“He felt compassion for her, and said to her, “Do not weep.” Luke 7:13 NASB
Compassion – Nain. The village named “pleasant” or “beautiful”. But on this day the Hebrew name does not fit the mood at all. Today is the day of a funeral. Today is a mother’s worst nightmare – death invades life. Her only son is carried to the grave.
As Yeshua approaches the city gate, he comes upon a scene of grief. The funeral procession moves through the gate, carrying the body of a man. Within minutes the crowd discovers that this man is the only son of a poor widow. Many of the townspeople are walking with her, attempting to console her while they lament the cruel hand of God. To lose a husband is difficult enough. But to lose an only son after losing a husband. What will she do now? She has no one to care for her. The fate of widows and orphans was well known. She looked forward to poverty and abandonment.
There are two critical words in this very brief encounter. The first describes Yeshua’s character; the second his action. They are inseparable.
“And when the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her.” Compassion. The Greek word is splanchnizomai. It is the original Greek word for “intestines.” Over time the word became associated with those emotions that deeply upset us. In particular, it is connected with pity. This word is very graphic and very physical.
Imagine those times in your life when something affected you so dramatically that it literally “turned your stomach.” You had a burst of burning anger. You felt faint. What you saw brought instant discomfort, an outrage at life’s inequity. It is the immediate reaction over something tragic. Everyone in America got a taste of this on September 11, a modern nation’s heartache and agony.
Yeshua and the disciples are walking toward Nain. They are probably busy talking among themselves about the past few days. Suddenly they come upon the funeral. It was certainly not the first funeral the crowd witnessed. Death was a constant companion of those who lived in Roman occupied lands. Yeshua stopped. The crowd jolted with him. Compassion. A rough, physical word expressing the jarring, disorienting feeling of life gone haywire. Splanchnon presents an unusual word mystery. Most Greek words have direct Hebrew associations. But splanchnon has no Hebrew connection. When we look for a Hebrew connection, we find a different Greek word – oiktiro – the word for “sympathy.” Splanchnon is a word that surfaces much later. By the time Luke related this story in Greek, splanchnon had taken over the meaning “pity” and “sympathy.” That isn’t the end of this curious story. The Hebrew concept eventually captured by splanchnon helps us see an important distinction. The Hebrew word behind pity and sympathy is racham. But racham is the Hebrew word for “womb.” In Hebrew thought it is the symbol of intense, personal identification. Nothing establishes a bond of identity more than the same birth mother. When emotions cause us to completely identify with our common humanity, with being born into this world, we experience racham. The unity of brothers and sisters, the bond of parents and children, is extended to evoke the shared experience of being one who is born – and one who dies. From God’s point of view, we are all brothers and sisters. When splanchnon took over the meaning of this Hebrew concept, it carried with it the intense identification of common humanity, an identification that was particularly acute in times of trouble.
There is still more to this story. The Hebrew concept is not limited to a “feeling.” Sympathy is an emotional response of heartfelt identification. Pity is an emotional response to another’s suffering. Empathy is an emotional response to common-bond oneness. But racham is more than emotion. It is action elicited by emotion. Racham is the action of love expressed as a result of sympathy or pity. Racham does not pass by the circumstances of sorrow with a mournful sigh. Racham steps into life’s heartbreaking trials and actively engages in an effort to lift the burden. Zechariah 7:9 instructs us to “make and accomplish compassion.” Psalm 69:16 calls for the action of compassion from the God who is filled with compassionate acts. Divine compassion is not an arm around the shoulder and a shared tear. Compassion is warfare! It is active resistance to evil in a world. Compassion is me taking the place of you. It is personal action identification. It is Yeshua on the cross, enduring brutality, horror and torture for my sake because God is compassionate.
The most common subject of the word racham is God Himself. From the Old Testament context, it is abundantly clear that compassion is not an action prompted by the merit of the suffering party. I don’t earn compassion. God’s compassion, and the compassion of all who follow His example, is relief given simply because it can be given. If I am to follow the model of Yeshua, my actions of relief will not be based on how worthy the suffering person is. My actions will be based only on my ability to offer help because I can without any thought of reciprocity.
Exodus 34:6 is God’s self-definition. The very first word God uses to describe Himself is “compassionate.” If you gave your own self-definition, would that be the first word on your lips? The widow of Nain provides us with a window into the heart of God – and what we find is racham. The God Who cares.
Topical Index: compassion, splanchnizomai, racham, Luke 7:13
Excerpted from Jesus Said to Her, available on the web site