2 Pentecost

The Rev. Noel Bordador

I remember one time when I was walking in the streets of Manhattan and I happened to see a homeless man standing by a corner. As I was passing him by, he called on me, saying “Sir, can you help me cross the street.” When I turned around to face him, I saw a man with filthy ragged clothes. He looked very dirty and I bet he had not showered for months. I can almost smell him a few feet away. Honestly, I just wanted to ignore him, I just wanted to run away, pretending that I did not see nor hear his request. But, when I turned around and saw his eyes and heard his weak voice pleading for mercy, he got to me. Despite my own misgivings and my own desire not to com near and touch that man, I just took a long breath in, and tried to hold it in so that I did not have to smell him, and I helped him cross that street ever so slowly. It was the longest street I ever crossed.

I have a favorite saying, “God and love are (sometimes) neither nice or sweet.” I think I have mentioned that saying here before. “God and love are (sometimes) neither nice or sweet.” What it means is that God does not seem “nice” or “sweet” when he asks of us to do something we rather not, like loving people we don’t want to love. Love does not feel so “nice” or “sweet” all the time especially when we aren’t that inspired or motivated to love people we rather not deal with.             

In the Gospel story of Luke (7:11-17) which was just proclaimed a few minutes ago, we hear of Jesus stumbling into a funeral procession. He saw a mother crying because her one and only son died. She was also a widow, which made life so difficult and miserable for her. Since her husband and her only son died, she was now all alone. Secondly, widows are part of the what the Bible calls anawim. The anawim were those who were in the margins of society- the poor, oppressed, orphans and widows. Widows were especially vulnerable. Women were often financially supported by their husband, and their male children. So, a childless widow, like this one in the story, would be in a very pitiable precarious position. Who would support the widow now since her husband and her only child had died?

Now, the Gospel says that Jesus was moved by this sight. Some Bible translations say that Jesus felt “pity” for the mother. Some say Jesus “felt sorry” for the mother. Other translations say that Jesus felt “compassion.” None of these words- “felt sorry”, “pity” or “compassion”- captured the Greek word, splachna. Splachna usually referred to the organs of the heart, lungs, intestines, liver and spleen. In the New Testament, splachna meant an emotion emanating from a person’s very insides, a violent painful visceral gut emotion that almost tore a person “insides.” So my translation would be: “When Jesus saw the mother mourning for her dead son, her one and only son, Jesus felt her pain that it almost tore him inside out.” His deeply felt suffering for the poor woman welled up from the bowels of his emotions, from the depth of his being. And it was this deep sharing of the mother’s pain that propelled Jesus to alleviate her suffering.

So far, so good. That is what we would expect of Jesus. However, there is a spiritual problem presented by this story, a difficulty that is not so obvious to us. In Jesus’ religious tradition, a religious observant person would not dare come near a corpse. To come in contact with a dead person would render one unclean and impure before God. Anyone who had come in contact with a dead person would not be permitted in the inner chambers of the Jewish Temple unless he had performed a ritual of purification lasting no less than seven days. A religious Jew, an observant Jew would not come near and touch a corpse. It would have been perfectly fine for Jesus to do the easy thing, that is to go on his own merry way and not stop to talk to and console a grieving mother, and resurrect her son from the dead.  So, what is Jesus doing near the corpse? He should have been running away to avoid religious impurity and defilement. Instead, we read that he went against the religious norm and practice of his day. He broke the rules. Why? The Gospel explains it. Jesus’ insides were being torn by the suffering of the mother, Jesus’ heart was breaking as he felt the sorrow, pain, suffering and anguish of the woman.

What does this story tells us?

I believe that many times, we are called by the Gospel, of mercy, compassion and love to come to the aid of another fellow human being even if it means going against our own personal desires. Yes, love indeed is sometimes neither sweet nor nice. Love is not always a matter of mood or feeling as if we only can love or ought to show love when we feel good or receive some impulse of inspiration. Love is, above all, a matter of moral duty and it means putting it into action even if we rather not, even if we don’t feel like it. Often, love is not experienced as grace, but as law that places limits on our personal preferences.

And the Gospel also challenges us to work to change unjust societal laws and religious norms that go against the law of mercy and charity as what Jesus did in the story today. Indeed, the law of love is the law supreme any other laws, or rather, all laws must serve the law of love and the cause of justice. Any law that does not promote charity and justice must be challenged and peacefully dismantled. Forty and more years ago, the Black Civil Rights Leader and Minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., sat in jail in Birmingham Alabama and wrote a defense of his action for challenging the discriminatory and racist segregation laws:
There are two types of laws: just and unjust.  I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all." ...  Any law that uplifts human personality is just.  Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. 

This is indeed a difficult message for us this morning for love often demands for us a great sacrifice, even a sacrifice of our own interest and needs. And I am the first to admit that this kind of love does always come easy. It is a struggle sometimes to put the interest of the Gospel before my own. Yet, let us pray then for God to disarm our hearts so that they may truly be open and welcome those who are in need and may call upon us for mercy.