Dear brothers and sisters,
Today’s good news continues in Luke 7:11-17.
Soon afterward he journeyed to a city called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd accompanied him. As he drew near to the gate of the city, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. A large crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” He stepped forward and touched the coffin; at this the bearers halted, and he said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, exclaiming, “A great prophet has arisen in our midst,” and “God has visited his people.” This report about him spread through the whole of Judea and in all
the surrounding region.
The crowd saw Jesus as a great prophet; they thought that he might be the return of Elijah as did crowds at other times reported in the gospels. In 1 Kings Elijah restored the breath of life to the child of a widowed woman. The boy had died some time after she had baked Elijah a small cake as he asked despite her protest that she had “only a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug.” Her reward for responding to Elijah’s instruction was that her jar of flour and jug of oil nevermore ran empty. It took two miracles for this woman to believe!
Power over death. This and other miracles that Jesus performed are perhaps the greatest tests of my belief. As John Shea writes in The Relentless Widow, “[I]t is hard to get beyond the spectacular.” I can look for a prosaic interpretation such as that offered by Barclay, “It may well be that here we have a miracle of diagnosis; that Jesus with those keen eyes saw that the lad was in a cataleptic trance and saved him from being buried alive, as so many were in Palestine.”
That doesn’t really answer my doubt, though. Shea reminds me, “The Gospel of John consistently critiques people who cannot get beyond the surface of miracles.” He’s talking to me! “The dazzling surface keeps them from pursuing the meaning of miracles….The central characters of the story are Jesus and the widow….This is a story of how culture and society abandon women without men….[T]his story takes us into the compassion of God for the poor and vulnerable. Once the compassion of God for the poor and vulnerable is noted, this story takes us into the cultural conditions that create the poor and vulnerable….They [miracles] reveal divine compassion and love and, at the same time, unmask the social conditions that turn people into the poor and vulnerable, invisible and oppressed.”
Not only did Jesus have compassion for this women because of her grief over losing her only son, she was in desperate straits now with no husband or son to provide for her and protect her. She was almost certainly destined to be beggarly. Jesus didn’t just feel sorry for her; he did something. He expressed his compassion in more than just words, in more than just a comforting embrace. He knew her need and he acted. It wasn’t even her prayer, her request. It was too preposterous to even imagine. He met her need dramatically, miraculously.
There have been times when Jesus has known my need and acted dramatically in a way that was beyond my prayer, beyond my imagining. Times when I was vulnerable, when I was grieving or hurting, so immersed in my own distress that only Jesus’ compassion could reach me and give me hope, peace, and rest. So, why do I have a hard time believing the reports of these miracles? God sent Jesus to be a living sign of His love for us. If I believe that, it shouldn’t be so hard for me to believe that He gave Jesus power over death, the power to heal, the power to exorcise. He gives us signs all the time in different forms. I think He gets exasperated with me sometimes as I have heard Him ask me, “How many signs do I have to give you?” He gave us the signs of these miracles that; He has given us signs through the saints; He has given us signs through one another today. When I think of it like that, it’s less difficult to accept the miracle of power over death.
But it’s still the story beneath, the deeper meaning that is important. Jesus’ heart led him. We read this over and over in the gospels. His heart was the compassion and mercy of God for His people, particularly the poor, the vulnerable, the invisible, and the oppressed. Aren’t we all one of those at one time or another? Isn’t that when we most need Jesus’ compassion? Isn’t that when we most need him to act through each other? Isn’t it those acts of compassion, of love, that are the miracles we witness today? They all represent power over death — death of the spirit, death of hopelessness, death through isolation or rejection, death through pain and fear. We all have power over death if we choose to exercise it. It is the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of God’s grace to have compassion for and to love one another by our acts.