Last week we heard the story of Jesus healing from a distance a centurion's slave who was close to death. Today Jesus is much closer as he touches the bier of a dead man bringing him back to life. In both cases Luke is presenting Jesus as one who has the power to defeat death and restore life.
In Luke, Jesus is referred to as a prophet of God in several places. This isn't inaccurate, it's just incomplete – being a prophet of God is only one aspect of who Jesus is. Luke uses this term as the first step in understanding the complete Jesus. After all, he certainly exhibits prophetic speech and actions, so this seems to be an appropriate method. And in showing that Jesus is at least as great as the greatest prophet of Israel, you may have noticed that today's gospel quotes verbatim from a scene in 1 Kings where Elijah restores to life the dead son of a widow. That's no accident, as this story would have conjured up images and comparisons to Elijah among the early Jewish-Christian followers of Christ. This was a good literary move on Luke's part.
We hear these stories about the healing of the mostly-dead slave from last week and the all-dead son from today and we probably immediately think, “Well of course, it's Jesus and he's the one who has the power to defeat death and restore life.” With these two people as the subject of these two gospel stories, though, I think we can lose our theological imaginations if we don't pay attention. What else is going on in today's story? Who else has died? Who else is restored to life?
The other dead person who is restored to life in today's gospel is the mother.
Remember, she is described as a widow, a precarious place for any woman at that time. In a patriarchal society where women had to depend on men for a livelihood as well as protection, widowhood ofttimes meant that she lost both. She was not eligible to inherit property or money, and what little rights she had when her husband was alive were now gone. Therefore she was at the mercy of society at large.
This is why the Law as given in Exodus and Deuteronomy was strictly opposed to harming widows in any way, and any mistreatment of any widow came with dire warnings and consequences from God. Additionally, both Isaiah and Jeremiah speak up for the voiceless widows by reminding the people of Israel to treat them with respect and care. And Job, speaking in his own self-defense, says that he cared for the widow. But just because it's in the Law doesn't mean people always obeyed.
This is one reason why it was so important to have male children – in the event of the father's death, rights and inheritances would be passed onto the son, as well as the responsibility to care for the father's wife. Upon her husband's death, she was reliant on her son for protection.
That's what makes this story particularly painful. The widow is completely under the care of her only adult son; and now her protection, her means of survival, her well-being, her status, her entire life has passed away with the death of that son. She literally has nobody to rely on. She is utterly alone. For all practical purposes, she is dead. And then along comes Jesus.
In the gospel accounts, Jesus raises three people from the dead – Jairus' daughter, Lazarus, and the young man in today's story. Jairus' story appears in all three synoptic gospels (although Matthew only identifies him as 'a leader'), Lazarus appears only in John, and today's story appears only in Luke. In all five stories of Jesus raising a person from the dead, this is the only one where Jesus is said to have compassion for the relative of the deceased.
I’m wondering if this act of raising a man from the dead was less about Jesus exhibiting his power as a prophet of God who was mighty in deed, and more about following the Law in ensuring that a widow was taken care of. I’m wondering if he had compassion for her because he knew she was a walking dead woman. I’m wondering if the impetus for this miracle was to bring the woman back to life.
In today's story the woman was alive but on the verge of death. She was living, but had no way to live. Being dead doesn't always mean physical death. Being dead can mean something else.
How many people find themselves in situations or places where they might as well be dead? From depression to unemployment to homelessness to kids moving out to divorce to loss of a loved one to financial debt to illness, the answer is, “Probably too many.” It is into this situation of great loss and the very real imminence of a living death that Jesus steps. When he sees this woman on the brink of death herself, it is through his compassion for her that she is restored to life.
We need to be careful here, though, that we don't fall into a sappy, sentimental version of Jesus where we offer pious-sounding phrases that do absolutely no good. Things like: It's all part of God's plan; His ways are not our ways; God is testing you; You'll come out stronger; and others can do more harm than good when said to someone who, for whatever reason, is in the midst of a living death.
Instead of praying to Jesus to solve the problem, we need to remember that we are the collective body of Christ and you are individual parts of that body. We are in a post-resurrection, post-Pentecost world where the mission of Jesus is to be carried out by us. Yes, Jesus heals. Yes, Jesus restores to life. But in this post-resurrection, post-Pentecost world, the actual healing work is manifest through us. It is our job to lift the fallen, restore the broken, heal the hurting, and bring the dead to life.
Just as Jesus recognized that the real subject needing restoration wasn't the dead man but his mother, we also need to look deeper and wider at the events around us in order to see who really needs healing. When we live into the mission of Christ, when we take seriously his admonition to love our neighbor, then the healing power of Christ will be made real and people will be restored to life.
Know this: today, as in the day of the widow, Jesus is present with the fallen, broken, hurting, and dead; but never forget that Jesus is present because we are present.
In a post-resurrection, post-Pentecost world, we are charged with presenting and being the body of Christ to the world around us. How we heal and restore life depends as much on our faith as it does on whether or not we are able to be present and show compassion to those who are suffering.