Luke 7:11-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
11 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 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. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16 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!” 17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
The Gospels seek to answer the question: “Who is Jesus?” This is a question that has been on the lips of people from the first century to the present. Each of the Gospels offers a somewhat different answer to the question; an answer that is fitting for the particular community addressed by the Gospel writer. While the Gospels give an account of Jesus’ teachings, they also give an account of acts of power in which Jesus heals people and in some cases raises them from the dead. Jesus’ words fare better in our modern day than his healing efforts. Remember that Thomas Jefferson took scissors to the “supernatural” parts and left the pithy statements of wisdom. Thus, we become red-letter Christians, with the stuff in black being deemed expendable, largely because the supernatural parts make us uncomfortable. Who wants to look unscientific in an enlightened age? I have no desire to get rid of science. I think it offers us an important voice, but our discomfort may arise because we’ve missed the point of stories like the one in front of us.
When we approach a text like this it’s good to remember that creating an apologetic that is based on proving that such an event took place in time and space can lead to embracing a god of the gaps theology, where things that can’t be explained rationally are given over to God. On the other hand, there are many, especially on the liberal side, who stand with David Hume and insist that if something is not part of our normal reality then it can’t be true. This either/or vision that’s so modernist can keep us from catching the full vision of Jesus.
In the Gospel of Luke Jesus engages in acts of power. He heals and on occasion raises people from the dead. However, even Jesus operates from a position of compassion, he doesn’t heal everyone. He never goes to the leper colony and cleanse all the lepers. He doesn’t go to the graveyard intending to raise everyone from their graves. Jesus often responds to those who seek him out, especially when that person comes from outside the community as was true with the story of the centurion and his slave, whom Jesus healed (Luke 7:1-10). These actions serve to reveal something about Jesus identity. Luke tells these stories not just to get the story straight (despite his claims), but to make a case that he is the messiah, as was revealed to the Shepherds by the angels (Luke 2:8-12).
The story for today occurs after Jesus healed the centurion’s servant at Capernaum. From Capernaum Jesus has moves southwest to the town of Nain, a village named only here in scripture. We don’t really know where to locate the village, but the most likely candidate lies some twenty-five miles from Capernaum. The modern village of Nein sits on the slopes of Mount Moreh, six miles southeast of Nazareth. If this is the village Jesus was travelling to, it is a bit farther from Capernaum than Luke seems to suggest. From Luke’s account it would seem like this was a short jaunt, but if the biblical Nain is connected to modern Nein on Mount Moreh, then this wasn’t a quick trip. What makes the story even more interesting is that Jesus’ disciples were accompanied by a large crowd. They witnessed the healing of the slave, and they’re wondering what will happen next. Enquiring minds want to know!
Whereas Jesus acts in response to a request from the centurion in verses 1-10, in this case Jesus acts on his own. As he nears the village he spies a funeral procession moving through the village gate. It’s a young man, and his widowed mother is clearly grieving. Her grief was double since not only was she losing someone she loved, but she was losing her sustenance. There wasn’t any Social Security back then. It was the responsibility of a male relative to take care of things, but it seems that this had been taken from her. She was alone and abandoned. The crowd would weep with her, but would they stay with her? Would we? Do we? Luke tells us that Jesus had compassion for the woman. He is moved deeply by her plight. As we see in the story of Lazarus in John 11, Jesus is not without emotional depth. Thus, there is something about the woman and her plight that touches Jesus’ heart.
With this recognition Jesus goes up to the woman, telling her not to weep. Having given her this command, Jesus then goes up to the funeral bier. He touched it and said to the man who had died: “Young man, I say to you, rise.” With that the young man sat up and began to speak, much to the amazement of the crowd. It’s one thing to heal someone, even from afar as in the previous scene, but raising someone from the dead is even more astounding. They were hoping to see something but this is even more amazing than anything they expected. To my modern friends. If we focus on whether the man was really dead (maybe they missed something), then we miss the point. What Jesus does here is raise the question of his identity. Who is this? How did he do this?
Luke suggests that this event grabs the attention of the people They are seized by fear. A word like fear needs to be unpacked. It’s not that they’re terrified. No, they’re standing there in awe. They can’t believe their eyes. They have no explanations. But, what this act does is call forth from them worship. They glorify God. They also define his identity. A Great prophet has arisen. The raising of the man from the dead reveals to the people that a true prophet of God has risen. The connection shouldn’t be lost on us. A prophet has risen in their midst, and this prophet people from the dead, much as Elijah did in the story of his encounter with the widow of Zarephath and her recently deceased son (1 Kings 17:8-16). There are differences in the stories, but the connections are there as well. There is compassion and there is revelation.
Who is Jesus? He is a prophet who has risen in the land, a reminder that God is look favorably on the people. With that, word spread. How could it not? It’s not every day that someone dies and then wakes up good as new! God must be at work! There is another part of the story that needs to be acknowledged. Even as the story helps define Jesus’ identity, the very fact that Jesus felt compassion for the widow reminds us of a core principle of the Christian faith, one that is rooted in Judaism, that the widow is to be cared for. We who are followers of Jesus are called upon to do as he has, so that we might live out of his prophetic mantle!
Bazzi Rahib, Ilyas Basim Khuri. Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56151[retrieved May 30, 2016]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ilyas_Basim_Khuri_Bazzi_Rahib_-_Jesus_Raises_a_Widow%3Fs_Son_at_Nain_-_Walters_W592157A_-_Full_Page.jpg.