A Provocation: Third Sunday After Pentecost: Luke 7:11-17

7:13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”  14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”

A Few Questions:

  • Is it a good idea for translators to make Jesus the obvious subject of every sentence?
  • What happens if the focus in this scene (and others) is on the people around Jesus?

Some Longer Reflections:

The turning point in this little scene comes when Jesus approaches the dead young man, speaks to him, and he rises from death.  But this turning point takes place because Jesus sees the mother, has compassion for her, and speaks first to her.

This is true in the English translation and in the Greek original.

But English translators have taken pains to emphasize Jesus’ centrality.

This is not particularly surprising, I suppose.  This scene comes to us from a Christ-ian gospel, and is read in Christ-ian congregations, by and for CHRIST-ians.  One ought expect the spotlight to be focused on the Christ.

And Jesus, at least for Christians, is the only Christ, and therefore the only proper theological focus.


If you only read the NRSV, you would imagine that the main verb of the sentence was “saw” and that the simple sentence in this verse was: “The Lord saw her.”

But the Greek is a little more interesting than that.  In Greek, Jesus is indeed the subject of the main finite verb in verse 13, but that verb is the word for “having compassion.”  The simple sentence in the verse, therefore, is “The LORD had compassion on her.”  You can tell that is the main action in this verse because the subject of the sentence (“the LORD”) sits right next to the main verb (“had compassion”).

The whole business about seeing the mother is, in the original Greek, expressed with a circumstantial participle, which sets the main action of the verse (expressed in the simple sentence at the heart of it all) in its decisive context.  So, the verse is best translated as “Upon seeing her, the LORD had compassion on her and he said to her, “Do not weep.”
This may seem to be a picky little point, but notice that the participle ties the simple sentence back to the visual scene of the previous verse.  The storyteller tells us that the scene takes place in Nain, that traveling with Jesus are disciples and a large crowd of other followers, and that they are approaching the gates of the city.

Then the storyteller says: “Look…”

This is a sure cue for the audience to pay careful attention to what we see.  “Look (in Greek, ἰδοὺ),” says the storyteller: “he is being carried out, a dead man is being carried out.  He is the single son born to his mother.  She is a widow.  A sizeable crowd from the city is with the widow.  Upon seeing (in Greek, ἰδὼν) her, the LORD had compassion on her.”

The one we are supposed to see is the widow.  That is who Jesus sees.  But the translator only sees Jesus, which may explain why the word, ἰδοὺ (which is the command to “Look”) is not translated.  It is always interesting when translators omit words.

But it is the widow that Jesus sees.  And it is to the widow that the storyteller points.

I have noticed that supposed “faith-healers” make sure that you see them.  This is not surprising.  If they aren’t the center of attention, no one will know to come to their next crusade, their next miracle festival.

I have noticed that acquaintances of mine have developed ways of pointing to themselves even when they claim to be pointing out the accomplishments of others.

I have noticed that I am susceptible to the same thing.  Maybe we all are.

But the storyteller notices the mother, the widow, the woman.  So does Jesus.  So should we.

And, while we’re in the neighborhood, that is who the prophet Isaiah notices when he speaks the prophecy that the storyteller clearly sees as the background for this little scene.  Look ahead to verses 19-22.  John has sent two of his disciples to determine if Jesus could be the “one who is to come,” or not.  Jesus’s response is straight out of Isaiah (chapter 35, for instance).  There, too, the words focus on the people who need healing and wholeness, not on the “one who is to come.”  The prophet sees the people who are blind, the people who cannot walk, the people who cannot hear, the people whose hearts are broken.

This matters.

Jewish hope, as revealed in these scenes, is not focused on the coming of a miracle worker, no matter how flashy  those miracles might be.  Neither is the focus is not on the amazing ability of that miracle worker.  The focus is on the human need.

And Jesus sees that need and responds.  In particular, Jesus sees the woman, the widow, the mother.

And he “had compassion” on her.

The word in Greek for having compassion is ἐσπλαγχνίσθη, which implies that he felt the need of the mother in his gut (σπλαγχνα).

Years ago, I invited Judith Rock, a dance-theologian who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York to speak as a part of an event I was organizing at Augustana University, where I teach.  Rock argued that no one should interpret the Bible until they had been to the circus.  That caught people’s attention.  She meant, in particular, a circus with a high-wire act.  She noted that sometime in every performance the tightrope walker would bobble, just for a moment.  At that moment, the entire audience would gasp, thus revealing the most important truth of human being: we are all linked at the gut.  That is what the Greek verb, ἐσπλαγχνίσθη, means.

Upon seeing the mother, the widow, the woman left without support, Jesus gasps, experiencing the deepest truth of our life together: we are all linked at the gut.  This is good news.  This is always the good news.  Even for Christ-ians, the point is seeing and healing people who are part of a broken Creation, not that we see the Christ.   (This, by the way, is also the point that Jesus makes in Matthew 25, where both the sheep and the goats report that they never did see Jesus among the sick, naked, or imprisoned people that surrounded them.)

May it be said of us and of our communities that we saw, and acted on, the human need around us.  May it be clear that we knew that we are all linked at the gut.  And after we have lived out our lives and responsibilities, may it be said of us all (Christ-ian or not): “God has looked favorably on his people.”




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