Two groups of people, each with their own purposes, happen upon each other outside of a small village. This scene could go a lot of ways! The one it takes is probably not the most expected. Both groups are in motion. The grieving widow and her crowd are a funeral procession from her village. Jesus and his disciples (also a large group) are in transition from place to place.
The widow in Nain doesn’t approach Jesus. Unlike so many other gospel narratives, Jesus isn’t responding to anyone else’s request. Instead, it was simply compassion that moved him to act. He sees her. It is likely that her son was her means of economic survival. As a widow, she’d lost her husband already, so her son was her only family. Furthermore, “the death of an only son would leave a widow without an heir and therefore unable to retain whatever means remained for her. Without an heir, all personal property reverted to her husband’s family after his death.”1 This meant she was both grieving as a parent grieves the loss of their child, but there was also an added complication of desperation.
Jesus is said to “see her” and “have compassion for her.” The word for compassion means “an intense inner emotion and sympathy that accompanies mercy. Luke uses the word in two later stories, when the Samaritan sees the stripped and beaten man (10:33), and when the prodigal father sees his lost son for the first time far down the road (15:20). … For Luke, compassion, while entailing great emotional capacity, also leads to action.”2This is a BIG deal. The gospels were written during the Roman Empire, with Greek influence everywhere. “For readers situated in a Hellenistic and Roman culture in which being moved by another was a sign of weakness, here (as in 10:330 and 15:20) that supposed ‘weakness’ is associated with Jesus, and through him, God. Compassion and mercy are the apex of God’s character and of the new communal life in the Spirit.”3
That is, this is a story of Jesus being compassionate, and moved by the suffering of others. It is a story of Jesus’ compassion in the midst of a cultural context that would have seen it as weakness. Yet, Jesus is an active agent in this story. His compassion is his motivation. He sees the grieving widow, and he is moved to help her.
Interestingly, in our stories today, the dead/dying sons are sort of objects. Their mothers, and the prophets of God, are the subjects. I think we should always be concerned about the ways we tell stories, and how stories can dehumanize people into objects. Yet, I find it surprising WHO becomes an object and who doesn’t in these stories.
That is, the impoverished, widows with one (dead/dying) son are the subjects. This is a surprise because we aren’t supposed to notice them in society, unless God is turning things upside down. Both of our stories today are of God turning things upside down. Likely the two stories are intentionally similar, intended to reflect light back and forth between themselves.
Luke has Jesus touch the bier. This touch would have made him ritualistically unclean. Elijah doesn’t touch that mother’s son, but he has to stretch his body over the boy’s body three times and pray out loud. Jesus is being presented not only as prophet but as an especially strong one. Jesus is being presented as caring about the widow, even though he doesn’t know her. Elijah has to be shamed into action. Jesus, in Luke, continually cares for widows, orphans, and strangers. This is particularly notable, since in the Torah, God is pretty obsessed with how widows, orphans, and strangers are treated. The prophets tended to end up having to tell the Kings that they were mistreating God’s widows, orphans, and strangers. In this story, Luke is establishing Jesus as a prophet, and reminding us that prophets express God’s compassion, especially for widows, orphans, and strangers.
Throughout Biblical history, “Widows, orphans, and strangers had this in common: they did not count on the protection offered by a citizen adult male in their family.”4 In the two stories we have, we don’t know the names of the mothers or the sons. That is “something common in biblical narratives, yet another sign of injustice. Women and children were, more often than not, referred to as the wife or child of male adults, in those days the only ones with any power in social and religious life.”5 Yet, these unnamed mothers are the subjects of their stories.
In the beginning of 1 Kings 17, Elijah begins a take down of the Canaanite god Baal, who is the god that the Israelite King’s wife worships. The Israelite King at that point was Ahab. He was officially declared one of the worst. His wife was Jezebel. She was hands down the worst. In the 3 chapter cycle in 1 Kings between Elijah as God’s prophet and the followers and prophets of Baal, there are a series of contests between “the G/gods.” It may be helpful to think of these stories as … oh, what’s that called? Those contests where two men compete to see who can pee farther, higher, and longer? Whatever that is, that’s what YHWH and Baal are presented as doing in these 3 chapters.
Since the Canaanite god Baal was known as a god responsible for the rain, YHWH creates a drought. In the beginning of chapter 17, YHWH’s prophet Elijah declared to the King Ahab that there would be a long drought until YHWH called it off. This was to prove that Baal was … ineffective. Then the story turns to show how YHWH provided for Elijah during this terrible drought. That helps YHWH appear… effective.
At first, Elijah is sent to a ravine to drink water from the stream and be fed by ravens YHWH would send along. Then the water dried up in stream because of the drought. This is the point when our story today begins. Next, Elijah is sent to Sidon, the home village of Queen Jezebel, right in the heart of Baal worshipping. He is sent to Sidon and is told he’ll be fed by a widow. This should have raised some red flags for him.
As one scholar put it, “We don’t know that he would have been optimistic about a widow feeding him. In the best of times, most widows lived a very tenuous existence. In a time of drought, their need would have been even more pronounced.”6 It would likely not have raised his hopes when the widow he met was out gathering sticks, a sign of her profound poverty.
I think Elijah sounds pretty awful in this story. He is demanding things from a woman he never met, and he isn’t even polite about it. “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” Makes me want to say, “excuse me??” Then he follows up with “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” I’d be likely to respond, “Dude. Why do you think I’m your servant?”
However, I’m not sure that’s the actual point of the story! In fact, I’ve been reminded recently that women have so few words attributed to the in the Bible that I should pay attention to what they say rather than get upset at what is said to and about them. The widow replies to Elijah, and says, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” She claims her own voice. She doesn’t actually seem upset at his request. She’s past that. She just lets him know how desperate she is, and that she can’t care for him too.
After Elijah convinces her to try it anyway, and they are all blessed with a miracle of abundance, her son becomes deathly ill. She is afraid that Elijah’s presence has brought YHWH’s attention to her and that YHWH is thus punishing her. She speaks again (this is a big deal) this time starting the conversation instead of responding to Elijah. “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” Her words motivate/shame Elijah, and Elijah heals her son. She also gets the last words in this story, saying to Elijah after the many days of food was provided and her son was brought back from the brink of death, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of theLord in your mouth is truth.” The unnamed widow gets a lot of voice.
The capacity to heal is associated in many parts of the Bible with a connection to the Divine. But it is only in the Luke story that the motivate to heal comes from the compassion of Jesus reflecting the compassion of God.
Like many of you, I struggle with most parts of these stories if I try to take them as factual accounts of historical events. So, I don’t. I do take them as stories meant to convey deep truths, often on multiple levels at the same time. I find myself wondering who the widows, orphans, and strangers are today. Clearly, actually, widows, orphans, and immigrants/refugees ARE still vulnerable populations in the world. That hasn’t changed.
There are others as well. Because of mass incarceration in the United States, particularly of men of color, there are many families who are vulnerable with both lack of income and lack of family connection. Our society creates functional widows and orphans.
Because of our immigration laws, strangers are at risk, and when deportations happen, families become essentially widows and orphans.
Because of a raw hunger in our world for access to sexual pleasure without mutuality or consent, we live in a world where women and children live in slavery and are trafficked for the pleasure of (usually) men. Women and children moved around the country or the world for this purpose become strangers in a strange land without access to resources. They become widows, orphans, and strangers in multiple ways.
Because of the prevalence of violence in our society, and the unconscionable number of murders, many are left as widows and widowers, orphans, and strangers.
Because of the fears and anxieties that abound, and the lack of adequate mental health care, many in our society are particularly vulnerable to those would would gain profit through addition. Drug use, abuse, and overdoses make people both living widows, orphans, and strangers and actual widows, orphans and strangers.
There are so many ways that our way of life as a society and a world MAKES PEOPLE more vulnerable and puts their livelihoods at risk. Yet, we worship a God of compassion who sees the struggles of those whose hearts and lives are broken, and is moved to change the brokenness. May we continue to learn how to receive God’s gifts of healing in our own lives and how to participate in God’s gifts of healing in the world. Amen
1Verlee A. Copeland “Homeletical Perspective on Luke 7:7-11” , p. 119 of “Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 3” edited by Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville Kentucky, 2010).
2Gregory Anderson Love “Theological Perspective on Luke 7:7-11” , p. 118 of “Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 3” edited by Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville Kentucky, 2010).
4Carolyn J. Sharp “Pastoral Perspective on 1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24)” , p. 98 of “Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 3” edited by Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville Kentucky, 2010).
6H. James Hopkins, “Homiletical Perspective on 1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24)” , p. 101 of “Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 3” edited by Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville Kentucky, 2010).
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
June 5, 2016