Clinical Seminars with Luke the Physician: 1. The widow’s son

Let's not be clinical and detached, but respond to the suffering of others with shared humanity

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.

Luke 7:11-16

It was the kind of chance encounter that 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, sensitive to the human implications of the story, 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 a society without any pensions or social welfare, the widow’s son was her only hope of future financial security. Without him she faced 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 (Exodus 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”. Powerful emotion leads 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 (Numbers 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.

As a clinician, Luke was 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. “I was gutted, Brian” says the soccer-star as he describes the experience of losing the match in the final minute of extra time. 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. Luke was clearly struck by this encounter. Death was common, mortality was high. Why should Jesus react so emotionally, so unprofessionally? 

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 cared, 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, in the person of 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”).

As health professionals we frequently come into contact with strangers who are facing tragedy. Yet emotional involvement is something which is not generally encouraged within the health professions. Even in the face of tragedy, displays of emotion are regarded as inappropriate, undesirable, above all unprofessional. The image that many modern health professionals strive to portray is that of the cool, dispassionate, detached expert. Above all it’s the image of the professional as opposed to the earnest, emotional, enthusiastic, over-involved 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; to respond in the depths of our being.

But this means opening ourselves to the pain that is around us. Like Jesus we are surrounded by people who are hurting, and empathy with hurting people is painful. 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 it’s 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, alienates us from those we are called to help. It emphasises the difference – “You are the patient, and I am the expert, the professional”. Empathy, the way of Christ, emphasises our common humanity – “I care, I am involved, I am a human being like you, I too know what it means to suffer, to be in pain, to be frightened. 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 cared for many dying babies and their families. I was called to empathise, to be emotionally involved. But after my wife and I had our own children, my job became much more harrowing. I was able to empathise with grieving parents in a much more genuine way than previously. I was able in my imagination to enter into the experience a little. But 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 need to find the balance between clinical detachment and emotional over-involvement. I have to admit that over my clinical career I frequently struggled to find a healthy balance in emotional engagement, so I understand how difficult it can be and cannot claim to be a shining example!

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. 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. We can’t care for others unless we allow ourselves to be loved by our friends.

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. We need to be wise in choosing which colleagues to unburden ourselves with, and how to do it, but helping to develop a professional culture of honesty and openness with colleagues is a vital part of supporting one another in the workplace.

3. Christian community. The local church community should be a place in which we can be ourselves – a safe place in which we can share our struggles, pain, joys and losses. However this is not always as easy as it sounds. Some of the personal experiences and traumas we are exposed to as health professionals may be unimaginable and incomprehensible to our non-medical Christian sisters and brothers. There’s a special value therefore in sharing our struggles with older Christians who have a background in healthcare and who are able to identify with the peculiar challenges and joys of this world.

4. Personal devotional life. “Cast all your anxieties on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7) The Apostle Peter was writing specifically to pastors who had the responsibility of caring for others. Paul has a very similar thought at the beginning of his second letter to the Christians in Corinth “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). As we allow ourselves to be comforted and consoled internally by the motherly Father, the Father of compassion, we renew the emotional resources to show comfort to our patients.

Bit by bit, day by day we are learning more of what it means to carry out our high calling, to care as Jesus cared.

Questions for discussion

  1. In what practical ways can we learn to express genuine caring more effectively with the patients we meet?
  2. What are the dangers of emotional involvement with our patients?  What are the warning signs that things are going wrong? What would you do if you felt that you were becoming too emotionally involved with a particular patient?
  3. Jesus was prepared to become ritually defiled by touching a dead body. What are the implications for us in the 21st century? How would you apply this example to your working life?
  4. What kind of support mechanisms do you have? How effective are they? How can they be strengthened? What practical steps can the local Christian community take to support healthcare professionals more effectively? Make some practical suggestions to pass on to your local church leaders.

Click here to read the next Bible study, on the healing of a Leper (Luke 5:12-15), or find all the studies here.

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