The Scandal of the Compassionate Way

widow's sonBy Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson

Luke pairs last week’s shocking Gospel passage (7.1-10)about loving enemies with an equally shocking one this week about the resurrection of a widow’s son (7.11-17). Part of the shock this week is in how matter-of-factly Luke narrates Jesus doing the seemingly impossible.

Consider how different this brief passage is from the elaborate Johannine story of the raising of Lazarus. There, the narrator and Jesus together walk us through the various characters’ attitudes toward death. The dead man’s two sisters are portrayed as caught between anger and frustration over Jesus’ failure to show up in time to save Lazarus from death on the one hand, and a seemingly impossible hope that “even now” Jesus can do something for their dead brother (John 11.21-22). Luke, however, presents the restoration of life to a widow’s only son as an almost routine element of his messianic ministry, echoing a similar action by the prophet Elijah (1 Kg 17.8-24).

One possible reason for Luke’s simple narration and placement here of such an amazing deed is to set up what follows immediately after the healing: the sending by John the Baptist of two of his own disciples with the question, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” (Lk 7.18-19). We’ve already seen how Luke’s John the Baptist is “Elijah” (Lk 3.16-17), fulfilling the role anticipated by the prophet Malachi in the Hebrew Bible’s closing verses:

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Mal 4.5-6)

Of course, only Luke portrays John and Jesus as relatives and claims that John recognized Jesus in the womb. This makes John’s question especially startling, even as Luke takes the time for readers to hear it twice (7.19, 20). Jesus’ response clarifies what is at stake: the nature of his “messiahship.”

John’s question and Jesus’ response are also found in Matthew (11.2ff). But here, the narrative placement juxtaposes their exchange with the raising of the widow’s son, befitting Jesus’ summary of what the people “have seen and heard…the dead are raised” (Lk 7.22). But even in Jesus’ litany of his deeds, the raising of the dead is not the culmination of the sequence, but rather, an echo from Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Nazareth: “the poor have good news brought to them” (7.22, echoing 4.18).

John, too, sought “good news” for the poor, as his initial exhortations to economic sharing and rejection of imperially-sanctioned power make clear (3.11-14). But it seems plain that John also imagined that the messiah whose coming he was divinely charged to proclaim would be from the traditional, Davidic warrior mold, an idea that Luke has tantalizingly allowed to linger in the minds of his characters and audience (e.g., 1.32-33; 1.69-74; 2.11). Jesus’ response to John’s question challenges this assumption by presenting a radically different messianic agenda, one that pairs love of enemies with power over death itself.

Jesus’ mission was and remains a “scandal” to those who continue to associate divine power with “big” actions (7.23). We can easily imagine that John was as shocked as we ought to be by Jesus’ positive response to the Roman centurion’s request for Jesus to heal his slave. We might also imagine John being shocked at the “waste of time” involved in Jesus’ attention to the needs of an anonymous woman of the crowd (cf. 8.41-47). Luke portrays John in a way all-too-familiar to radical discipleship-type folks: the resolute, determined prophet who risks all for the cause but seems too busy or too preoccupied to care for an ordinary person or to sit down at table and break bread over a few glasses of wine (7.33-34). Jesus, on the other hand, recognizes the scandal of his own practice of all-inclusive table fellowship, that violates the boundaries established both by the elite and those who stand against the elite in resistance. Each side’s investment in “us vs. them” is precisely what Jesus has come to break down.

This place of radical inclusion is the “reign of God,” and John, Jesus says, is not “in” it (7.28). It is motivated by “compassion,” a word that in the original Greek describes churning guts (splagchnizomai; also, Luke 10.33; 15.20). It’s use here in relation to a suffering widow anticipates his later critique of a parabolic judge (18.3-5) and the scribes (21.2-3) for ignoring or abusing the claims and rights of widows. In other words, Luke implies, it is not destruction of the powerful, but compassion for the poor, that manifests God’s realm in the world (see also 9.54-55).

For all our commitment to the radical Gospel, do we not remain scandalized by Jesus’ messiahship? Are we not tempted to raise up more as models those who challenge the powerful with strong words and actions than those who quietly offer healing to the marginalized? Of course, there is a both/and here, not an either/or: Jesus frequently confronts the authorities and the powerful. But it seems to us that Luke places the healing of the widow’s son here, between the story of the centurion and John’s challenging question, to remind us of the “routine” nature of the daily acts of compassion that manifest God’s reign at least as clearly as more dramatic acts of public witness.

Certainly the apostle Paul, whose self-narrated conversion is matched with this week’s gospel (Gal 1.11-24), understood this as the heart of his own transformation. The one who had been “violently pursuing the church of God and was trying to destroy it” (Gal 1.13) came to know, via his apocalyptic experience (1.12), the truth of Jesus’s scandalous Way. His letters show how putting on the “new mind” of Christ (Phil 2.5) led him also to call for enemy love (Romans 12.20) and compassion for all (Phil 1.8; 2.1). It is Paul, not John the Baptist, who becomes the model of discipleship in his rejection of the power of violence in favor of the power of divine love.

The late Daniel Berrigan also came to know and to practice this powerful truth. While more famous for burning draft files and denouncing war, Dan also quietly spent countless hours with the poor, especially victims of AIDS when many “Christians” were declaring AIDS to be God’s punishment against “sinners” (see his beautiful, poignant and powerful book, Sorrow Built a Bridge: Friendship and AIDS). Perhaps if John the Baptist had not been so quickly beheaded by Herod, he might also have come around to see the holy wisdom embodied in those whose hope for the world is manifest in compassionate care for people in immediate need (Lk 7.35).

May we be among those not scandalized by the compassionate Way of Jesus in daily life and among those who respond joyously to the sound of the flute calling us to the Dance at the center of God-with-us (7.32).

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