Gut-Wrenching Hospitality: Sermon on Luke 7:11-17

Third Sunday after Pentecost C
June 3, 2016

We often associate hospitality with luxury. Just think about the hospitality industry for a moment. Have you ever stayed in a really nice hotel? I mean one where the beds are made up with extravagant linens and the towels are thick and the pillows are real down pillows, and there may even be a complimentary robe hanging in the beautifully appointed bathroom. It’s the kind of hotel that doesn’t offer a free breakfast. People who stay in these hotels aren’t looking for a free breakfast. But there might be fresh flowers in your room and a chocolate truffle on your pillow.

Even a modest hotel – the kind that does offer a complimentary breakfast bar with make-your-own waffles – does its best to make guests feel they are being treated to something special. That’s what hospitality has come to mean – being treated to something special, maybe even something luxurious. But no matter how luxurious the accommodations, it’s always good to get home, to sleep in your own bed. That’s where we experience hospitality at its best: at home.

Luke’s gospel describes a completely different kind of hospitality than the hotel industry has in mind. For Luke and the people of first century Palestine, hospitality was less about offering luxury, and more about making yourself vulnerable to someone else, opening your door to a stranger whose motives and intentions might not be known to you. It involved risk, and sometimes, great personal cost.

In last week’s reading from the seventh chapter of Luke, we saw a centurion offer Jesus hospitality by graciously preventing him from entering the centurion’s Gentile home, where Jesus would be made unclean. The centurion claimed to be unworthy to let Jesus come under his roof, and asked only that Jesus would say the word so his servant could be healed. And Jesus was amazed. The centurion put himself and his honor at risk to avoid contaminating Jesus with personal contact. He saw through the rules of hospitality to a deeper level, and offered Jesus an option that showed great care and thoughtfulness, as well as an amazing depth of faith in the power of God. This week, the story continues, only this time it is Jesus who extends hospitality to another by making himself vulnerable.

Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. (Luke 7:11-17)

Imagine these two processions meeting each other at the edge of town. Coming out of the village, we see a funeral march. Death is lifted up and carried out, and the people who follow it are weeping and wailing. The loudest mourner of all is the dead man’s mother, who has already suffered the death of her husband, and now must bury her only son, and her last hope for any means of support. Whatever property she might have had will revert to her late husband’s family, since she is left without an heir to carry on her husband’s name. Hopelessness is piled on top of sorrow for this woman, and her grief at losing the son she has loved is bound up with concern for her own situation.

Coming into the village is the procession of life, led by Jesus, who has recently healed the centurion’s servant. His disciples and other followers are with him, probably listening as he teaches them along the way. The procession of death meets the procession of life, and both stop in the road for a moment.

Jesus has compassion for the woman. We hardly need to point out that this is one more example of Jesus caring about someone no one else thinks of as valuable. After the death of her husband, her place in society was secured by her son, but now he is also gone, and she has no status whatsoever. She is less than nothing. Luke doesn’t tell us that Jesus has compassion for the dead man, but for his mother, a woman who has lost all hope.

The Greek word we translate as ‘compassion’ has its root in the word for ‘bowels’ or ‘inner parts’. Compassion seems a weak substitute for the gut-wrenching experience of caring so deeply for someone that your heart goes out to them. This is what happens to Jesus, as life meets death on the road outside Nain.

Jesus comforts the woman with a few words. “Stop weeping as one who has no hope. Hope is here.” And then he does something the centurion from Capernaum would have tried to prevent, if he’d been present. He touches the funeral bier where the young man’s body lies.

Jesus makes himself unclean by reaching out and touching death directly. He extends hospitality by making himself vulnerable. No centurion can stop him this time.

Life overcomes death and this is evident because the dead man not only gets up, he speaks. The breath of life starts flowing through his lungs. He is alive! Jesus takes his hand, and gives him back to his mother.

And suddenly, everyone present is overcome with fear. This movement from death to life they have just witnessed is an unexplainable reality. The only possible explanation is that they have just seen God at work, ‘up close and personal.’

It can be a scary thing to see God at work like that, doing things right in front of us that we can’t explain, but we also cannot deny. Maybe we fear God’s work in our lives because we fear being changed. We may not be happy with our lives as they are, but at least we know what to expect. There is some comfort in the stability we have found.

We really only have two choices when we realize we have witnessed God working in miraculous ways. We can try to hide, and pretend it didn’t happen. But ignoring God’s miraculous intervention in our day-to-day existence changes us, just as surely as recognizing it can do. It closes us off from experiencing the abundant life that Jesus promises.

The other choice is to give glory to God and tell others what we have seen and heard. That’s what the people from Nain did. Luke tells us, “This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country” (v 17). They glorified God, and started spreading the news about Jesus.

“No miracle happens without a witness” (1). There is always someone to proclaim what they have seen with their own eyes. Someone is always present to tell others, “here’s what I saw, here’s what I know.” Their job isn’t to persuade or convince you that they’ve seen a miracle. Their job is only to tell you what they themselves have witnessed (2).

So think for a moment. When has Christ shown gut-wrenching hospitality to you? When have you experienced Christ’s compassion and grace? What was that like? What were the circumstances? How did you know that God was at work in your life? Who do you know that needs to hear your story, so that they can find hope and forgiveness in Jesus Christ? Who needs to hear you say, “this is what I know, this is what I myself have experienced, make of it what you will”?

Jesus invites us to this Table, where we remember and bear witness to his supreme sacrifice, his ultimate hospitality.

Jesus invites us to this Table, and then out into the world where we can encounter people who have lost all hope, where the only way to offer real hospitality is to offer radical hospitality, the kind that puts us at risk and makes us vulnerable.

Jesus invites us to this Table, not to see how much we can get, but to learn how much he has already given us in his death on the cross and his ultimate triumph over death and sin. Will you open your heart to him? Will you accept Christ’s gut-wrenching compassion for you, and allow yourself to have that same kind of compassion for someone who is hurting and hopeless?

  1. David Lose quotes Leif Enger’s novel, Peace Like A River here.
  2. Ibid.

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