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Sympathy Cripples; Compassion Liberates

In the Gospel assigned for Sunday, Jesus is walking toward a town called Nain when he notices a funeral procession. A man who’d died was being carried out.

Funerals are sad enough, but this man was his mother’s only son.

Losing one’s only child is bad enough, but the dead man’s mother was already a widow.

Keeping in mind that in ancient Palestine, the only “social security” one had was one’s family, the death of this woman’s only son meant that from now on, and for the rest of her life, no one would care for her, or about her.

Why? The belief system of the day was misfortune of this magnitude must mean that God is punishing her…she must have done something (the thinking went) to have fallen out of God’s favor, or she wouldn’t be suffering so.

Lest we think we’ve overcome that kind of bad theology: I’ll bet a fair number of people reading this believe that God rewards us human beings for good behavior and punishes us for bad behavior. That’s what’s called a “celestial Coke-machine God” -- put in the right amount of coins, hit the right button, and out pops the beverage of your choosing.

Even those who know better fall into that kind of thinking: if we only put in the right kind or amount of prayer, out will pop an answer. If we only put in the right amount of effort, out will pop a result.

But in the Gospel story appointed for Sunday, as he does throughout the gospels, Jesus subverts this world view. Turns it on its head.

Completely rejecting the dominant religious view of his (and of our) day, he is filled with compassion for the widow.

Not sympathy, which would leave her in the state she was in.

But compassion.

Jesus is filled with compassion, which always has an element of fate-changing action to it.

And we -- as the Body of Christ here and now -- are called to stop crippling people with our sympathy, and instead help change their fate with compassion.

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