Posted by: mattcolvin | April 24, 2018

The Widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17)


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“Jesus raises the son of the Window of Nain” Matthias Gerung, 1500-1570

(A sermon from Holy Trinity Church, REC, in Colwood, BC, from October 1, 2017)

One of the things I have encouraged you to pay attention to is focalization, a crucial aspect of how the Bible tells stories. It can very often shape how we think about the action and the characters; it is the equivalent in storytelling of the camera angle or point of view in a film. And here, the camera shows us the world from Jesus’ perspective. He is approaching the city of Nain, about five miles from Nazareth where he grew up. No doubt he knows the place well enough. With him, we draw near to the gate of the city, see the crowds around us and the disciples. And the narrator emphasizes this point of view with his exclamation, “Behold!” So with Jesus we behold. And what do we see?

Pay attention to how the situation unfolds before us: Luke uses word order to recreate in our mind’s eye the same gradual gathering of information that Jesus and his disciples experienced: “Behold” — we see something, but what is it?  “there was being carried out” — the pallbearers, as it were, are the first thing we see. “…a man who had died” — so there has been some tragedy, some death. Jesus is thus confronted with his old enemy, death, which he has come into the world to suffer himself, and thereby to defeat. But the tragedy deepens: “the only son of his mother” — thus, death has cut down a young man, and thereby removed at a stroke the entire future of a bereaved woman. “and she was a widow” — so her livelihood and support is also removed, and she is reduced to beggary, gleaning, and dependence on the pitying alms of the community. 

This is the situation we face, looking at it through Jesus’ eyes: the son is actually dead, and the mother, being widowed and now bereaved of her child, is experiencing a sort of death herself. And the narrator gives us insight into Jesus’ reaction to this scene: “Seeing her, Jesus was moved with compassion for her.” The Greek, as usual, expresses this feeling of compassion using a metaphor about bodily organs: Jesus “felt it in his gut” or “his intestines were moved” — down there, the feeling of discomfort and pity.

He tells her “Do not weep.” The word here is κλαίω. It is not merely shedding of tears, but the keening, wailing cry that accompanied an ancient funeral while flutes and professional mourners kept up a din of surrounding noise so that the bereaved would not need to be embarrassed to be giving vent to their feelings. (How different from a modern funeral, all quietness and sombre formality.) We have seen Jesus rebuke the noise of mourning before, when he raised Jairus’ daughter. 

If a child skinned her knee and came wailing to her mother, we might hear the same instruction. Jesus is moved with compassion, and he addresses himself to the emotional pain that death inflicts on a child of God. She has not asked for anything; there is no request, just the raw pain expressed in wailing. Jesus does not need to be asked. He addresses the need of his own initiative: “Do not weep; I will do something about it.”

And so he does: he touches the bier. Why is this mentioned? Because a dead body makes unclean anything it lies on. The bier or bed for a dead person is being carried by “carrying ones” — pallbearers, we would call them today. And in ancient Israel, to serve as a pallbearer meant becoming unclean for that day. It wasn’t a sin, but because one had had contact with a dead body, or with anything that a dead body was lying on, or a house where a dead body was, anyone who became unclean in this way would have to take a bath and be unclean until evening — until the beginning of a new day. But Jesus pays no attention to this law of cleanness. He goes right up to the bier that is being transported and touches it — not surreptitiously, I think, but quite obviously — I picture him grabbing it in a very blatant way. He makes lepers and menstruating women clean, he does not contract uncleanness from them. We might call it “eucontagion” — Jesus’ purity is catching.

There is an ordinary procedure, a way things go, a set of etiquette and protocols and rules and ordinary obligations around death — indeed, it is precisely around death that we have such rules; no job requires more politeness and etiquette and knowledge of procedure than a funeral director. But Jesus stops the pall-bearers in their tracks: οἱ δὲ βαστάζοντες ἔστησαν — the ones carrying it stood still. Are they just astonished? Has he miraculously frozen them in their tracks? We are not told. What matters is the result: There will be no more progress toward the tomb today.

And then, having stopped the procession, Jesus speaks. Not for him the procedure of Elijah in 1 Kings 17, spreading himself out on the child three times. Nor the method of Elisha in 2 Kings 4, who “lay on the child, and put his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands; and he stretched himself out on the child, and the flesh of the child became warm.” These OT prophets use maximum contact with the dead in a sort of after-death CPR. Jesus has no need of that method. He merely speaks. It is a resurrection command formula: “Young man, I say to you, arise!” Νεανίσκε, σοὶ λέγω, ἐγέρθητι, compare Luke 8:54’s “Child, get up!” (Ἡ παῖς, ἐγείρου) and John 11:43’s “Lazarus, come forth!” (Λάζαρε, δεῦρο ἔξω), and Acts 9:40‘s Ταβιθά, ἀνάστηθι “Tabitha, be raised!” and above all Mark 5:41’s peek at the Aramaic original of the formula, Ταλιθά, κοῦμι, which is translated, Little girl, I say to you, arise!” (Τὸ κοράσιον, σοὶ λέγω ἔγειρε) All of these utterances involve imperative verbs coupled with vocative nouns or names. They are direct address of the dead person — the last person in the world who might be thought capable of obedience to commands. Yet it is a formula that expects obedience. Who is this, that issues orders to the dead? Who bosses death around? It smacks of the same sort of authority with which Jesus commanded the winds and the waves when he was in the boat with his disciples.

St. Augustine makes an interesting observation: Christ by his miracles of resurrection demonstrates his power over death in three different circumstances: the ruler of the synagogue’s daughter is raised while she lies still in the house; the widow of Nain’s son, while he is being carried out; and Lazarus is called forth, when he has been wrapped in grave linens and spices and has already been in the tomb four days.

But this young man of Nain, once he is raised, Jesus “gave him to his mother” — restoration of relationship. I cannot stress this too highly: God does not rescue humankind as bare individuals. The life of the new creation is a restoration and perfection of human nature in its every aspect. That includes all the aspects of our individual being — our bodies, minds, emotions, the wiping away of tears, the oblivion of all hurts and pains which we may bear in this life. But it also includes the restoration and perfection of our relationships. God’s creative and restoring power aims at making a new Israel, that is a people, not a mere collection of individuals. And that will mean relationship — though perhaps not marriage and reproduction. The restoration of the dead man to his mother is a powerful symbol of how God by resurrection restores our relationships as well.

Remember what I have taught you about the Jewish view of children. We read the book of Job, and we see all his children die at the beginning of the book, and then God blesses him with new children at the end of the book. And we, because we think in terms of modern Western individualism, look at that and say, “But what about the original children? They can’t just be replaced! They were individuals, and they are dead!” But that is not what the narrator, or Job, is preeminently concerned with: for Job, says Jon Levenson,

“bereavement of progeny is the functional equivalent of death;… the patriarch’s restoration inevitably entails his recovery of his seven sons and his three daughters (Job 42:13; cf. 1:2). To us, of course, the loss has not been made good, since these are not the same children who died at the onset of the tale. But that very objection only demonstrates the distance between our individualistic and non-familial construction of personal identity and the highly collective and familial concept that underlies these ancient Israelite narratives. For the epilogue, which speaks of Job’s restoration, gives no indication whatsoever that grief about his deceased first set of children impaired his contentment at the time of his own death. The tragedy of the mortality of individuals cannot but attract the attention of the modern reader. The interest of the ancient narrator lies, rather, in the restoration of Job through the return of his family.”

The widow of Nain, of course, cannot experience a restoration of her family as Job did; if she is to be rescued from her plight, it will need to be by a literal resurrection.

But Luke has something else he wants us to notice here: the story of the widow’s son is a prolepsis of Jesus’ own death. Jesus too will soon be carried out for burial outside Jerusalem; his mother too will experience the grief of losing her child. (And the scholarly consensus is that Mary is likewise widowed by the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, Joseph having predeceased her.) And in that case, too, there will be a resurrection. But there is a crucial difference, for the young man of Nain, like Jairus’ daughter, like Lazarus, is raised only to resume his normal life, live out his days, and eventually die again. But Jesus is raised with a new sort of life, a body that will never die again; indeed, in Him is the Age to Come, The Resurrection that Martha of Bethany expected at the last day, but it bursts into history in the middle of things, in AD 33.

To this great irruption, the lesser resurrections of Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, and the young man of Nain serve as foretastes. They speak of the power of the God who would  soon deal with death finally and forever. They are sneak previews of the eschatological reality that Israel has been waiting for.

And that is how the people understand this raising from the dead: “fear siezed all” or, as another translator puts it, “Trembling gripped all of them.”

For they make the eschatological connection: “a great prophet has arisen” — perhaps the Prophet like Moses whom God promised in Deuteronomy 18:15. And “God has visited his people” — the Greek is Ἐπεσκέψατο — he has “checked up on, inspected” His people. It is the same word used in the song of John the Baptist’s father Zacharias in Luke 1:68, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, because he has visited and redeemed his people, and raised up for us a horn of salvation by the house of David his son…” Both Luke’s narrative about the resurrection at Nain and Zacharias’ song ultimately go back to Exodus 4:31, where Aaron does miracles in front of the Israelites in Egypt to let them know that God is about to rescue them: “So the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the children of Israel and that He had looked on their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshiped.”

That is what it is about, ultimately: raising this woman’s son is a way of telling the crowd and the disciples about what God is about to do for Israel. It a signal to them that Israel’s God, in the Messiah, has come to rescue His people as He did before in the Exodus. Like every miracle, it is a way that Jesus asserts his identity: both his identity as Israel’s Messiah, and beyond that, his identity as Israel’s God. That is why there is fear and trembling.

How do I assert this so confidently? Because what immediately follows our passage is the question of John the Baptist, asked via his disciples, “Are you the coming one, or do we wait for another?” And Jesus’ response makes clear the significance of his miracles: “Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them.” (Luke 7:22-23)

We ought to make the eschatological connection. Hebrews 4:2, speaking about Israel of old, says that “We have had the gospel preached to us, just as they had.” We are about to turn to the Lord’s Table, to feast on His resurrection life at the meal that He inaugurated by his death. Like Jairus, we look to Him in expectation that He need only “say the word”, and we will be healed. Like the widow of Nain, we receive from him hope and a future.

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Responses

  1. This is a really powerful sermon.


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