Recently I was observing a group of people who had been together in the past, and were becoming
One woman said to another, “Didn’t you have a son who was in a coma?”
To which the other woman said, “Yes, that was eight years ago. The doctors kept telling me to pull the plug, but I never gave up hope.”
“What happened?” replied the first woman.
The second woman pointed to a man standing near her and said, “There he is!”
I felt as though I had been witnessing one of the stories of the healing acts of Jesus. I cannot attest to the condition of the son, but there he stood.
It seems to me that is how we must deal with these stories in the Gospels. We must accept them and look for their deeper meaning in the situations in which we find ourselves.
At the clergy Bible study this last Thursday, where we always examine the Gospel for the coming Sunday, one of the clergy made a comment that seems designed to ignore the raising of the widow’s son, to which another member of the group said, “Are you going to deny what happened?”
And I think this is the tendency in our modern world. We have solved so many of the mysteries of science that the temptation is to avoid accepting mystery when we don’t have specific answers for what we experience.
I find it interesting that the word “miracle” is not used in the Gospels. The writers merely say that Jesus did this or did that. Our history is to take these things that we cannot easily explain and call them by this “miracle” word that only places them in some liminal space that compounds the mystery.
Among the Gospels, Matthew tells us these types of stories more than any other Gospel for a total of twenty stories. Luke shares nineteen such stories, Mark tells us eighteen, and we remember that John tells us only seven for a very specific reason.
Luke tells us this story of the raising of the widow’s son. It only appears in this account of the life of Jesus and in none of the other three Gospels.
It is located in a section of Luke that is after Jesus has selected his disciples and is beginning to first, delineate the principles of his ministry and, in the section where we find this story, to tell the scope and nature of that same ministry while he is deciding that he will go to Jerusalem.
The section includes the story we heard last week of the healing of the Centurion’s slave, but progresses now to raising a young man to life. The first took place in Capernaum, Jesus’ base of operations.
He now goes twenty-five miles away to a town called Na’in. This is the only time this place is mentioned in the Gospels and it may be that the author selects this new, never used location, to infer that Jesus was about to do something new.
It’s a strange encounter. Two groups converge at a specific point, a city gate. We are to understand that this accident of time and place brings some additional meaning to the story. Two groups, one celebrating the good news that Jesus is sharing with them and the recent healing of the Centurion’s slave, the other grieving the death of an only son.
We remember that this fact has significance because of the culture and times of the first century.
Widows were listed as people who needed to be protected because to lose a husband meant great uncertainty. If a widow had no son to assume the wealth of the family, that wealth would be returned to the husband’s family and she would return to her family of origin to be an additional burden to them, that is, if… that family was there to accept her.
Picture this convergence then; celebratory followers and grieving friends and neighbors.
When Jesus sees the widow, he has compassion for her. The same Greek word that describes how he felt about the Centurion’s situation and how he will feel in a story yet to come about the sinful woman who anoints his feet with her hair.
Jesus now does something that will challenge the law of the Book of Moses. He touches the bier and the dead man. It was forbidden to touch the dead which is the reason that some of the people pass by the injured man in the story we know as the Good Samaritan.
The Laws were very strict about purity and the necessity of the Judeans to remain pure even in the face of another’s death.
But Jesus crosses this barrier to show his compassion and love for this woman who is facing great uncertainty to the point of her own possible demise.
Jesus speaks to this situation and bids the young man to rise. The man sits up and speaks. And here is where our writer connects us to the story we heard from 1 Kings, because just like Elijah does in that story, Jesus, “gives him to his mother.”
The story wants to make it clear that Jesus is a great Prophet just like Elijah. And that is exactly what happens with our two groups, gathered around the risen son.
Our modern understanding of fear gets in the way of hearing this story clearly. Fear of the Lord was not the same kind of fear that the babysitter has in the “Friday the Thirteenth” movie. But instead, Fear of the Lord in the context of biblical writings was awe and wonder.
Next the people say that, “A great prophet has risen among us.” And to make certain the point is made the author repeats a phrase from earlier in this Gospel, “God has looked favorably upon his people.” These two statements, then cement the status of Jesus as a man of God, like the prophet Elijah.
The point of these stories is to show Jesus bringing life to the world.
Of course the progression of the stories from the healing of the slave which in large part happens because of the faith of the Centurion and the fact that he took steps to seek the healing, to the rising of the widows son is designed to show us the growing power in Jesus’ ministry.
That said, we should not mistake the Centurion’s faith to mean that these miraculous acts only happen to those who have great faith. The corollary then would be that they don’t happen because we don’t have enough faith, and this is simply not the case.
Many have been surprised by miracles, which would indicate that faith does not have that much to do with it. It’s much like Elijah asking why God is punishing him by visiting the death of his benefactor’s child upon their situation.
You see, this miracle thing is tricky. We receive them from the grace of God and God loves everyone equally. Now the temptation would be then to think that we can ask God for miracles. But it does not work this way. God is not Santa Clause, distributing what we want because we ask and only if we have been good and not naughty.
I have a favorite Jules Feiffer cartoon. I ripped it from a Playboy magazine many years ago. Unlike other readers, I read Playboy for the cartoons.
A woman is talking to a Doctor, she says, “How is he doctor? Is… there any hope?”
The doctor says, “He’s out of our hands Miss Baum. Beyond the help of that thin book of knowledge we call medical science.”
“But what can I do doctor? I love him!” she replies.
“Have you tried prayer, Miss Baum?”
“Prayer? Did you say prayer?”
“I recommend you try it Miss Baum. We here on earth have done all we can.”
“I… I once prayed doctor. A long time ago, when I had dreams… But that was before… before the war.”
“Perhaps it’s best that I leave you with your thoughts, Miss Baum.” Says the doctor, departing.
The woman stands there alone, silently for a while.
Then, looking up, she says timidly, “Hello, God.”
I know you haven’t heard from me in a long time, God. Not since before the war. A lot of water under the bridge since then…
Momma died in a car crash. We tried to get a doctor for her. No one would come. Then Poppa deserted us and I had to take care of Sis. I was sweet sixteen, God. Any wonder I stopped praying?
Listen did you know we moved from Cincinnati? In ’45 I think it was, Yeah, that’s right, because ’45 was when Leroy got me in trouble and wouldn’t marry me, so I had to go to Pennsylvania to this doctor.
Then for a while we lived in Cleveland. Did I tell you about Cleveland Well, someday remind me. Anyways, Before Cleveland we lived in Detroit. Then this mechanic got Sis in trouble, and I had to take her to Pennsylvania.
Um – So anyways after that we decided we might as well settle in Pennsylvania. And wouldn’t you know it, neither one of us got in trouble again! Isn’t that the limit? Listen God, am I boring you?
Where was I? Oh, Sis finally settled in L.A. She married an actor – so called. He beat her up awful, God. He had her paying the rent and everything. She had to work as a car hop. I was sick for a year. Sis sent me money. I spent it on doctors. A fat lot to Good they did me.
Did I tell you the part about Leroy showing up again? Listen, if I’m boring you just tell me – somehow. Anyways, Leroy came back into my life in Des Moines. He was a changed man – He said. He was a rat, God. He beat me up awful.
And then out of a clear blue sky Bill came along. The only decent thing that’s ever happened to me – A good clean, hardworking man. He bought us a house in Tulsa and we were doing fine. Sis moved in with us – Bill was like a brother to her – one big happy family. Then Bill started getting these funny pains…
We made him see a doctor. The doctor said it was nothing and we forgot about it. But the pains came back. The doctor said it was gas and we forgot about it. But they kept coming back. Say, Will you listen to me, God, Ain’t I an awful talker?
Well finally Sis and I put Bill in the hospital. The doctor said there wasn’t a thing to worry about. Then they took X-rays and the doctor said Bill was dying. The doctor said it was out of his hands. The doctor said all I could do now was pray. So to make a long story short, that’s what I’m doing here, God.
Are you listening?
I haven’t been a good woman. I’ve sinned more than my share. But if you do this one thing for me, whatever’s happened in the past, I know I’ll believe again! Don’t take Bill, God! Bill don’t deserve it! If you got to take somebody, God, Don’t take Bill…
Take the doctor.
This is what happens to our prayer life if we see it as a way to solve life’s problems as opposed to invoking God’s grace to enter into life’s troubles. All too often we wait until it’s too late like Feiffer’s Miss Baum. We should pray early and often and always seek God’s grace and presence in our lives.