Desolation and despair

Pentecost 3 – 2016

Luke 7:11-18

Marian Free

 

In the name of God, who shines light in the darkness, turns despair to hope and raises the dead to life. Amen.

There are a number of images from recent times that are seared into the minds of many of us. For example, think of the desolate picture of an emaciated child who is sitting on his haunches with his head in his hands and beside him is a buzzard just waiting for the child to die. Another picture that has haunted the world in recent times is the heart-wrenching image of young Aylan, the Syrian refugee washed up like flotsam on a lonely beach. Both children were victims of conflicts in which they had no part. Both pictures are confronting images of despair and desolation in a world in which selfishness, greed and a desire for power leads to suffering for the innocent.

I’m not sure that any of us can begin to imagine what it must be like to be a parent in a country devastated by drought or war. We cannot conceive how it must feel to know that we are unable to feed or care for our children. It is impossible to really understand what it must be like to live with the fear that hunger or disease might kill us first and leave our children alone and unprotected in a harsh and uncompromising world. Nor can we envisage the sorts of horrors that lead parents to risk their lives and the lives of their children on dangerous journeys across sea and land.

Few of us will ever know the despair and desolation that characterizes the lives of millions of people throughout the world. Thankfully we will probably never know what it is like to live in on the rubbish tips of Manilla, or to live in constant fear of Isis or Boko Haran. We will not have to live with the constant fear that haunts the slums in countless countries throughout the world. An accident of birth has ensured that we are by and large protected from some of the horrors that are the daily experiences of so many.

Despair and desolation are at the heart of today’s story. It is only in the last century, that women who had no father, husband or son to support them have not faced a life of destitution and isolation. What was true in the memory of some of us was no less true in the first century. A woman without a man in her life was entirely dependent on the charity of others.

In today’s story, Jesus is confronted with a widow who had only one son and now he is dead. She may have had many daughters, but they were no protection against the harshness of the world. If married, they would have been absorbed into their husband’s families. If still at home, they would have been a drain on whatever resources the widow still had.

We know only the bare details of the story. Jesus, for reasons unknown has travelled to Nain. There he observes a funeral procession. Even though the widow is a stranger and the funeral is in full swing Jesus finds himself unable to remain distant and aloof. He “sees[1]” the widow and has compassion on her (and her situation). He interrupts the proceedings and orders the woman not to weep. It is an extraordinary situation. Without invitation, Jesus steps into the woman’s grief and desolation and without being asked he restores the son to life and the child to his mother.

Can you imagine someone entering a church or a chapel at a crematorium and halting the proceedings while at the same time ordering the bereaved not to cry? They would almost certainly have been evicted from the building for being disrespectful and for adding to the family’s distress. This would be equally true in the first century – interrupting a funeral procession and appearing to make light of the widow’s grief would have been social suicide, demonstrating a lack of respect and a failure to understand the gravity of what is going on.

Jesus interrupts anyway. It is almost as if he is compelled to help. He cannot bear to see so much present and potential suffering – especially when he can do something to stop it. Two lives have come to an end – that of the son but also that of the mother. Jesus brings life and hope. He gives a future to the widow and life to her child.

Mass media has made us aware of the enormity of suffering in the world. It is easy to be overwhelmed, to turn off, to feel that there is nothing that we can do to really make a difference. Some issues are so complex that we are at a loss as to how to help we are afraid to interfere in case we make things worse. When suffering does not directly touch our lives, it can be easy to stand aloof – to blame the victim for not doing one thing or another, or for taking a risk that from the comfort of our arm chairs we deem to be to dangerous or unnecessary.

Jesus could not stand apart. While he could not and did not provide hope for every widow in Israel and while he could not and did not heal every Israelite who was suffering from demon possession, disease or infirmity, Jesus did what he could when he could.

You and I cannot, collectively or individually, bring an end to the suffering in the world. We cannot house all the homeless, protect the vulnerable from harm or find a cure for dementia or for cancer. That does not mean that we should do nothing. As followers of Jesus we need to find ways to bring life and hope into situations of desolation and despair. Where we can, we need to disrupt, interrupt the things that are going on around us. By our actions and our words, we need to say that so much suffering should not be the norm.

We need to have the courage to interfere and to challenge the world to follow our lead.

 

[1] In Luke’s gospel, “seeing” has particular significance. Jesus “sees” the whole person, the whole situation.

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