Compassion can transform our society

by Thomas Gumbleton

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Today, as you know, we return to what we call in our liturgical cycle the Ordinary Time of the year. We've just finished the special seasons of Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and now we come back to the Ordinary Times. We take up in a special way during this year the Gospel of Luke. Today we have a very special incident that will help us to really get to know Jesus. Of course, that's one of our main purposes in listening to the Scriptures each week -- that we come to know Jesus better and are then able to interact with him and be influenced and affected by him.

Today's lessons help us to know Jesus first of all as a prophet. It's very clear that the story in Luke's Gospel is very similar to the story in our first lesson today about the prophet Elijah where the prophet came to visit a woman whom he had helped before and found her son dying. He reaches out to help her and returns the son to her, healed. Jesus in the Gospel lesson also is involved in the same sort of incident -- a widow whose only son in this case has died, and Jesus revives him and gives him to his mother.

Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 17:17-24
Psalms 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11, 12, 13
Galatians 1:11-19
Luke 7:11-17
Full text of the readings

There are similarities between the first lesson and the Gospel lesson that bring out the fact that Jesus is very much a prophet in the line of Elijah. That's an important thing for us to know about Jesus -- that he is a prophet, one who speaks the word of God, teaches God's message. The similarities between the two stories are clear enough. In each case, Elijah takes initiative; Jesus takes the initiative in reaching out to help.

In each case, it's a widow whose only son is gone. That's a very tragic thing, especially in the time and culture of Jesus. A widow had no rights, had no source of income, and here she would be responsible for her child. They were totally dependent. In each case, Elijah and Jesus, as one speaking for and acting on behalf of God, reaches out to the widow. There are differences though. In the incident of Elijah, the prophet goes through a series of prayer and actions that revive the child.

He takes him to the guest room, lies down, breathes into his mouth, and gradually restores him to life. In Jesus' case, it's simply a word of command. Jesus says, "Young man, I say to you wake up, arise," and it happens. Also a clear similarity between the two is how both the author of the story about Elijah and Luke say how Elijah restored the young man to his mother; Jesus restored the young man to his mother.

But there's another very significant difference -- whereas Elijah had to do it through prayer and supplication, Jesus did it through an act, a word. But then also the people, because of this, first recognize Elijah as a great prophet who has appeared among the people. But in the Gospel lesson, Jesus says, "A great prophet has appeared among us! God has visited God's people!" Luke calls Jesus "the Lord," which is the post-resurrection term for Jesus as Son of God.

We see the similarities but also the difference. In this case, the main difference surely is the fact that now, in Jesus, we see God acting within human history in a very clear and dramatic way -- Jesus is the son of Mary, but he is also Son of God. Throughout the Gospel, as we continue to read this Gospel, this is going to continue to be emphasized -- how Jesus has come among us as our brother, but also as Son of God.

The more we recognize Jesus as Son of God in our midst, part of our human family but also Son of God, the more we will be drawn to listen to him, and to follow him. But it's not that we're going to be able to do miracles like Jesus did --raise dead people to life, but we're going to follow him in his humanness, be changed in our own human capacity to love and to give to others, to share. In today's Gospel there's a very special characteristic of Jesus that is so important for us to realize, to come to understand, and to make part of our own human way of acting.

Luke says, "On seeing her, the widow with the dead son, the Lord had compassion on her." This is Jesus in his humanness. Surely he was in a good position to show compassion. Compassion means to share with another in their deepest feelings, their sufferings, their joys, to really enter into the emotional, the spiritual life of another person, to share, be with that person. Jesus had compassion on the woman.

He understood, in a sense, from the inside. His own mother was a widow who would have a dead son and Jesus was aware of that. And so Jesus truly felt for and with this woman and teaches us that in our own interaction with other people, we too must always have this sense of compassion, this way of joining with people in their sufferings, in their needs, reaching out to be of help. Perhaps you read this week in the Detroit Free Press the beautiful article by Mitch Albom where he demonstrates exactly what I'm talking about -- having compassion.

A state legislator has proposed legislation that would make it a crime for someone to ask for help from passersby on the street. We're all aware that there are poor people throughout our city, our whole community, people who simply don't have what they need -- food, drink, clothing, and shelter. This legislator wants to make it a criminal act for such a person to seek help from those of us who have what we need.

Mitch Albom describes his own interaction with one of these people on a street corner who is asking for help. But he makes sure that he doesn't just wave at the person or pass by without even acknowledging it. He stops and he talks; he gets to know the person. This is showing compassion, entering into the life experience of another person. He begins to understand a lot about this person, how this man happens to be in such need and how all means of support are gone. He shows compassion, shares with him, gets to know his name.

That's compassion. Instead of saying, "This man is a criminal and should pay a fine." How ridiculous. He has no income, but he's going to be fined? But instead of that, Mitch Album shows compassion. I think that's a beautiful example of what we need to do -- visit some of the churches in our area where a meal is served to poor people, homeless people, get to know some of them, help provide the meal. Or even those on street corners -- stop once in a while, talk to the person, come to know them, understand them, be compassionate.

If that kind of spirit took over in our society, how different it would be. We could make sure that somehow the ever-greater number of poor people begging on our street corners would diminish. We could begin to find the ways to provide what is necessary for every person in our society to share the benefits of the goods that we have actually in such abundance in our society. What a difference this would make.

Today as we listen to the Scriptures and we see Elijah showing compassion, we see Jesus showing compassion, Jesus acting as Son of God but also like us in every way, in being very compassionate, as we see these examples, hear about them, I hope we begin to form an understanding that compassion is truly one of the most significant ways of following Jesus. If we show compassion, we will be very much like Jesus, and we will bring his message of love and joy and goodness more fully into our world.

That can transform our society. It's what Jesus came to do -- to transform our world into as close an image of the reign of God as possible. By becoming compassionate people, we will be sharing in the work of Jesus, changing our world so that gradually over time, it becomes what God intends to happen in human society -- the reign of God where all have what they need and live in peace and joy.

[Homily given at St. Philomena Parish, Detroit, Mich. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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