Bible: Luke 7:11-17
11 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12As 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. 13When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ 14Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ 15The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus* gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favourably on his people!’ 17This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.There is context to remember:18 The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples 19and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 20When the men had come to him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” ’ 21Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. 22And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’24 When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 25What then did you go out to see? Someone* dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. 26What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
28I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’ 29(And all the people who heard this, including the tax-collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. 30But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.)31 ‘To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 32They are like children sitting in the market-place and calling to one another,
“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not weep.”33For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon”; 34the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” 35Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.’
Let’s listen to this story on its own terms. Do we have trouble with the notion of resuscitation of someone who is “proper dead,” as a Pitjantjatjara friend once said? These people taught me something. When an old man died, years ago, his family burned his clothes and gathered around the body in mourning. After some time he suddenly sat up! Then, embarrassingly, he demanded to know where his hat was! This was reported with great good humour round the Pit Lands, and re-told with wonderful embellishment.
We all, Pitjantjatjara or Piranpa*, knew nothing freaky or amazing had happened. As was sometimes the case, he had not been proper dead. To claim today that there has been a miracle literally raising someone from the dead, is to mark the whole story as “dodgy.” In Luke’s milieu perhaps there was a different understanding of what was reasonable. But I tell this story because those Pitjantjatjara people, tribal and pre-scientific in outlook, had no illusions about dead-raisings, or the likelihood of such things. They were more subtle and able in their approach to story. We are the impoverished and primitive ones. We are the ones who let the “facts” be a stumbling block to hearing the story. Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story! (* Whitefellas)
If we let the story about Jesus speak on its own terms, what do we hear? Did the original listeners, who understood its style, feel the emphasis in the story was on Jesus’ compassion for the widow, and not on his power to raise the dead, as Shearman suggests?
Certainly, the raising of the dead was not unnoticed! "Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favourably on his people!’ This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.” The point was made! There was a certain blunt establishment of credentials!
But look at the context of this raising. First Elijah (1 Kings 17) raised a man from the dead… a son who remains essentially anonymous, just like this one. The main characters of the story are Elijah and the vulnerable woman, a widow.
Then Elisha, his successor, who has been given a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (2 Kings 2:9), also raises a son from the dead. In the beginning this woman is childless, and her husband is old. She is given a son, but he dies. If we read the story again, we see that it is in the context of the protection of widow-to-be that this son was born, and later raised from the dead. (Elisha said, ‘What then may be done for her?’ Gehazi answered, ‘Well, she has no son, and her husband is old.’ )
These were the stories of the people. Everyone knew them, just as we know Kokoda and Gallipoli, and Waltzing Matilda and Ned Kelly. When the story is told by Luke, people Instantly see Jesus is greater again than Elijah and Elisha. ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favourably on his people,” they say.
The parallels drawn by Luke are deliberate. In his final action, Jesus “gave him to his mother;” the exact words used in 1 Kings 17:23. That is the cultural equivalent of a footnote to the text; vide 1 Kings 17:23.
These stories are about raising the dead, to be sure. But the raising was for a purpose. The purpose was to highlight the importance and centrality to the “Judean Dream” of the orphan and the widow, and the poor of the land.
There is a twist to all of this. The story is told in the context of John the Baptist, who will soon be murdered by Herod. John was in prison, but his disciples
reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples 19and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 20When the men had come to him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” ’
John had come warning of judgment and fire.
Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ Luke 3:9
John had the same ethic of attention to the good and the just, as Jesus had. He was supremely practical in his theology. Whoever has two coats must share with everyone who has none. (3:11) But John's was, in some ways, a stern ethic, almost heartless. It concentrated on the duty, not the person. It expected there will be burning and punishment. John may not have welcomed this, but knew it was inevitable. It was central in his preaching.
I remember grandpa and I being introduced to a female visitor. Grandpa, old and bow-legged, got to his feet, bowed to her ever so slightly, and raised his hat. Like John, he would have shown the same courtesy and respect to any woman, at any time. I adored my grandpa, and I learned my lesson.
If the woman is weeping and distressed in bereavement, I am polite and courteous. Kind and gentle to be sure, I will do good works to help, like Grandpa would. But I “raise my hat,” take her hand, and remain the perfect gentleman, restrained by what is proper. She may never realise how much I feel her pain, and how sorry I am.
I wish I was not a John, but was a Jesus. Jesus, with all the headstrong impetuousness of those two cousins, would break all the conventions of good behaviour, and simply pull the woman to him and hug her. She might later remember the minister who helped, but she will never forget the Jesus. Jesus concentrates on the person, not the duty. He does not only love and help and do right. He does it with passion... com—passion.
This is a tiny, subtle thing we may struggle to see. It is the sort of territory people describe as “You either get this, or you don't.” It's that elusive ingredient in theMaster Chef Taste Test which flavours the whole dish, but remains just out of reach.
Jesus was not about duty and doing right. He was about compassion. He went up to the funeral procession, and placed his hand on the bier, making himself unlcean, unsuitable to be in the presence of God. John Petty says ...not that he cared. He never seems to have missed an opportunity to make himself "impure."
Can you see Jesus? He raises the dead in this story, but the person he really raises from the dead is the woman! His compassion gives her life back to her. She was all alone in the world. No pension, no family, just grief... and bound for starvation. He raised her from the dead. He says in his message to John
the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
There's a book about church history and caring in Australia. It's called “No Charity There.” And we know the saying “Cold comfort.” It is not enough to do right and to do good. It is not enough to keep the law of God. It's not enough to do what is proper and behave well-- God help us if we do not do those thing, but God is not about law. God is about love and compassion. If we hand out bread on Friday, and also condemn and judge the recipients, we are not showing the love of God.
Remember what happens. The person comes and gets a voucher from us for the supermarket. And later, we see them over there, buying cigarettes. When we are John we shake our heads and mutter. Jesus looks at them buying the cancer sticks with our money, his money, while their skinny kid shivers and snivels in the queue. And Jesus says, “The poor woman!” You either get this, or you don't. It is the essence of Jesus.
Jesus was rejected by both sides. He says to the people
‘To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 32They are like children sitting in the market-place and calling to one another,
“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not weep.”
33For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon”; 34the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” 35Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.’
People, especially the powers that be, didn't like the ethic of John. It was about justice, too hard, too confronting. It demanded they give up their privilege. The privilege of being rich, and the privilege of being good people who were right. Jesus said, "I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John..." (7:28)
He totally backs up and endorses John's ethic of justice, and yet he says the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.... greater than John.
This difference between John and Jesus, sometimes so hard to grasp or comprehend, makes all the difference. The kingdom is a “whole 'nother” consciousness.
Now, where in our time do we sit, in such a story as the raising of the son of the widow woman of Nain? Are we more concerned with what is right and what is clean? Or are we concerned with the person?
At one church we have these fine chairs in the hall foyer, padded and polished. Poor old Wayne, used to come in for church, and do his Tourette's thing in the middle of the sermon, and eat all the biscuits at morning tea if you were not careful... and he smelled... Wayne was scared of the toilets. They're all the way down long corridors, the heavy fire-doors bang behind you, the men's room is cold and claustrophobic. And so Wayne would hang on... and wet the chairs.
You wouldn't believe how hard it is to get the stink out. I have a suspicion one of those fine chairs quietly ended up in a skip! And there was muttering and discontent. There was also concern for the comfort of visitors to the church, and strategies to protect the biscuit supply... all necessary and good.
But one woman.... went out to a Target sale and bought spare tracksuit pants for Wayne. She raised the dead to life.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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