Gospel then: “When the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity for her.” In the person of Jesus Christ, we see God’s compassion for our suffering expressed through Christ’s humanity.
Gospel now: As Christ’s apostles today, we should be moved to compassion for our brothers and sisters when they suffer and we should follow our Lord’s example by consoling them attending to their needs.
The Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes teaches us that “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” In today’s Gospel that revelation is made clear to us in the flesh.
Jesus Christ, true God and true man, loves each of us with a human heart. The Gospel tells us, “moved with pity” for the Widow at Nain, he consoles her and raises her son from the dead.
Christ, moved to pity reveals to us that the man God shares in our grief, our sorrow, our hope, and our joy with human and divine emotion, thereby allowing us to participate in his. By showing us how he loves, he teaches us to love. As Christ’s followers, we are called to imitate the Lord through the expression of our love, mercy, and compassion for one another.
We should pay special attention to what Christ does and how he feels before he performs this miracle. When he saw the widow mourning for her son, “He was moved with pity for her.” The Greek word used for “moved with pity” is significant: “esplanknisthe.” This verb is from a noun, which literally means “intestines.” This common verb in Greek thus means to be deeply emotionally and physically moved.
In English, we have similar expressions like to have a “gut feeling” or to have “butterflies in your stomach.” The point to focusing on this verb, which expresses a physical feeling of compassion or empathy, is to note that Jesus Christ, God made man, feels for us the way we feel. That is to say, in a human manner. In his humanity he physically feels and expresses God’s love and mercy for us.
Another significant nuance in the passage we are considering today (Luke 7:11-17) is that most times when Christ performs a miracle, he first asks for a sign of faith. In this instance and in others when he is “moved with pity” (when the same verb esplanknisthe is used), he heals out of compassion.
Christ’s love seeks no recompense. He came to heal, to save, and to give us life. By raising the widow’s son from the dead, Jesus Christ reveals not only God’s power in him, but more importantly who God is. He shows himself as our loving and merciful savior and redeemer. By reaching out to us in the way he does, he reveals what the true nature of love is: Jesus has nothing to gain or lose by having mercy on us, yet he is moved to do so out of the depths of his being, because of who he is and because of who we are to him.
Though we may never be able to comprehend this truth fully, today’s Gospel allows us the insight to see and really feel that this is so.
Today’s passage also hearkens to one of the richest prayers in Christian tradition.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
This ancient prayer, popular in the East, is attributed to the Gospel passage where Jesus heals blind Bartimeus (Mark 10:46-52). The prayer expresses, on the one hand, our faith in Christ’s divinity, healing power, and great mercy, while on the other hand, it attests to our miserable condition as fallen creatures before our God, on whom we depend for our all needs.
Before Jesus heals Bartimeus, the Gospel tells us he was “moved with compassion” (esplanknisthe, again). When we cry out to God in prayer, like Bartimeus, we must also know that he hears us and wants to console us in our sorrow, and that he feels for our sorrow with a loving human heart.
William Blake wrote in The Divine Image (in “Songs of Innocence”),
Mercy has a human heart,
Pity, a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Years later, in another poem by the same title (in the collection “Songs of Experience”), Blake wrote,
Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human dress
Blake’s disenchantment with human nature’s dark side repulses us, because it expresses a sordid truth. The truth is that from a chronological standpoint, the first of these poems should be written last. Because of our fallen nature, cruelty does have a human heart, jealousy a human face… It was for this reason Jesus came to redeem mankind and teach us how to be human through his example and redeem our fallen nature.
For this reason, we still teach the Gospel today. You , a follower of Christ, will be the only New Testament some people ever read — not the gospel of Blake, but the Gospel of Christ, hopefully, when they see Christ’s face in yours through your living, human expression of God’s love, compassion, and mercy.