Ok let’s get it out into the open.. Our western twenty first century minds really struggle with the miracle in the narrative of Jesus encounter with the widow from Nain … right! I’ll be straight up it was the first question that came to my mind. Is this real…I wanted to understand it scientifically. It goes beyond my understanding and worldview.
Maybe I wanted to be saved by the bell … which is a saying that comes from times when medical science wasn’t so great and people used to be buried alive and wake up in their coffins and would ring a bell that was placed in them to signal that they were alive. Was he really dead, And if that was the case how did Jesus know? And we still have to deal with Jesus healing someone that was so close to death with simply his word. ‘ Young man I say to you get up!’
I wanted to suggest that Luke had simply used this story about Jesus because it fitted into stories about Elijah and Elisha from the Old Testament, it was a literary way of saying if anyone could raise someone from the dead it would be Jesus. I mean Luke even calls Jesus ‘the Lord’ which seems out of step with the rest of the gospel, and this miracle story is only mentioned in Luke’s gospel.
I’m being honest, and I find myself standing with the people who Luke tells us saw this miracle. In the narrative they can’t deny what they have seen, and their conclusion helps us put it into perspective as well. ‘a Great prophet has appeared amongst us… ‘God has come to help his people’. They can’t explain it but in this event they recognise the presence and rescue and power and grace of God. Something they had as a people been longing and waiting for they realise that there is something unique and special about Jesus.
We are working our way through four encounters with Jesus and God’s revolution of grace in Luke chapter 7. Each one showing us more of the scope of Jesus ministry and points us more and more to his identity. Last week we looked at the healing of the Roman Centurion’s servant and the Centurion’s surprising faith in Jesus authority. This week Luke’s focus is Jesus compassion, a compassion that leads to life in the face of death: A compassion that reconciles a widow to her son and to her community. That invites us to see more and more what Jesus is like and to ponder who Jesus is.
This narrative is connected to the previous one temporally and geographically it happened soon after and in another town called Nain… one that was a ways outside Capernaum. Jesus is accompanied by his disciples and a large crowd. One of the later conditions for being an apostle was that they needed to be with Jesus and here they, and the crowd, act as witnesses to what Jesus is going to do. Maybe it’s one of the disciples who tell Luke this incident and so we have the phrase ‘the Lord’ this is one of the things that spoke home for that disciple with Jesus, of who Jesus is.
Just like with the healing of the roman centurion the focus is not on the person being healed, or the miracle, but on the person who is the centre of Jesus attention. In the previous narrative it was the roman centurion and in this passage it is the widow from Nain. In the previous encounter Jesus was surprised by the man’s faith and in this encounter Jesus is moved by the widow’s plight, he has compassion for her.
In the previous encounter, the roman centurion was a man full of power and prestige and status, even though he was a gentile. In this case the widow’s world has turned upside down. She has no status she is the most vulnerable in her society.
Firstly she is a woman, in her time a women’s place in society and their welfare was usually dependant on the men in her family.
By the way Luke actually presents Jesus as ministering equally to men and to women, when you read through his gospel narratives of encounters with Jesus they often come in twos, they alternate between male and female. You have Mary’s song and Zechariah’s song in the birth narrative, Simeon and Anna in the temple when Jesus is presented as a child. Jesus public ministry in Capernaum starts with the healing of the man with the withered hand and then Simon’s mother in law. We go on from the pairing we are looking at and we have john the Baptist and the woman who washes Jesus feet. The healing of a demonised man after the transfiguration in Luke 8, is paired with the raising of a dead girl and the healing of a sick woman. The parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coins. It almost has the feel of the New Zealand Green Party policy on leadership. It shows Jesus equal ministry and provision of good news to men and women. One of the early cricisms of Christianity was that it was a religion fit only for slaves and women and Luke's response might well have been... 'Your point is'... It is a revolution of God's grace not a keeping of the first century status quo.
Secondly she is a widow she does not have a husband to provide for her and now her only son, her only child has died. This is way before the welfare state and she will have to depend on the charity of others to simply survive. The Old Testament law was full of laws to make sure that happened and exhortations for the Jewish society to care for these people. In this story however, she is seen as central and given honour, instead of being defined by her relationship to men, they are defined in terms of her, her husband, her son, the people at the funeral are with her. She is seen by Jesus and he has compassion on her. She encounters Good News and is restored to her son and to her community.
In this Narrative we see Jesus Compassion. When we had the narrative of the roman centurion the emphasis was on Jesus authority, even if it was compassionately shown to a gentile. But here the focus is on Jesus compassion. He saw the women, and understood her plight. His compassion moves him to take action. He moves to comfort the widow, he says don’t cry. He puts himself into the situation. It tells us he reached out and touched the funeral bier. First century funerals took place as soon after the death as possible: Usually on the same day. In the Middle East without refrigeration you could imagine it was a health necessity. The body was placed on a plank, a bier and carried out to the family plot outside the town. By touching the funeral bier Jesus is again crossing a religious line, he is risking becoming ritually unclean by touching a dead body. His compassion causes him to speak, and for what is an amazing miracle they seem to be so ordinary words… ‘Young Man, I say to you get up!’ But he speaks God’s power and authority into the situation. If Jesus could heal the servant with a command in the previous narrative here Jesus authority speaks and the dead are resuscitated. Lastly Jesus compassion is shown by the fact that Jesus gives the son back to his mother. His focus is not on the amazing thing that has just happened but this widow and her consolation.
The story finishes with the peoples reaction to what they have seen. As a Jewish audience their thinking, their understanding and their hopes are formed and shaped by the Old Testament scriptures. Their hope for liberation and freedom and justice is based on God sending a prophet like Moses. Their understanding of what that would look like and mean is shaped by the stories of Elijah and Elisha in the book of first and second kings, both of which contain a narrative very similar to Jesus raising the widow’s son. They have a worldview shaped by a belief and trust in God. So they acknowledge that a great prophet has come into their midst. While for Luke they don’t have the whole picture they are beginning to recognise something special and important and unique about Jesus. They say ‘God has come to help his people’ they see the hand of God at work. Like us there is no natural explanation for what they have seen it can only be understood in terms of the divine. But these words are more than just an acknowledgement of God’s presence in this one case. Again with eyes that see through the lens of Israel’s history they express the hope that just like in the time of the exodus that God has come to help his people, it is an expression of their messianic hope. AS we’ll see next week it leads to disciples of John the Baptist coming to ask Jesus if he is the one that we should be expecting. Is this the long awaited messiah, the saviour that God would send to establish his kingdom?
Ok how does this encounter with God’s Grace Revolution speak to us today?
The first thing that came to mind was that Jesus presents us a prophetic picture of the need for authority and compassion to go hand in hand. I don’t know about you but last week I was left with some unease of thinking of Jesus authority in military terms as the centurion did and here Luke dispels any possibility that that is case. It shows us the loving merciful heart of God and it speaks to those who have authority and power in this world… Authority without compassion is at the least dangerous and cold to the plight of the poor at the worst it is tyrannical and destructive. If Jesus is a great prophet in our midst his example is exceptional love and grace and justice for the poor and hungry those who mourn and the oppressed. We saw the attacks on Paris yesterday an example of no compassion and authority.
Secondly, I don’t know about you but I find it hard to know how to act when I feel compassion, maybe part of the cause of that in our media soaked environment is that we suffer from compassion fatigue. We are confronted with this disaster, this need, this tragedy a new one everyday a new one every news cycle and while our hearts are moved we are distanced from them and the ability to react, or underwhelmed because the images are not as stark or the story as compelling, or simply overwhelmed by the share magnitude. But Jesus gives us an example of what to do of being moved by compassion. There is an empathy which prompts action… He is moved to give comfort, ‘do not cry’. But it’s not like the professional mourners who would have accompanied the widow and this funeral procession helping to give voice to the widow’s grief and the communities’ sorrow He moves to get involved, he places his hand on the funeral brier. It is not the socially accepted thing to do, but it is a willingness to get involved in the situation… He brings God’s presence into the situation and with that the very real possibility of transformation and healing and new life. I’m not saying we should make a habit of interrupting funerals and praying for the deceased to get up. I’ve heard some very amazing and challenging and creditable stories of people praying for the dead and seeing miracles… But acting on our compassion opens the doors for the authority of God; our compassion opens the door for God’s presence to speak and to move. I wonder what amazing things we will see when our exceptional God is present in situations because of our exceptional love in response to God’s grace.
Finally, one of the commentators I read talked of writing on this passage in the week he was attending the funeral for his old university professor and mentor, and at the same time as his church was praying for a family in their midst whose six year old was dying of leukaemia. It caused him to wrestle with this passage. Because it’s part of life that humans die. The widow’s son would have eventually died again. We face sorrow and grief. But this miracle gives us a glimpse that death itself is able to be overcome in Christ. We see the restoration with loved ones in Christ. We see the truth that even though for us it seem impossible, and death remains that final barrier that God is able to overcome it. It points us to the resurrection and our Christian hope in new and eternal life in Christ. AS Paul would tell the Christians in Corinth who wrestled like we do to understand this ‘death where is your victory, where is your sting, death has been swallowed up in victory.” The hope of God’s grace revolution is shown in the fact that in Jesus Christ ‘God has come to help his people.’