Steve Schantz – August 23, 2020
A couple weeks ago during an exercise in this series we peeled back the layers of the onion to spend time with Jesus as he interacted with a young man who asked him about the meaning of life. Finding time to simply be with Christ in the gospels is vital to our knowledge of him, the Father, and the work of the Spirit in our own lives. It is one way of connecting the dots to who we really are in Christ as we allow His heart and mind to guide ours. Let’s look at another day in the life of Christ and focus on his heart toward a widow who had just lost her only son. The story is given to us in Luke chapter 7, verses 11-17.
Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. 12 As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”
14 Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.16 They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” 17 This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country. (NIV)
Luke’s gospel account tells the story of Jesus encountering a widow from Nain. The encounter comes at a bitter and painful time in her life. As a widow, she had already lost her husband. And now her only son is gone as well. Without family to support her, she can’t imagine her future. At that time in history there was no Social Security check coming, no death benefit policy, no welfare or food stamps, no rent assistance program, and no corona virus stimulus check on it’s way in the mail. She is left in dire straights. Having lost the two men in life she loved the most, her past is also now a vacuous heartache.
We can know quite a bit about the funeral customs of that day. The young man would have died either earlier that day or, at the most, the evening before. Middle Eastern climate prevented long delays in burial. Her son would have been placed on a ‘bier’, often composed of wicker. (There is one Old Testament reference to a bier which David followed in 2 Sam. 3:31) There was no casket, especially no closed casket. The body would have been wrapped in a burial shroud, the face exposed. And the men would take turns sharing the honor and pious privilege of pall bearer. Today we use wheeled aluminum frames which the bearers slide the coffin onto and off from. Her son’s ‘final resting place’ would have been somewhere outside the village and Luke shares with us that the procession out of the village was a large one. Though Luke doesn’t mention professional mourners, they were the custom of the day if the family could afford them. Local regulations stipulated that ‘Even the poorest in Israel should hire not less than two flutes and one wailing woman’. Their assignment for the day was to make noise that would help cover the sobbing of family members and save them a bit of embarrassment.
The crowd heading out of the city that day would have been familiar with the story of another widow’s only son who died and was resurrected by the prophet Elisha some 800 years ago in a town called Shunem. Shunem, (previously 3 or four miles from Nain), no longer existed at the time of Christ, but her inhabitants had migrated earlier in history into what is now Nain. (If a great biblical miracle had happened a couple miles from where you live, you’d remember it, right?)
There is something else we can know from that time period and location. This widow would have been walking in front of her son’s bier, not behind. In fact, there were cultural stigmas that placed her here, which may have added insult to her injury. Jewish women were always placed at the front of a funeral procession because of the way a male dominated Jewish world viewed Eve’s role in bringing sin into the world, and through sin, death to all mankind. Without creating too much drama in drawing from another New Testament text, we see a bit of this in Paul’s writing when he says: “And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” (1 Tim 2:14)
When Jesus sees her in the funeral procession, he takes pity on her. But the word pity in our culture falls short of both the posture and the heart of our savior toward the hurting. Today pity often conveys a condescending view toward the person in need. But this is not so in the word’s original meaning. What Jesus is feeling and acting upon comes from deep within who He claims to be toward humanity. It wells up from his bowels of compassion. (Luke 7:13 – The Greek verb is splagchnizomai: to be moved in the inward parts, i.e. to feel compassion. Our English word spleen can be traced back to this word.)
“In the one place in the Bible where the Son of God pulls back the veil and lets us peer way down into the core of who He is, we are not told he is ‘austere and demanding in heart.’ We are not told that he is ‘exalted and dignified in heart.’ We are not even told that he is ‘joyful and generous in heart.’ Letting Jesus set the terms, we are told that he is ‘gentle and lowly in heart.’ ” (Gentle and Lowly- The Heart of Christ for sinners and Sufferers, Dan Ortland, p. 18)
Matt 11:29 I am gentle and lowly in heart
He stops the funeral procession in its tracks by reaching out and touching the bier. Small wonder the bearers stood still. They would have been as shocked as anyone. It simply did not happen at Jewish funerals that anyone other than the authorized officials would touch either the corpse or the open bier on which it was being carried to the place of burial. Have you ever noticed how those who truly have great power do not have to jump and yell to stop a crowd by when they are doing something? The Caesar’s of 1st Century Rome gave a simple thumbs up or a thumbs down and a person’s life was either spared or taken in the arena. So often those with power aren’t tender and those who are tender aren’t very powerful. But Jesus wraps both up into one!
Just a few verses earlier in Luke chapter 7, we walk with Jesus as he encounters a faith filled centurion who servant is sick unto death. The centurion knows that Jesus doesn’t even have to come in person to heal the servant, but sends word to Jesus, “But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” (Luke 7:1-9)
In this story at Nain, two parades are meeting each other in the road. One was a funeral procession, and the other was the traveling party of Jesus and his disciples. In most states, a funeral procession automatically has the right-of way when traveling under a police escort. But Jesus is not about the parade of death, He has come to bring life. When he sees the woman, he says “Don’t cry” as if he is speaking to a child who has a skinned her knee at play! Not because he thought that she should not be crying – far from it. Jesus was readily moved by suffering of any kind, and he himself wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. But already he knew she need not weep, for her son was to be raised to life again… Just like Lazarus and like Jairus’s daughter.
In Nain the parade of death gives way to the parade of life. Jesus is the central figure in one parade, and a corpse is the central figure in the other. He who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life stops to give the gift of life to one who is dead. Some authors take note that he doesn’t touch the body of the dead man, just what he is laid upon. Jesus does not need to touch him to raise him, even as he later cries out in front of another crowd, “Lazarus, come forth!” Jesus has compassion for her because he too was suffering from her pain.
After Jesus raises the young man to life, Luke says Jesus “gave him to his mother.” What an incredible gesture of compassion and connectedness to her loss and to ours! This healing was a gift. A greater than Moses and Elijah is here! Where the Shunammite women of Elisha’s day races to bring back an almost reluctant Elisha, Jesus himself approaches the widow from Nain. Where Elisha stands aloof from the woman (until the boy is healed, he speaks only to Gehazi), Jesus has compassion on the woman and speaks gently to her: ‘Do not weep’. When Elisha seeks to heal a widow’s son he first looks to the power of his staff in Gehazi’s hands to raise the boy. (A “once removed” power if you will.) Perhaps to avoid either becoming defiled by the corpse. But Jesus starts by touching the frame underneath the dead body. Elisha vividly acts out the miracle by lying on the boy, and the first two attempts at raising him actually fail! (2 Kings 4:18-37) Jesus simply says ‘Young man, I say to you, arise’. Elisha’s miracle is dependent on prayer, Jesus’ miracle is dependent only on his own power. He speaks and the will of God is done.
This man was given a second chance at life because of Jesus’ mercy. So too, the widow was given a second chance at life at a time when all seemed lost. We are all given second chances in life because of the mercy of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Where have you seen Jesus bringing hope and renewal to your life this week? Into the life of someone else? Where have we looked for a show stopping, explosive answer to prayer when Jesus is already saying “Don’t cry”, I’ve got this…” May we each experience the compassionate heart of Jesus this week and share Him with others who need the same.