When the Lord saw her, his heart overflowed with compassion. “Don’t cry!” he said. Luke 7:13 NLT
There is a story about Jesus coming to a village called Nain, in Galilee. There was a funeral procession coming out of the village as he approached, and the man who had died was the only son of a widow.
There is nothing to indicate that Jesus knew this woman. She was overwhelmed by her grief and was probably only slightly aware of the crowd coming into Nain as she and her friends made their way in the opposite direction, to the burial place.
Jesus may well have asked the people around him who she was. He may well have been told her story, and he thus became aware of her plight. To be a widow in ancient Israel could not have been easy. For at that time a woman’s value in society was so often determined not by herself, but by the men in her life. She had already lost her husband, who had given her both social standing and economic security. Now she had lost her only son, whom she loved.
Who was this son she had lost? The text says he was a young man. There is no indication that he was married or had his own family. There is no indication of what he did, or what he was like, or what had happened to him, only that he was dead. Presumably he lived with his mother and provided for her from whatever work he did. Presumably his death was not only a deeply distressing blow for her emotionally, but also economically. The future she was faced with was one of loneliness and poverty.
When Jesus restored her son to life he was addressing both her emotional needs and her economic needs. It is easy sometimes to think that Jesus is only concerned for our spiritual needs, our eternal salvation. But this story challenges that notion. He did not challenge her spiritually, he did not invite her to put her faith in him. He simply responded to her need and her pain. With compassion.
This story says so much about Jesus. It says that he saw and cared deeply for the plight of women in a society that saw them as second rate citizens. We live in a world even today where many women feel that they are undervalued simply because they were born female. We live in a world where if women are valued it is often because of their youth and beauty, or sexual potential, rather than for their humanity. Jesus was not like that. He valued women as highly as he valued men, not for how they looked, or what they could be used for, or what they produced, but simply because they were people. He paved the way for the feminist movement that has changed our world over the last hundred years.
The story also says that Jesus cared both about people’s physical needs and their emotional needs. He knew the implications of this boy’s death for the older woman. He knew that there was little chance she would find another man to be with her or provide for her at her stage in life. He knew she would be lonely. He knew she needed her son. He responded to that need. He is still the same. He sees our needs, and he cares about them, and he intervenes in our lives to help us, if we let him.
Doctors are faced every day with both the physical and emotional needs of people who present to them. Traditionally it is physical illness that is our thing. But in my day to day work it seems emotional and psychological needs are often the bigger burden for people. I live and work in a society where physical illness is still a huge threat to people’s sense of wellbeing, and I have an arsenal of medical interventions to help them fight those battles. Partly because of that, in this age of human history we live longer and healthier than ever before.
But there is an epidemic of emotional and psychological illness which is harder to address. Yet such illnesses affect people’s wellbeing just as deeply, perhaps even more, than their physical maladies. Sometimes it seems that this is the most depressed and anxious age that humanity has ever known. In a few weeks I will attend a day long workshop on suicide prevention. Depression is killing young and old in our society, and anxiety is paralysing many, holding them in bondage.
Jesus cares about this. He will intervene, if we allow him. As doctors we have limited resources to respond: medications to try to alter our patient’s brain chemistry, a referral pad for psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors, to provide more specialised therapies. But as a doctor who has grown up in the knowledge of how Jesus can change our outlook and response to our psychological and emotional burdens, I am often struck by how much more I have to help me through the struggles of life than the many people I meet who have no faith.
However, I live in an age and a social context that frowns upon, even forbids me in many cases, from telling people of the hope and healing I have found in knowing Jesus, and this is a struggle for me. I am told that to share my faith is unprofessional, and an abuse of the trust people place in me, unduly applying pressure on people to change their belief system. It is because Jesus is seen as a religion, and not as a person. Religion can be so divisive, and has done so much damage, so the thinking goes. I could say Jesus is not a religion, but a person… but that is a difficult discussion.
In my context the main thing for me to do is treat people in the way Jesus treats me, and then leave the rest to him. I cannot heal people miraculously, or raise them from the dead, much as I would like to. But I can, like Jesus, treat all people with respect, regardless of sex or ethnicity or age, regardless of wealth or appearance or achievement, regardless of their “goodness” or “badness” in the eyes of society. For every one I can be as concerned for their emotional, economic and psychological needs as I am for their physical illness, even if I often feel powerless to “fix them.”
The key, I believe to being like Jesus in my job, it not to follow his example in raising people from the dead, or miraculously healing the sick, as much as I would love to be able to do so. The key lies in adopting the attitude of Jesus toward the people he met. This story tells us that Jesus’ heart “overflowed with compassion.” “Don’t cry,” he said. This is the example I need to follow, for this kind of attitude changes lives. Yet it is so easy not to care, but simply to go through the motions. To do what I have to, without any emotional involvement on my part.
There is a song of Keith Green’s that I have been listening to lately as I drive to work each day. It says simply this:
The end of all my prayers, is to care like my Lord cares
My one and only goal, his image in my soul…
We are his workmanship, created for good works in Christ…
This story teaches us the good work we are created for as Christian doctors and nurses, to have hearts that “overflow with compassion,” and to speak gentle words of comfort. “Don’t cry!”
Gentle words are a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit. Proverbs 15:4