A Rebel With A Cause-
The Story of Luke 7:11-17
by The Reverend Noel E. Bordador
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
- Hosea 6:6 (quoted by Jesus in Matthew 9:13, and Matthew 12:7)
Soon afterwards [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’ This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. (NRSV)
I recently discovered that I might have a tooth cavity or two. To tell you the truth, going to the dentist is not one of my favorite things to do And frankly, I don’t know anyone who are enthusiastic about going to their dentists. For me, a trip to the dentist almost always seem to mean the experience of some discomfort, or, worse, PAIN. But thank God for anesthetic injection that would surely minimize, if not remove, pain.
I once read that when the medical use of anesthesia was introduced in the 1800s, it was not initially welcome by some. There were a few who opposed its use on religious grounds. Some argued that suffering and pain was ordained by God as a punishment for some sins and anesthesia interfered with God’s ordinance. This argument was especially applied against the use of anesthesia in childbirth: A mother must suffer pain because pain and suffering as part of childbirth was God’s will. Pain in childbirth was a punishment for Eve’s disobedience, and this punishment was handed down to all women in posterity. This argument seemed buttressed by a quote from the Bible, Genesis 3:16, which read: “To the woman [God] said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing, in pain you shall bring forth children.’” These so called religious believed that mothers should bring forth children in the world with as much pain as possible to fulfill God’s will and God’s law in nature. There were clergymen who even suggested that should a mother request anesthesia, the infant should be denied Baptism.
While anesthesia had its own defenders, it took a woman, and an Anglican woman at that, to really make anesthesia an acceptable practice. After having given birth to seven children, Queen Victoria, the Head of the Church of England, had had enough of painful childbirth, and so she asked for anesthesia when she delivered her eight child, Leopold. Queen Victoria’s main concern was to alleviate unnecessary pain and suffering- hers and countless other women- and it was this concern to lessen suffering that took precedence over biblical and theological arguments. Reason AND compassion triumphed over biblical fundamentalism and religious narrow-mindedness.
In the Gospel story in Luke 7:11-17, we read of Jesus who stumbled into a funeral procession. He saw a mother crying because of her dead son, her one and only son. She was also a widow, which meant two things: (a) she was now all alone, and (b) widows are part of the anawim. In Scripture, the anawim were those who were in the margins of society- the poor, oppressed, orphans and widows. Widows were especially vulnerable because women were often financially supported by their husband and male children. So a childless widow, like this one in the story, was at a very pitiable precarious position. Who will support her now?
Now, the Gospel says that Jesus was moved by this sight. Some Bible translations say that Jesus felt “pity” for the mother. Some say Jesus “felt sorry” for the mother. Other translations say that Jesus felt “compassion.” None of these words- “felt sorry”, “pity” or “compassion”- captured the Greek word, splachna. Splachna usually referred to the organs of the heart, lungs, intestines, liver and spleen. In the New Testament, splachna meant an emotion emanating from a person’s very insides, a violent painful visceral gut emotion that almost tore a person “insides.” So my translation would be: “When Jesus saw the mother mourning for her dead son, her one and only son, Jesus felt her pain that it almost tore him inside out.” His deeply felt suffering for the poor woman welled up from the bowels of his emotions. And it was this deep sharing of the mother’s pain that propelled Jesus to alleviate her suffering.
So far, so good. That is what we expect of Jesus. However, there is a spiritual conundrum presented by this story, a conundrum that is not so obvious to us. In Jesus’ religious tradition, a religious observant person would not dare come near a corpse. To come in contact with a dead person would render one unclean and impure before God. Anyone who had come in contact with a dead person would not be permitted in the inner chambers of the Jewish Temple unless he had performed a ritual of purification lasting no less than seven days. So, what is Jesus doing near the corpse? He should have been running away to avoid religious impurity and defilement. Instead, he seemed to have gone at great lengths to break religious tradition Why? The Gospel explains it. Jesus’ insides were being torn by the suffering of the mother, Jesus’ heart was breaking as he felt the sorrow, pain, suffering and anguish of the woman.
mercy, or call it love, led him to break the religious tradition.
There is an implicit warning for us in the Gospel today. All religious laws, rules and traditions must serve the cause of love and charity. That is, all religious rules, laws and traditions must lead us to be more humane, more compassionate and deeply merciful. The difficulty is that we often make many religious laws and traditions that prevent us from fully loving God and one another. We make many religious rules that make it hard for us to be compassionate and merciful to others. We make many religious laws and rules that contribute to unnecessary suffering and pain in the world. We have religious laws and traditions that make us look down on others. We have religious traditions that deny others a ready access to God. This continues to this day. Let me give a current example in my own Anglican heritage. In the Anglican Communion, many want to deny the Episcopal Church a membership in the Anglican Communion in the name of religious tradition. Many of our Anglican brothers and sisters in Asia, Africa and South America want us expelled because the Episcopal Church, in our communal wrestling with Scripture, came to the understanding that the Jesus’ message of God’s inclusive love for all must mean full acceptance of gays and lesbians in the Church. Deeply taking seriously and struggling with some of the passages in the Bible that seem to exclude homosexuals from God’s love, we have nevertheless arrived at the following conclusion. The so-called anti-gay passages in the Bible do not reflect adequately the liberating and inclusive love of God in Christ in the same way those passages in the Bible that approved of slavery
(e.g., Philemon) or the degradation of women (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:11f) do not reflect the love of Christ even though these “ unholy texts of injustice” are in the Holy Bible! Yet, for this, many are calling for our expulsion.
Inside my Book of Common Prayer, I have inscribed long ago these words from Saint Paul, “Plenitudo legis est dilectio.” Love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10). God’s merciful love, God’s love that is compassionate, God’s love that is just, God’s love that is for inclusive, God’s love is THE law, the highest law that is the basis of all human laws and rules, including Church laws. I wrote it to remind myself, a priest of God, that my job is not to make religious rules that would make it hard for people to feel and access the love and mercy of God. Religious and spiritual people are in a dangerous position to be seduced by the Evil One to make rules and laws that would make us less tolerant of others, less compassionate, less merciful, and less just. Our history is so replete with such examples. This saying- love as the goal of all laws- serves for me as a warning, and a warning that we all would do well to heed.
© 2007 Noel E. Bordador
The Reverend Noel E. Bordador is a queer Filipino Episcopal worker-priest in the Diocese of New York.
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