He Has Visited His People and Loved Them
Tenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Richard Ounsworth preaches on the raising of a widow’s son.
Usually on Sundays the Church gives us a first reading that in some way points forwards to the Gospel reading, and today’s is a particularly obvious example. St Luke can’t possibly have missed the strong similarities between these two stories.
At the end of the first reading, the widow to whom Elijah has restored her son concludes that Elijah is a true prophet: ‘Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.’ And obviously we are suppose to agree with the woman: we have already been told several times in 1 Kings that ‘the word of the Lord came to him’. Are we also supposed to agree with the conclusion of the people at the end of today’s Gospel, that ‘a great prophet has arisen among us’ and ‘God has visited his people’?
It certainly looks like it. Notice how these words echo the language of Zechariah at the beginning of the Gospel, when the father of John the Baptist was ‘filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied’:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people,
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David…
Go back too to the middle of chapter four of Luke’s Gospel and see how Jesus began his preaching ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth; how he claimed that the Spirit that filled Elijah and all the prophets has anointed him to heal the sick and ‘to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’. Jesus goes on to speak to the crowd about Elijah’s visit to the widow, and about the healing of Naaman the Syrian by Elijah’s successor, Elisha.
It can hardly be a coincidence that what happens in Luke just before the raising of the widow’s son is the healing of the slave of the centurion — a foreigner, and an enemy soldier at that, just like Naaman the Syrian. We are shown by the placing of these two miracles one after another that the ideal of a prophet that Jesus put forward is already being fulfilled when Jesus goes out among the people to preach his message. The people are right that ‘a great prophet has arisen among us.’
But we mustn’t lose sight of the source of Jesus’s prophetic ministry. That he is a prophet who works mighty wonders, there can be no doubt, and we agree entirely with the people, but we want to say more, and St Luke tells us more, if we stop to notice it in the middle of today’s reading. Jesus doesn’t raise up the widow’s son because that will prove to the people that he’s a prophet; he doesn’t do it for himself at all — he does it for her.
We are told ‘when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her?’ The Greek word that St Luke uses for feeling compassion is a favourite of mine: splankhnizomai, which comes from the word for guts — Jesus is ‘gutted’ for her, his bowels are twisted up with sorrow and pity at her plight, for she has been left destitute as well as grieving, utterly alone and without anyone to love her.
No wishy-washy ‘feeling sorry’, this, but an earthy, gutsy love. This is the pity of a man who knows what it is to suffer, to grieve, to be abandoned, to weep with agonising sorrow. It is the love of someone who suffers when he sees another suffering, like a mother suffers, almost physically, when her child is in pain. That is what drives Jesus forward on his journey to his own death, and that is the source of his prophetic ministry.
And more remarkable yet is that the one who feels this love is God himself. As the evangelist says, ‘when the Lord saw her, he had compassion?’ The crowds do not acknowledge Jesus as Lord, but we are to do so; we are to recognise that when they say ‘God has visited his people’ they are saying more than they realise. This man of pity, this man who is driven by love of his fellow man, this is our God, the Lord of all. The story of Jesus is not just the story of the greatest of all the prophets, working his mighty wonders; it is the story of how God visited his people and loved them.