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Tenth Sunday of the Year

Compassion Personified

In The Green Mile a popular film made in 1999 adapted from a Stephen King novel, a convicted murderer on death row has an unusual gift. His body is able to give life by absorbing sickness, even terminal disease. It may have been the striking accounts of Elijah and Elisha’s miracles that inspired this theme. In the first reading Elijah not only has the gift of prophecy, his whole body is capable of acting as an instrument of divine power. This indicates complete spiritual integrity. Not only does the prophet speak on behalf of God, his whole being is a channel of divine compassion.

In the eyes of this poor widow of Zarephath Elijah’s power of healing endorses his authority as a spokesman for God. His first miracle of providing the widow with an endless source of food is not enough to convince her. Steeped as she is in superstition, she at first attributes her son’s illness to the presence of this stranger in her home. But when her son is restored to health she is sure at last that Elijah is a man of God.

Elijah’s miracle invites comparison with the miracle performed by Jesus in today’s gospel. There are obvious similarities. St Luke is aware that the widow of Nain reminds us of the widow of Zarephath. In Luke’s gospel the Lord is clearly seen as a great prophet and his miracles recall those wrought by Elijah and Elisha.

In touching the bier, Jesus deliberately ignores the ritual uncleanness of the dead body. St Luke also wants us to see the significant differences between the power of Elijah and that of Jesus. In the case of the widow of Zarephath it is not altogether clear that the child is dead. There is no such uncertainty in the case of the son of the widow of Nain. Evidently, Jesus is much greater than Elijah; he has raised a dead man and he has done this merely by speaking a few words to the corpse. St Luke is implying that Jesus is more than a mere instrument of divine power.

The raising of the widow’s son is not only proof that Jesus has direct access to divine authority; it also gives us an extraordinary insight into divine compassion. There is no indication that Jesus is concerned about the dead man himself. This is a miracle performed not for the sake of the son but for the sake of his mother. What matters to Jesus is her well-being. Without her son she would have been left with no means of support and no one to comfort her in her old age. So the raising of her son tells us that God is not only concerned with our ultimate destiny but also with our present needs in our life on earth. Jesus reveals the concern of a God who knows our needs better than we do. In his letter to the Galatians St Paul describes his own sense of intimacy with this caring God ‘who had specially chosen me while I was still in my mother’s womb’.

The widow of Nain’s son will eventually die again but his raising has served more than one purpose because it has also brought the Lord’s mission to the attention of the widow and her friends; Luke tells us that news of this miracle is even heard ‘throughout Judaea’.

The raising of the widow’s son also casts light on something less obvious – the love that Jesus has for his own mother. The gospels tell us little about the feelings that Christ had for his mother and there are moments when he seems to be insensitive to her needs. It is inconceivable that the man who showed such compassion to a complete stranger would not have been anxious about the fate of his own mother. And so this miracle helps us to understand that moment before his death when Jesus entrusted his own mother to the beloved disciple. The image of the widow of Nain mourning her son must surely make us think of Golgotha and another mother’s grief; a grief that at this point in the gospel still lies ahead.

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