Biblical scholar Alan Culpepper says this about today’s Gospel reading: “The widow’s only son had died. We do not know their names, his age, or the cause of his death. In the end, none of that matters—only that she had already lost her husband and now she has lost her only child. James says, ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.’ Had Jesus passed by that funeral procession on the other side when he had the power to stop it, none of his other works would have made much difference. If religion has nothing to say to a grieving widow, it has nothing to say.”[i]
We know that religion can be used and misused for all sorts of ends, in all sorts of ways both laudable and perverse. (We become acutely aware of this fact whenever we are in an election season.) Religion can be a tool of those in power, a means by which to fleece people of their money, an opiate of the masses, or it can be a bastion of tradition and a vital connection to the past as well as a spur to important social change. For good and ill, religion has been, is, and can be, all of these. But if religion—specifically our religion, Christianity—has nothing to say to a grieving widow, then it has nothing legitimate to say at all. By extension, if Christianity has nothing to say to those who are dying, those who are perched on the very ledge, those who are lonely and lost, then it has nothing to say.
There are versions of Christianity that I wish sometimes really did have nothing to say. There are expressions of our faith that take Gospel stories of healing and interpret them in odious ways. In many such stories, Jesus will remark that the faith of the healed person or the faith of those around him has accomplished the healing. “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus will say. And preachers have long extrapolated, therefore, that today’s razor’s-edge difference between cure and illness, or even life and death, is whether or not we have enough faith, whether or not we believe strongly enough. The damage of such preaching runs deep. As a singular example, the parents of children who have died—including some children denied medical care in favor of faith healing and prayer—must then suffer doubly, both for the loss of their child and also in the grotesque conclusion that had their belief in Jesus been just a little more potent their child might still be alive, death might have been avoided.
Hear me say that that’s not what Luke implies in any of these stories, and it’s certainly not what’s going on in the little village of Nain this morning. Jesus surely has something to say to this grieving widow, but it is not that. So, let’s look at the story more closely.
The dire circumstance of this passage is revealed its most poignant phrase. Of the dead man and his mother, Luke says, “He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow.” Understood through a first century lens, this means that this woman has lost everything. Upon the death of husband, her present had been taken from her: her means of sustenance and protection gone. Now, upon the death of her son, her future has been taken from her. Her social security into old age has evaporated. And with the death of both, who were the carriers of the name she shares, she is, essentially, nameless. The community won’t know what to do with her, how to treat her, where to send her, what to say to her. She has become no one. She is the least, the lonely, and the lost.
This is the moment Jesus arrives at Nain. This is the moment, as Alan Culpepper says, that Jesus must act if the Gospel is to mean anything at all. So what does Jesus do? The easy answer is that he resuscitates the son, but if we get there too quickly we’ll miss the meaning of the story. Importantly, Luke tells us that, upon arrival, Jesus immediately “comes forward and touches the bier,” the platform on which the corpse lies. He touches the bier. Rather than skirting the edges of this funeral procession or even walking alongside the widow in her grief, Jesus moves directly into the center of this march of death and makes contact with death itself.
This is remarkable on two levels. On the first level, this detail would have scandalized Luke’s original readers, because Jesus here defies both social convention and Jewish purity law. He willfully and purposefully touches the corpse. On the second level, and the reason Jesus does so, is to demonstrate more loudly than words can convey that he will not skirt around the edges of the widow’s grief. He will not offer shallow platitudes or pity in response to her sorrow. Jesus will walk into the very center of her loss.
Listen very carefully to this part. Often this passage is read as a story about a dead man, but the main character, as we’ve seen, is the woman, who stands in for any and all those who have lost everything, who have plummeted to the depths in life, who have become no one. Jesus will do for her what the world will not do. Jesus will, with all eyes upon him, move directly to the very center and source of the widow’s loss, sorrow, and pain and embrace them. Jesus will claim her loss, and her being, as his own. Jesus grafts her identity to his, so that she is no longer no one. She is one who belongs to Jesus. Even before the son sits upright, she has received her life back again, and it is new life, because at its center are not things that die, but Christ—the gracious love of God—who does not die. As Jesus touches the corpse, I suspect he looks at the mother, so that to both he says, “I say to you, rise!” The son is resuscitated, but his mother is resurrected.
Do you see? This is not a story about avoiding death. It is not telling us that if we believe strongly enough or pray hard enough we will stave off death. Death comes. Loss comes. Disaster comes. Sometimes we lose absolutely everything we hold dear in this world. This story tells us as much, and it tells us that, in the throes of such painful experiences Jesus does not walk the other way, and neither does Jesus skirt around the edges. Jesus marches straight to the center of our pain and touches it with God’s grace. As Alan Culpepper hopes, Jesus, indeed, has something to say. “Rise!” are his words to the widow, as well as to the son, and to us even today. “You belong to me, and on the other side of any death, I will give you life.”
This is a pivotal moment in Luke’s Gospel. In the very next verses after today’s passage, the disciples of John the Baptist, who is in prison, travel three days to get to Jesus and ask, “Are you the one?” They want to know, as the readers of Luke’s Gospel wanted to know, and as we want to know, who Jesus is. They want to know if Jesus is a holy man, a prophet, and a teacher like John, or if, hope against hope, he might be something even more. And Jesus will respond to them simply, by asking, “What do you see?”
That is the question for John’s disciples, and it is the question for us. When we look at Jesus, what do we see? We don’t see only a teacher of ethics. We don’t see merely a holy example. We don’t see just a prophet who preaches a better world. We see all of these things, but not only these things. We also and primarily see the one who refuses to skirt around the edges of our lives. We see the one who will walk steadily into the depth of our loss and our loneliness and our fear—those things that threaten to strip us of our very sense of who we are and leave us as no one, whatever they may be—and raise us to new life on their other side.
Since 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism has asked, “What is our only comfort in life and death?” And the catechism’s answer is, “That I am not my own, but belong both in life and death to Jesus Christ.” Trusting that is what faith is. Trusting that is what sees us through all the deaths in this life and at the end of this life, and into the new life that comes with the sure knowledge that we are Christ’s own.
[i] Culpepper, R. Alan. The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume IX, pg. 159.