This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on June 5, 2016.
Immediately following the healing of the Gentile centurion’s slave in Capernaum, Jesus is found in the village of Nain, just five miles from his hometown of Nazareth in Upper Galilee. This story takes Jesus’ healing ministry up a notch. Here he will heal a dead man, demonstrating that neither illness nor even death have power over his messianic ministry. The progression moves from teaching in the Sermon on the Plain to healing in Capernaum to resuscitation in Nain. And the latter anticipates Jesus’ own resurrection to come.
Nain is mentioned only here in the Bible. The widow is Jewish and the death of her only son indicates the end of the family line. This woman is now on her own. Her father and husband are gone, and now her son has died. This grief leaves her not only alone, but also vulnerable. She now will have no family to care for her and will have to depend upon the kindness of her neighbors, since such a woman would have lacked the capacity to provide for her own wellbeing.
Luke describes a traditional funeral procession. Even a poor person was expected to hire at least two flutes and wailing woman to accompany the body as they moved from the town outside the city gates to the burial place, likely a cave in the hills. The young man was being carried on a bier, a palate-like stretcher manned by pallbearers. The community was gathered and joined the procession, reminding us of the richness of funereal rituals in that time as compared to the increasingly sanitized versions of our routines around death.
Jesus and his disciples come upon the scene on their own; they are not summoned as in the previous story of the healing of the centurion’s slave. God does not operate out of a formulaic pattern of prayer in order to act with healing effect. Throughout the ministry of Jesus and the mission of the early church we see variations of patterns that include faith or no faith, speaking a word or no words spoken, touching or no touching, intercession of friends or simply the initiative of Jesus or the apostles. We are mercifully left without instructions about technique that could devolve into incantations or rituals, which would vainly proffer entrance into the mystery of God’s healing activity. Instead, we see various pictures of the compassion of Christ and the church that invite us to believe in God’s presence and power over all that keep us from the fullness of abundant life.
Healing does not always occur when we pray, even if we pray with faith. Human beings are neither guarantors of healing when we do everything “right,” nor are we to blame for doing things “wrong” when healing does not come to pass. God’s healing power is manifest here and there, and now and then, in the inscrutable wisdom of God that is beyond our control.
Jesus has compassion on this widow, demonstrating that God sees and cares for those who are of no worldly account but are dear to God. The word for compassion carries the sense of feeling something in one’s guts. Jesus didn’t merely look upon the widow’s plight with pity; he felt her sorrow and was drawn into her pain as if it were his own. This identification with those who are suffering is a mark of Christian love.
Jesus tells the woman not to weep. Stop crying, is the meaning. Not because her tears were out of place with respect to her circumstances, but because she was being invited to have a clear-eyed view of new circumstances that would bring joy instead.
Just as Jesus was willing to go to the unclean house of the Gentile centurion in Capernaum in order to heal the slave, he moves to touch the bier on which the body of the dead person lay. Both acts would also have made him ritually unclean. But Jesus’ ministry is precisely one of a greater holiness than purity laws would dictate. He came to seek and to save the lost. He came to make clean what was unclean, to include the excluded, and to bring life to the dead.
Jesus commands the young man to rise. While the dead have no ears to hear, the word of God not only speaks but creates the power to respond. This is an encouragement to evangelism. God is responsible for both the initiative and the response, even if we are the human agents as preachers and responders.
The dead man comes alive and is given back to his mother. This shows that the restoration is not just for the young man, but also for his mother. We live in community. Just as illness or death is individual, it is also personal for all who are affected by it. The family and the community come back from the dead, so to speak, when the young man is raised.
Behind this story of the young man being healed are similar stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. The effect is to demonstrate that Jesus is a prophet in their midst whom God has sent to show favor to the people. This also presages the growing understanding of the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus. And it sets the stage for Jesus’ growing popularity among the people.
Dr. George Mason
Wilshire Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas
Tags: healing, resuscitation, death, prophets, compassion