Thursday, November 1, 2007
Thursdays with Luke #23
As I said last week, Luke 7 contains three stories that demonstrate the compassion of Jesus. The story of his healing of the centurion’s servant demonstrates his compassion for a Gentile. The story at the end of the chapter demonstrates his compassion for a sinner. Today’s story demonstrates his compassion for a helpless widow.
An account of an exchange between Jesus and the disciples of John the Baptist falls between the second and third stories. The account of Jesus’ raising of the widow’s son gives concrete evidence of Jesus’ testimony to John: “the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (7:22). The literary artistry of Luke is evident. In fact, all of the Gospel writers arranged their materials to make the evangelistic and expository points that were important to them and to their audience.
This story also reflects Luke’s interest in showing that Jesus was a great prophet. That is what the people proclaim after the miracle is accomplished (v. 16). How great a prophet was Jesus? In his day no greater compliment could have been paid than that one was a prophet like Elijah. And this story is very much like one of the Elijah stories. In 1 Kings 17:17-24, Elijah raises the only son of the widow with whom he was staying. The Greek phrase in Luke 7:15 is identical to the Greek phrase in 1 Kings 17:23: “he gave him to his mother.” It was a great thing to be a great prophet and Jesus was the prophet par excellence. It may not sound like enough to us for Jesus to be proclaimed as a great prophet but we must remember that we are looking at the story through post-resurrection eyes and the contemporaries of Jesus were not.
The story takes place in a town called Nain. The present consensus is that Nain was about a day’s journey from Capernaum. If it was where the experts think it was then there is an ancient cemetery there that is still in use. As Jesus and his entourage (“his disciples and a large crowd”) entered the town they met a funeral procession. We’re told that there was a large crowd from the town. It was customary in first century Israel to hire professional mourners; these may have been first in the procession. “A large crowd” from the town” probably indicates a genuine outpouring of sympathy and support from the community.
[As an aside that is not integral to the text, I would note that such support is so important. It is important that we be supportive of our brothers and sisters in all the seasons of life, including the farewell rituals.]
Note the description of the deceased person: “A man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow…” (v. 12). These are important details. The way that ancient Israelite society was structured, men were expected to make the living. Furthermore, inheritance was passed down to male descendants. Therefore, as a widow who was now bereft of her only son this woman was in dire straits.
The death of a loved one can bring with it all kinds of complications. Bearing the grief is hard enough. Grief itself can be complicated. For example, if a surviving person has ambivalent feelings about the deceased, a kind of love/hate or like/dislike relationship, that can be complicated. Another complicating factor can be the existence of unresolved conflicts. Economic considerations can also contribute to the difficulty. Sometimes it’s a fight over inheritance. Sometimes, as in this case, those left behind might be left in difficult circumstances. This woman was in trouble.
It was the sight of the woman that brought forth the Lord’s compassion. He felt deeply about the plight that she was in; he felt deeply about her as a person. The Greek word translated “had compassion” (KJV, NRSV) or “his heart went out to her” (NIV) is a very strong word; it has connotations of an emotion that goes down deep into one’s being, of a very heart-felt emotion, of the “kick in the stomach” kind of emotion. William Barclay has said,
To the ancient world this must have been a staggering thing. The noblest faith in antiquity was Stoicism. The Stoics believed that the primary characteristic of God was apathy, incapability of feeling. This was their argument. If someone can make another sad or sorry, glad or joyful, it means that, at least for the moment, he can influence that other person. If he can influence him that means that, at least for the moment, he is greater than he. Now, no one can be greater than God; therefore, no one can influence God; therefore, in the nature of things, God must be incapable of feeling.
Here men were presented with the amazing conception of one who was the Son of God being moved to the depths of his being….For many that is the most precious thing about the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. [William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p. 87]
One of our hymns says, “’Man of sorrows!’ what a name for the Son of God who came.” The hymn has particular reference to the suffering and shame of Jesus. Still, we can apply the thought to the fact that Jesus felt deep sorrow and compassion over the suffering of people. He took that suffering with him to the cross. Our calling is also to care deeply, to have heart-felt compassion, and not to wall ourselves off from the world.
The compassion of Jesus led him to do something. The compassion of Jesus was real compassion; it was not a momentary bad feeling from which he then turned away and about which he did nothing. He stepped forward and touched the carrier on which they were transporting the young man’s body. That was a bold move; it could have rendered Jesus ritually unclean. He stopped things, that’s for sure. And then he did what only he could do: he gave the young man his life back and he gave the young man back to his mother. Think of what that must have meant to her (not to mention what it must have meant to him)! Hope where there had been none! A future where there had been none! That’s what happens when Jesus brings life.
We can’t raise the dead but we can be the instruments through whom Jesus brings life and hope and a future to a lifeless and hopeless and futureless situation. We just have to be open to how he wants to use us. We have to be willing to step out and act.
Luke tells us of two larger scale results beyond the literal resuscitation of the young man with its implications for that family. First, he tells us of the reaction of the people. They proclaimed Jesus to be a great prophet and they proclaimed the favorable visitation of God to his people. Second, he tells us that the word got around about what Jesus had done.
One of those to whom word got around was John the Baptist. But that’s next week’s text.