Third Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 17:17–24
Prayer of the Day: Compassionate God, you have assured the human family of eternal life through Jesus Christ. Deliver us from the death of sin, and raise us to new life in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The casket floats above the crowd of wailing mourners as the funeral procession wends its way through the village and out onto the dusty road leading to the cemetery. This could be a scene from modern day Palestine where the death of young men leaving behind widowed wives and grieving mothers is all too common. It could also be a scene from a funeral on the south side of Chicago which has seen a spike in violence among and between young men. We don’t know whether the young man in our gospel lesson died a violent death. It is altogether possible that he did. Palestine in the first century was a violent land filled with bandits, insurrectionists and soldiers of Herod Antipas who were little better than murderous thugs. One had only to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Of course, there were plenty of other ways for young men to die in first century Palestine. Building of silos, storehouses and homes was dangerous work. There was no OSHA in those days. A broken bone or a deep cut as frequently as not led to subsequent infection and death. The vast majority of the population was chronically malnourished and thus vulnerable to all manner of diseases and disabilities. So it is also quite possible that the widow’s son in this week’s lesson died an unremarkable death from causes which, if not entirely natural, were common enough.
The tragic nature of the untimely death of this young man is amplified by his sole survivor, his mother. In a land that knew nothing of Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid, a woman left widowed and childless was a most pathetic figure. Her options for survival were few: migrant worker; slave-or worse. That is the circumstance into which Jesus walks. He touches the dead man’s coffin-an act that rendered him ritually unclean for the rest of the day. But what has occurred in the case of lepers and notorious sinners happens here as well. Instead of being rendered unclean by what he touches, Jesus touches uncleanness and renders it clean. The young man who was dead now lives.
The gospel lesson gives us some straight talk about death. Let’s start with the obvious. God made us mortal. That means there is a limit to life. God gave us life and God means to take it back from us in the end. We will all die and there is nothing we can do about it. Still, we face death with confidence. The One who made us from dust and returns us to dust promises to raise us up from dust once again. This is no empty promise. God has already begun to raise the dead through Jesus. So we are free to live and to die in hope.
That said, there are deaths which ought never to occur. No child should ever die from malnutrition, preventable diseases or from neglect or abuse. No young man or woman should have to die because the governments of the world cannot resolve their disputes without resort to violence. School children should not have to die because mental health treatment is inaccessible while assault weapons are as accessible as chewing gum. Millions of children should not be dying of malaria throughout the world while there are means of prevention that are easily implemented and affordable. Disciples should be no more accepting of these deaths than Jesus was toward the death of the widow’s son at Nain.
This story follows immediately upon the text from Sunday, November 11th of last year. Elijah is staying with an impoverished widow of Zarephath, a coastal town in the pagan country of Phoenicia. He had been driven out of Israel by King Ahab who blamed Elijah for the three year draught that was devastating the whole region. This fugitive prophet had taken up residence with the widow and her son. All three of them were living off one jar of meal and a single jug of oil that had miraculously been sustaining them throughout the long years of draught. Then, tragedy strikes. The widow’s son becomes deathly ill. The widow lashes out at Elijah and, by extension, at God for bringing this evil upon her. That is not unusual. In the face of unbearable suffering and loss, people often question God’s mercy, wonder whether they are not somehow at fault for what has occurred or become angry at God. What is truly remarkable is the prophet’s response. Elijah does not scold the woman for her impiety or remind her of how good God has been to her thus far or explain to her that the death of her son is really a blessing in disguise that she will someday come to recognize. Elijah takes the woman’s complaint directly to God without any censorship, editing or pious window dressing. He turns and says, “Yea God! What did you have to go and kill this poor kid for? This lady saved my life! Can’t you give her a break?”
There is a lesson in this for all of us who deal with people in times of grief. It is not our place to defend God’s reputation or make explanations for God’s actions or seeming lack of action. After all, God would be a shabby excuse for a deity if he had to depend on us to cover for him. Our responsibility is to show compassion to the sufferer. That sometimes means entering into his or her anger and despair. There are precious few devotional aids that teach us how to pray when we are heartbroken, doubtful or just plain mad at God. That is where the Psalms come in. The psalmists know how to pray on good days and bad. They know how to praise God for every source of joy and beauty, but they also know how to let God know when they feel that God has let them down. That is exactly how Elijah prays over the widow’s son.
The son’s recovery demonstrates to the reader that Elijah’s prayer is heard and that God’s mercy extends beyond the confines of Israel to all nations where people of faith are found. But it is important not to lay too much stress on the healing. The message here is not that God grants whatever request a person makes-even such persons as Elijah. Rather, the point is that God hears and God acts. Such actions may not come as dramatically as in this story and they may not comport with our wishes. In the end, God means to take all of our lives. So the healing of the widow’s son amounts only to a brief reprieve. Death will eventually part the widow and her son. That the boy has been given back to his mother for an indefinitely longer period of time is sheer grace. As such, this miracle has the larger purpose of evoking the faith expressed in the widow’s response: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” Vs. 24.
This is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance. It is impossible to determine precisely the danger or threat from which the psalmist has been delivered. It is possible that the psalmist is a warrior giving thanks for deliverance from death in battle. It is also possible that the psalmist is thanking God for recovery from illness. In either case, the psalmist is deeply thankful for God’s mercy which lasts forever and triumphs over God’s anger that is only momentary. S/he acknowledges that, prior to his/her troubles, s/he had become cocky and complacent. “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’” It is perhaps this very pride and presumptiveness that led to trouble for the psalmist. Prosperity and ease can create a false sense of security and invulnerability. When all is well and everything seems stable and secure, it is easy to forget how fragile a thing life is. Just one second of inattention to the road by me or someone else can tragically alter the course of my life forever. If that tiny spot on the X-ray is what I fear, then it matters not how successful I have been, how much I have stashed away in my savings or how carefully I have planned my retirement. Suddenly, it becomes very clear just how dependent I am for life upon the God who gave it to me and who will sooner or later require it from me again.
The psalmist aims what appears to be a rather presumptuous rhetorical at God: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” Seriously? Does this individual really believe that God needs his or her praise and testimony so much that God simply cannot afford to let him or her die? I suppose that is one way of looking at these words. Of course, there is another take on this as well. We are, after all, created to give praise to our Creator. Perhaps the psalmist is merely pointing out to God that s/he has learned his or her lesson. Meaning and security are not found in prosperity, however impressive it might be. Human fulfillment and joy cannot be found apart from faithful reliance upon God and a life of praise directed to God.
As we are going to be in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians for the rest of this month and into the beginning of July, you might want to read the overview by James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek at enterthebible.org. You may recall that Paul is writing to the Galatian believers out of concern that they are forsaking the good news about Jesus that he has preached and are listening instead to the message of certain Jewish Christian evangelists. These folks were arguing that Gentile Christians must be circumcised according to Jewish law. Paul insists in reply that people are justified by faith in Christ rather than by keeping the requirements of Torah.
Last week’s lesson opened with Paul’s surprise and outrage that, so soon after hearing the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus, the Galatian church is now turning to “another gospel.” This week Paul launches into an account of his upbringing within Judaism and his former hatred of the church. In part, Paul wishes to impress upon his hearers that his own Jewish credentials are as good or better than those of his opponents, but his objective is not to establish his superiority to them on that basis. He wishes rather to make it clear to the Galatians that, although he has as good a claim as anyone to Jewish ancestry and upbringing, he does base his preaching and teaching on these credentials. Instead, he basis his preaching and teaching on his encounter with the risen Christ and Christ’s commission for him to preach the good news of God’s salvation to the Gentiles. Paul also wishes to make the point that he is in fellowship with the Church at Jerusalem and has received the blessing of the rest of the apostles for his ministry.
It is important to note this twofold claim of authority. Paul is emphatic that his apostleship is grounded in his encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus. (See Acts 9:1-30 for Luke’s version of this encounter.) But he is also careful to point out that he had gone up to Jerusalem to visit with Peter and James to receive their blessing. He also points out that the church in Judea recognized his preaching and glorified God on that account. Thus, apostolic authority, understood as the authorization to preach, teach and administer the sacraments publically, is grounded in the apostle’s conviction that s/he has been called to this work. But that alone is not sufficient to make an apostle. Apostolic authority must be recognized and conferred by the church as well. I believe that this twofold call process exists in some way, shape or form in most expressions of the church. Throughout its history, the church as striven to exercise apostolic authority in ways that encourage and stimulate creative ministry and preaching while also holding preachers and ministers accountable to the biblical witness, the ecumenical creeds and our respective confessional/teaching traditions. We have not always gotten that balance quite right, but we keep trying. Perhaps that is what it means to be a church of the Reformation?
This account of Jesus’ raising of the widow’s son is found only in Luke. It is naturally paired with the Elijah story in I Kings, also involving the death of a widow’s only son. Indeed, the Elijah narrative might well have been on the peoples’ (Luke’s?) mind as they exclaimed, “A great prophet has risen among us.” Vs. 16. The other comment made by the crowd to the effect that “God has [visited] his people” reflects the Benedictus in which Zechariah declares: “for he has visited and redeemed his people.” Luke 1:68. The NRSV translates the verb for “visit” as “look favorably upon.” While not inaccurate, this rendering does not reflect the sense that God is coming to or making a saving visit to Israel. I prefer the old RSV’s use of “visit.”
Nain is a tiny Galilean village approximately twenty-five miles south of Capernaum. See map. Luke reports that Jesus raised the young man near the town gate, but no evidence of a gate or wall has ever been found at the site. Either the gate was only part of a simple enclosure or the word was used figuratively, referring to the place where the road entered the houses. In either case, it would have been necessary for the funeral procession to pass out of the town as burial of the dead would not have been permitted within the town proper.
Jesus’ compassion here is not for the dead man, but for his mother. As indicated in my opening remarks, the life of a woman without a husband or children to support her would have been a bitter lot in first century Palestine. This is yet another passage in which Luke’s particular concern for the lives of women and their participation in the gospel narrative is illustrated.
Jesus touched the bier to stop the poll bearers from proceeding further. Such an act might well have been considered rude and disrespectful. It also rendered Jesus legally unclean for the balance of the day.
Jesus raises the young man by commanding him to arise. He uses similar means in raising the daughter of Jairus. Luke 8:54-56. See also the raising of Lazarus at John 11:43. This harkens back to the first chapter of Genesis where God speaks the world and all of its creatures into existence. Genesis 1:1-2:3.
Luke tells us that word of this event spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding hill country-strange given that the miracle took place at a small town in Galilee. Some scholars attribute this discrepancy to Luke’s general lack of knowledge about Palestinian geography.