When I was about ten or eleven I asked my mom to buy me a mouse at Woolworths. For those of you who don’t remember Woolworth, it was a dime store. For those of you who don’t remember dime stores, #!&# you! Anyway, I asked for a mouse. So I got one. My mom bought me a mouse and a small cage. It was a little black mouse and it came from the cage marked “males”. The case was mismarked. At least, I’m pretty sure it was because a few weeks later, I was surprised by a parcel of tiny, naked, pink little baby mice. It was fun watching them transform from little naked pink things to small furry little juvenile mice, each with a different personality. I grew very attached to those mice and enjoyed watching them play in the much larger mouse compound I had built.
I had a tread wheel in the cage upon which the young mice spent many a happy hour. There would be two or three mice running in the tread wheel, while another three or four would be trying to climb up the tread wheel on the outside. They were funny. One day, while several mice were trying to climb up the tread wheel on the outside, it fell over. It fell over on one of the mice, a cute little black and white spotted fellow. I lifted the tread wheel off of him and he kicked his back leg a couple of times and then he was still. He was dead. I was stunned. How could such a trivial, almost comical even end this little life?
And the worst part was that I felt so powerless. I could fix a lot of things, but I couldn’t fix this. I could not put life back in that little mouse body. It was at that moment that I realized how both incredibly fragile and sacred life is. I fashioned a small casket out of wood scraps we had in the garage, decorated it, and lovingly placed the young mouse in it. I had a funeral for the mouse in the back yard and committed his mousie body to the earth. It’s for that reason that I try not to kill anything. I wouldn’t let my students kill anything either. Kids in school always like to kill whatever bugs they see in the classroom. I always took the bugs outside. I told them, “If you can’t make a new one, you don’t get to kill it.”
Now, I’m older. I have seen a lot more of death. I lost my dad. I lost my mom. I lost my best friend, Paul. I lost my sifu, my kung fu teacher. I know I shall lose more people and I know that I will eventually lose myself. I am reminded of the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older 5
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name: 10
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Death is sad because we can longer be with the people (and animals) we love so much. They seem to be gone from us. And death is scary because we don’t know what happens after it falls upon us. If the atheists are right and there is nothing after death, I suppose it doesn’t matter because we won’t be around to feel the loss. Sartre said we can only imagine death as a spectator at our own funeral. Death is frightening, so frightening that during the first century, to even touch a dead body made a person “unclean.”
And God help the woman whose husband died or son died. Women had no rights in Judea in the first century. When a man died, his estate went to his son, not his wife. And in the absence of sons, it went to the next closest male relative. Widows and daughters were marginalized. Unless there was a son willing to care for his mothers and sisters, m ore often than not, they were reduced to begging. And if that son died, any women in the household were totally screwed.
There are a few occasions in the bible when the dead are raised to life. One occurs in the book of Kings when the prophet Elijah prays for a widow’s son who has died. God hears Elijah’s prayers and brings the boy back to life. We all know the story of Jesus and his pal, Lazarus, whom he raised from dead after Lazarus had been in the tomb several days and stank to high heaven. Another is this incident mentioned in the book of Luke:
And it happened, in the next day, he went into a city called Nain, and many of his disciples and a large crowd were going together with him. But just as he approached the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a large crowd of the city was with her, and when the Lord saw her, he was moved with compassion for her, and he said to her, “Don’t cry.” And he came (and) he touched the bier, and the ones bearing (it) stood. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, be raised.” And the dead man sat up and he began to speak, and (Jesus) gave him to his mother. But fear took hold of all, and they were glorifying God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen in us” and “God has looked upon his people.” And this word concerning him went out in all Judea and all the surrounding region.
Luke’s is the only gospel that mentions this story, and as I always say, it doesn’t really matter if it happened or not. It could just as easily be an allegory. We see Jesus, surrounded by his homies and his groupies coming into the gate of a town, Nain, a city in Gallilee. And they come across another crowd of people coming out of the city, a funeral procession. So we have a crowd of life meeting a crowd of death head on. When Jesus sees the woman, he feels sorry for her. The Greek word here indicates he is deeply moved. He touches the boy and raises him back to life.
What matters here is that Jesus, surrounded by ardent admirers, sees this widow, this marginalized woman, this nobody and feels compassion for her. Then, he touches, actually touches a dead guy. This automatically makes him unclean. No holy Joe would even think of doing that. This is the guy Luke is trying to tell us is the Christ, somebody who touches dead guys? Jesus tells us that no servant is greater than the master. If he does things like this, so should we.
There were times, back when I was teaching, as the union representative at the school, that I had to defend some pretty unpopular teachers. Sometimes a principal might consider a teacher not to be very good. But since it’s kind of hard to prove a teacher is ineffective, principals would often simply make life at the school a living hell for that teacher and persecute the hell out of him or her until that teacher finally gave up and quit or transferred. And since this usually involved the principal conveniently overlooking various parts of the contract that protected teachers from this type of behavior, I was inevitably called in to defend the teacher. Usually, that teacher was not very popular with the staff either. This was either because the teacher actually was incompetent, or because everyone knew the principal was out to get his or her ass. Nobody wants to be on the principal’s bad side. And whoever helps the pariah, becomes a pariah. So it’s not easy helping out those on the margins. It doesn’t usually win you any friends.
Back in the first century, most folks believed that if bad things were happening to you, it was because God was pissed with you. You must have sinned or else your life wouldn’t be so shitty. So, generally, it was considered a good thing to be cruel to those folks, They were getting what they deserved and holy people avoided them. We’re not so different today. There are many people who feel that the poor are only poor because they are lazy. That’s why so many in this country don’t feel that the government should be helping the poor.
But Jesus said we are all connected to one another by the divine spirit. Jesus said there are only two commandments, to love God and to love one another. So what matters here isn’t whether the story happened or not. What matters is that Jesus reached out to help a widow, not in secret, but in front of his students and fans, at the risk of being marginalized himself. How many times have I been afraid to speak out for what is right because I was afraid of what other people would think about me or worse, do to me?
This is a story about life overcoming death. A procession of life meets a procession of death and stops it cold. The message of the story is that compassion is stronger than death. And in conquering death, ultimately, even his own, Jesus conquers the fear of death. Over and over, throughout the gospel stories, Jesus tells his disciples to fear not, do not be afraid. That is what faith does. Faith conquers fear. And without fear, we can accomplish anything.
The point of the story is not that Jesus performs yet another miracle. The point of the story is that Jesus is compassionate regardless of religious rules and tradition. Jesus shows by example that God loves all of us, even those on the edges of society. Love and compassion are stronger than death. Eventually, I assume, that boy died. We’re all going to die. What happens after that is matter of faith for most of us.
Four year old Cotton Burpo is one of those folks who had a near death experience. He says he met an angel on the other side that gave him a message to take back to us.
The angel told him:
“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”
“You have nothing to fear.”
“There is nothing you can do wrong.”
So we’re all going to die. What really matters is how we live. We can choose to live with judgment and fear or we can learn to live with compassion and kindness. I guess the choice is ours.