So often in the gospels, Jesus finds himself smack in the middle of somebody’s pain, somebody’s sorrow and loss. That is certainly true in the poignant, heart-wrenching story we hear today. In great detail, the evangelist Luke vividly describes the scene. Jesus approaches the city of Nain, accompanied, Luke tells us, not only by his disciples but also by a large crowd. As they are about to enter the city, they encounter a funeral procession. The deceased was a young man, and “the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.”
Our attention is understandably drawn to the miracle by which Jesus brings the dead man back to life, but we should not overlook that the first thing Luke tells us is that when Jesus saw the sorrowful mother, he was moved with compassion for her. If we focus only on Jesus’ miraculous power in this gospel story, we fail to see that compassion came first. The fact that Jesus raised this mother’s son back to life only after feeling deep compassion for her suggests that the miracle flowed from compassion; perhaps we can even say that Jesus’ compassion made the miracle possible.
The great theologian of the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas, taught that compassion is the most important characteristic of God and the quality that most fully reveals to us who God is. He said that God’s power is a power of compassion, and that we who are made in the image of God are most like God when we show compassion. This is one way of understanding the crowd’s proclamation about Jesus at the end of today’s gospel: “God has visited his people.” God continues to visit his people when we extend to others—especially the most distraught and desolate—the compassion that God in Christ has shown to us. What are we waiting for? After all, if we start with compassion, who knows what miracles might follow.
Paul J. Wadell is Professor Emeritus of Theology & Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and a member of the extended Passionist family.