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ss nucleus - summer 1997,  Raising the widow's son

Raising the widow's son

This article continues a series loking through the eyes of Dr Luke at Jesus, the Great Physician.

Luke 7:11-16

Soon afterwards, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out - the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, 'Don't cry' . Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, 'Young man, I say to you, get up!' The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. They were all filled with awe and praised God. 'A great prophet has appeared among us,' they said. 'God has come to help his people.' This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.

It was the kind of chance encounter that Dr Luke was fascinated by. In fact, this incident is only recorded in his Gospel, and not in the parallel accounts of Matthew and Mark. Jesus was in the full flow of his teaching ministry, surrounded by his disciples and a large crowd of onlookers. The masses had been following him for some time. In chapter 6:18 Luke tells us that the crowd had come 'to hear him and to be healed of their diseases'. They were fascinated by the authority and power of his words, but even more so by the stories of his healing miracles, which had been circulating like wild-fire in the villages of Galilee. And they were obviously prepared to hang around, jostling this new and exciting rabbi wherever he happened to go, even if it meant a long walk to the village of Nain, in the foothills south of the Galilee Sea.

As the crowd approached the town gate, they were confronted by a sad little procession, one that was all too common in an era of high infant and child mortality. A young man, an adolescent, had been struck down at the very outset of adult life. Yet this little cameo was even more poignant than usual, as Luke, fascinated by the human element, points out. The dead child had been 'the only son of his mother, and she was a widow'. Luke manages to convey the human tragedy with a minimum of words. This was the only son, the inexpressible treasure of his mother's heart. She had already lost her husband; now her child had been cruelly snatched away. Not only that, but in an society without any pensions or social welfare, the widow's son was her only hope of future financial security. Without him she might well face a destitute future. The widow and the orphan were uniquely vulnerable in ancient society, wide open to abuse by the unscrupulous, as the Old Testament Law recognised (Ex 22:22).

Tragic as the circumstances were, this human story was hardly unusual. Mortality was high, widows were common, life was hard. But Luke records a remarkable observation. Jesus was strangely moved by this chance meeting; 'his heart went out to her', and this powerful emotion lead to action. Jesus speaks tenderly to the widow, halts the funeral procession and approaches the open coffin. A moment of high drama ensues which Luke paints in a few words. To the incredulity of the crowd he actually touches the coffin, making himself ritually unclean according to the Old Testament Law (Nu 19:11). A word of command. The young man sits up, restored instantaneously. Fear mingled with amazement grips the crowd who recognise the source of Jesus' power.

Gut-level emotion!

As a clinician, Luke was frequently fascinated by the human interactions of the Gospel narrative. He emphasises the humanity of Christ, expressed through human relationships. And in describing this chance encounter, Luke chose a remarkable word to express Jesus' reaction (v13) to the grieving widow. The English translation doesn't reflect the force of the original Greek word 'splanchnisthe'. It is frequently translated 'deeply moved', but its literal meaning is much more visceral. It has the same derivation as our anatomical term 'splanchnic', meaning 'of the bowels, guts'. In modern slang it's an emotion that gets you by the guts. It's not the sort of word which a clinician-author would use lightly, especially when referring to the Son of God! It sounds inappropriate, almost blasphemous to modern ears. Yet Luke chose this powerful, earthy word to describe the way that Jesus was moved by a chance encounter with suffering. It was this strong visceral reaction that moved him to action, to respond with tenderness and compassion.

Time and again, Luke and the other gospel writers emphasise that Jesus was not a cool disinterested observer of suffering and pain. He was deeply and emotionally involved. He was gutted, even about the tragedy of an anonymous stranger. According to the Greek concept, God was unable to suffer. Suffering was part of an inferior human existence, but God was beyond this, remote and passionless. The Gospel writers, however, stress the reality of the Incarnation. God, through Jesus, has entered fully into the human experience, and is totally and emotionally involved in the joys and the agony of his Creation. The key emotion of the Incarnation, the visceral emotion that Jesus displayed was empathy (literally 'entering into the feeling of the other').

Detached or involved?

As health professionals we frequently come into contact with strangers who are facing tragedy. Yet emotional involvement is something which is not encouraged within the health professions. Even in the face of tragedy, any display of emotion is undesirable. The image that the modern health professional strives to portray is that of the cool, dispassionate, detached, slightly cynical expert. It's the image of the professional as opposed to the earnest, emotional, enthusiastic amateur. But I strongly believe that this cool, clinical attitude is not an option for those who are followers of Jesus. We are called to be involved with the stranger, as Jesus was involved.

This means opening ourselves to the pain that is around us. Like Jesus we are surrounded by people who are hurting. The natural human reaction is to protect ourselves, and I have no doubt that many professionals adopt the cool, clinical attitude not because they don't care, but because its a way of protecting themselves from too much pain, a defence mechanism. This is an understandable human reaction, but the cool, clinical image cuts us off or alienates us from those we are called to help. Empathy, the way of Christ, emphasises our common humanity - 'I care, I am involved, I am a human being like you, we are in this together'. Patients who have gone through tragedy in hospital sometimes express the hurt they felt due to the cool attitude of the hospital staff. A mother who had gone through the terrible experience of delivering a stillborn baby in hospital told me, years later, that it still hurt her that nobody in the hospital had bothered to say that they were sorry. Perhaps the staff were so busy being professional that they had no time to show that they cared.

There is a tension here. Because of our human weakness there must be limits to the extent of our emotional involvement. As a neonatologist working on an intensive care unit, I frequently care for dying babies and their families. I am called to empathise, to be emotionally involved. But since my wife and I have had our own children, my job has become much more harrowing. I am able to empathise with grieving parents in a much more genuine way than previously. I am able in my imagination to enter into the experience a little. To lose one baby in a lifetime is an awesome tragedy. To lose one baby every fortnight, is a sure recipe for psychiatric breakdown! I cannot experience the full tragedy of each loss if I am to remain sane and in a position to help others. In our daily work we must find the balance between clinical detachment and emotional over-involvement.

Finding support

As Christian health professionals, we all need healthy support mechanisms to provide the emotional and spiritual resources to carry on caring, day after day, year after year. Let me suggest four areas where we can find support:

  1. Family and friends. Whether we are single or married, we all need the support of a small number of close and intimate friends with whom we can share ourselves and the joys and griefs of our work. All too often, our friendships are superficial and distant. If we are going to be effective carers, we need to spend time developing deep and intimate friendships with a small number of friends and soul-mates.
  2. Professional colleagues. Colleagues can be a major source of emotional support, but we may find it hard to be open and honest with them. Junior doctors are often worried that they will be thought of as weak or unprofessional, if they are too honest about their own feelings in front of their seniors. By developing a professional culture of honesty and openness with colleagues, we will be able to support one another more effectively.
  3. Christian community. Clinical medical students and junior doctors often find that their links with a local church are weakened or broken because of weekend duties, and frequent moves from one short term job to the next. Yet the practical support of our Christian sisters and brothers in a local church community can make a vital difference. Even if we are infrequent attenders, we need to maintain and nourish our links with a local church.
  4. Personal devotional life. 'Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares for you' (1 Pet 5:7). Jesus found the emotional resources for his ministry, in the intimacy of his relationship with the Father. God longs to care for us, as we care for our patients. As we learn to 'practise the presence' of God, day by day, we will discover new emotional and spiritual resources for our work. In this way, step by step, we can learn to fulfil our high calling, to care as Jesus cared.

John Wyatt is Emeritus Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics at UCL and Senior Researcher at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, University of Cambridge. He is currently leading a multidisciplinary research project into the social, philosophical and religious implications of advances in artificial intelligence and robotics,based at the Faraday Institute. He is also the President of CMF

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