Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 5, 2016
Luke 7:11-17 Commentary
The incident in Nain recorded in Luke 7:11-17 is like one of many gospel snapshots we find in the four gospels. At the end of the fourth gospel, the Evangelist John flatly stated that Jesus did far more than anyone had ever written down. It seems that sometimes the evangelists threw in this or that incident for good measure, leaving aside who knows how many others but including this and that event just because they were inspired to preserve it. This incident in Nain is like that. Jesus’ presence in this nondescript village just appears out of nowhere as do the main characters in the story. They appear out of nowhere and promptly disappear into the mists of history as soon as the story is finished, too.
In other words, there is something wonderfully mundane, everyday, quotidian about this story. The anonymous widow at the center of the tale is not a celebrity or a member of the royal family or anyone else of note. (It’s striking how few of the people whom Jesus healed in his ministry are given names in the gospel narratives—it’s a mighty thin percentage, actually.) Indeed, she is both a widow and a person without a male heir (at least there is no living male heir as the story opens). That means that she could hardly get more marginalized in the Ancient Near East. The fact that God’s revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures makes everywhere clear that he has a soft spot in the divine heart for widows—and despite the many laws and statutes designed to give widows extra consideration—the fact is this was an oft-exploited group. They were invisible to most observers.
But not to Jesus. His eyes always picked out those whom others overlooked: tax collectors in treetops, a sick woman touching the hem of his garment in a crowded marketplace, blind men being shushed at a city gate. So also here: Jesus sees this hapless woman and perceives in her situation something far more dire than run-of-the-mill grief. The death of her only son cinched her status as a social cipher. Like Naomi in the Book of Ruth, this woman of Nain had no man to protect her, provide for her, or to care for her in her own old age. Yes, that sounds perfectly chauvinistic and patriarchal in ways that make people’s skin crawl today, but that was the world in which this woman lived.
As the Jews say to Oskar Schindler at the end of the film Schindler’s List, there is a saying in the Talmud: “He who saves one life, saves the world entire.” So also here. When Jesus restored her son to her, he was restoring her world entire. When in verse 15 we are told that Jesus “gave him back to his mother,” he was returning to her far more than this young man. He was returning to her no less than her very life. But that’s what the kingdom of God always does: it restores us completely. And so very often—as in Luke 7—the places where the kingdom bursts forth are precisely in the everyday circumstances of ordinary folks like you and me.
Because we all know that when you get right down to it, what ails us in this sorry old world is not this or that one thing—yea verily, not even death itself. What finally ails us is that nothing is in plumb, everything is out of sync. Relationships fracture and splinter along multiple lines simultaneously. In so much of life it’s never a matter of fixing just that one thing and then all would be well. We need the whole package reconnoitered. And that’s what Jesus does by raising this son—he (temporarily) rescued this young man from the clutches of death but in so doing Jesus did so much more.
A sermon on this text, therefore, could be a good opportunity to remind ourselves that the restoration project that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection make possible is grand and glorious in its scope. The Creator God who in the beginning fashioned every single thing that exists will not fail to be equally comprehensive in the re-creation of all things. Indeed, that return to the full flourishing of the entire cosmos is what we mean when we speak so lyrically of the kingdom of God.
This lectionary passage comes in the Year C cycle in the Sundays after Pentecost, a stretch that broadly fits the liturgical designation “Ordinary Time.” So how good to be reminded through this mundane, ordinary incident that God continues to come to us and to restore us in all the ordinary times of our lives.
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
His heart went out to the widow and so Jesus said what we all want to say when our hearts go out to someone in grief: “Don’t cry.”
I love how utterly human (and divine!) Jesus is here. He’s affected by grief same as we all are. “Don’t cry.” That’s what we all want to say in those situations.
Of course, when your seven-year-old daughter is crying because she misses Mommy while she’s away on a business trip for two days, then with justification and true comfort you can say, “Aw, honey, don’t cry. Mommy will be back before you know it.” But the situation is rather different in case Mommy is not away but is in fact dead at a young age from breast cancer. Then when your daughter cries, you let her cry because it’s fitting that she be sad and express a grief that is tearing her little heart out.
Even then, though, you want to say “Don’t cry.” You want to say that because deep down in your soul what you most dearly want to do for people in grief is exactly to take away the source of the crying, to undo whatever happened to bring the tears in the first place. And we all feel that way because at the end of the cosmic day we have this sense—inexplicable in one way given the tragic world in which we find ourselves—that this is not the way things should be.
Barack Obama has frequently been criticized as being too cool and aloof for his own good. “President Spock” some have called him in reference to the emotionless Vulcan from Star Trek. Yet unlike any sitting President in memory, the nation has watched Obama cry more than once when terrible shootings have taken the lives of children. But then, we all weep for such things. Or we should. And mostly we do. We weep with the President and with so many others because so much in this world is not the way it’s supposed to be. But then, who knew that fact better than Jesus, the Son of God who created this world for shalom and flourishing in the first place?
In the Year C Lectionary this incident in Luke 7 is paired with the story in 1 Kings 17 of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, the end part of which also involves the raising back to life of a dead son (and an only son at that). The parallels between these stories cannot be missed. The wonder performed by Elijah indicated the presence of God among his people in Israel, even at a time when so much else in Israel was in spiritual tatters. The ability to perform miracles was a key calling card for the prophetic mission of these pivotal figures from Israel’s history.
Now in Luke 7 Jesus’ ability to perform many wonders is a sign not just of the divine presence in Palestine but of the very nearness of the coming kingdom of God. We cannot preach on Luke 7 without being aware of the very next incident involving the disciples of John the Baptist. When John sends word to Jesus, questioning whether Jesus really is the Promised One or not, Jesus points to his ministry—including to the raising of the dead—as proof that no one else and no one better was to be anticipated. He was the One. But even as the religious leaders rejected John (as Jesus goes on to say in Luke 7:27ff), so they rejected Jesus, albeit for different reasons. John was reckoned to be demon-possessed on account of his wild attire and off-beat diet. Jesus was reckoned to be of no account precisely because he did not lead such an ascetic lifestyle. Apparently, when it came to the Pharisees, there was just no winning.
But this is a reminder that the signs performed by Jesus in his public ministry were not designed to make all things well instantly for every last person in the area nor to make people strain forward for some over-realized eschatology by which death and disease would soon be eradicated 100%. As has been noted by many, of all the people in Palestine who died that same day as the widow of Nain’s son, only the one son was raised. And he died again one day, too. For every blind and deaf and lame person whom Jesus healed in the course of his ministry, there were probably 100 in the vicinity who received no such healing.
The miracles were foretastes of kingdom fullness, not the fullness itself. The miracles (or signs as John called them) were arrows pointing a certain direction, they were not the destination that was being indicated. As C.S. Lewis once put it, only a fool confuses the highway sign for “Chicago” with the city itself.
This may be an important lesson for the Church today, particularly in the face of any and all preachers who make grand claims as to the outcome of living the Christian life. Yes, the Church does rich ministry in this world today. And as we do our work in Jesus’ name, we should expect that as a result of the Church’s praying, some sick people will be healed, some fractured marriages will be reconciled, some prodigal sons and daughters will return to the fold, some Christian businesspeople will succeed wildly and earn gobs of money. And when these things happen and when the Church subsequently praises God for answered prayers and for golden opportunities and for the divine providence that makes it all possible, the Church is not wrong to attribute such gifts and such instances of goodness to God. Of course, in a world where we still attend the funerals for people we prayed for; in a world where some parents die without ever seeing their wayward children return to the Church; in a world where some perfectly conscientious Christian businesspeople lose their shirts—in a world where not every prayer is answered, we cannot prove to the skeptic that better outcomes are anything other than dumb luck or sheer chance.
But part of the Church’s confession is that we do believe in providence, and if we cannot explain why our every prayer is not answered the way we might wish, still we confess that many prayers are answered in ways for which we properly give thanks.
But if it’s wrong to chalk up everything to mere happenstance and luck, it’s equally wrong to say that being a Christian means never having a bad day. Those well-meaning (but finally misguided) preachers who say that being a Christian promises “your best life now” and other tangible signs of prosperity and happiness forget that even when Jesus was on earth—as well as in the earliest days of the Church as recorded in Acts—not every good person, disciple, apostle, or Christian followers of the Christ had every prayer answered, every misfortune reversed, and every business venture succeed.
Luke 7 reminds us that we can be grateful to follow a Savior with the power to raise the dead. Seeing this gives us profound hope. Jesus really is who he said he was and since this same Jesus promised us a kingdom of shalom, we can take him at his word. Mostly, though, we find ourselves in the situation of John the Baptist and his disciples: we have to believe the testimony of what the disciples witnessed. “Go back and report to John [who was rotting in prison, remember] what you have seen and heard.” We have the witness of powerful, kingdom signs. Sometimes some of that power touches our lives. Every day the hope and joy of that kingdom is available to us. But many times we cling fiercely to the promises even when our dead children are not raised back up, even when (as Habakkuk sang) the fig trees of our lives do not bloom and there is no fruit on the vine and no cattle in the stalls. Even then. . . . even then, we believe the gospel. We’ve been told what the disciples saw and heard. We believe in the Savior at the story’s center. And it’s enough.
Commentators note the fact that the young man immediately began to speak upon being raised back to life. This, they say, is a clear indication that he was not merely convulsing or experiencing some weird post-mortem tremor. No, he was fully alive and thus able to engage in that one activity that is so key to the building of uniquely human community: he speaks. Language is that vital feature to human life that connects us one to another in an intimate way. So this young man’s ability to talk is not only a sign that he really is alive again after being genuinely dead but also a sign (as noted elsewhere in this set of sermon commentaries) that Jesus has done far more than repair one broken-down human body: he has restored an entire community and all the wonderful, life-giving relationships involved therein.
As Lewis Smedes wrote some years ago, it is of course natural to want healing for ourselves or certainly for someone we love. It’s natural to pray for such things, too. But Smedes also sees a spiritual danger in reducing the Christian life to mostly an exercise in seeking greater ease, comfort, and healing. Perhaps such a focus blinds us to the unalleviated suffering that is all around us, particularly among the very same poor and disenfranchised people who occupied such a central place in Jesus’ own ministry.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the same TV preachers who pray the most over some suburbanite’s bursitis are also the last folks from whom you will ever hear much talk about doing something to minister to the poor, the homeless, and all those others in society who live without protection, without adequate health care, without enough food to eat. But, Smedes asks with no small degree of poignance, how can we trumpet Jesus’ power and presence for ourselves if we pay more attention to the alleviation of our own ailments than to the many others who suffer every day? How can we claim to have concentrated doses of Jesus’ power if we do not first have Jesus’ heart for this world’s suffering masses?
Because remember: Jesus was no Oral Roberts-type who stood up in front of a camera proclaiming from a safe distance that he just knew that somewhere out there in the world at that very moment someone in Capernaum had just been delivered from arthritis and that someone in Bethlehem had just been released from a demon. That’s not how Jesus operated. No, he got so close to the people who lived on the margins of society as to be defiled by them, according to the religious conventions of his day. He got touched by menstruating women, he touched dead bodies, he touched “unholy” lepers. These were not healings of the already well-off performed from some safe distance.
Instead, these were quiet manifestations of God’s glory in precisely the last places on earth where the religious folk of that time thought religious folk belonged! If miracles were “signs” or arrows pointing us to the deeper realities of God’s kingdom, then surely one of the directions in which we get pointed in the gospels is toward our being with the very people whom others mostly avoid. We go to all kinds of people in order to show them that God loves them whether we can solve their every ill or not.
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