believers from pretenders.

But we get fooled sometimes because the way of Compassion demands patience and often suffering. Results are not always instantaneous. It seems like compassionate people are often the biggest losers of all. They stand up for things that seem for all the world like lost causes and they get trampled on.  It is because, like Jesus, they are willing to sacrifice everything, including their reputations for the good of others.  Remember, the Lord was crucified by religious people who knew the scriptures inside and out, but who did not understand the “weightier matters of the law” which are to “love justice, show mercy and walk humbly with God.”  That is what compassionate people do. The authorities knew the letter of the law but did not know the spirit of the law. They missed the point so much that the Incarnate Lord stood before them and they condemned him to death for the sake of their reputations and their law.  But compassionate people don’t give up.  They take the long view believing that what is good will triumph in the end.

Here is a wonderful quote from Dr. Martin Luther King that Subdeacon Peter shared with me this week:

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”  That, my friends, is faith.

It takes courage to follow the way of Compassion.  It is the way of detachment from our own desires and of suffering on behalf of others. It is not the way of the world.  We fear this narrow path.  We know that it is the way of the Cross and we don’t want it.  We would rather not empty ourselves or die to ourselves and become, as St. Paul said, the refuse of the world.  We would rather be important, respected, honored and spoken well of than to allow ourselves to be identified and suffer with those who are not.  We care more for our fortunes than we do for our souls or the suffering of our sisters and brothers. “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world and to lose his soul?”  Once again, that is Jesus talking.

Lest you believe that the way of Compassion is joyless and dismal, here is a lovely quote from Pope John Paul II that we would do well to remember, especially when we are tempted to walk the broad path of this world.

"Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and Alleluia is our song."

That is the message of Nain.