There’s a literary technique that can be helpful in interpreting Biblical texts, namely, that one can come to understand a character through the first thing that character says. In the case of the Gospel of Luke, the first thing we hear from Jesus is when he’s 12 years old and he stays behind in the Temple after his family leaves for home. After searching for him for three days, Mary and Joseph finally find him talking with the priests and teachers, and Mary says to him: Why did you treat us like this? To which Jesus responds: Didn’t you know that I would have to be about my Father’s work?
God’s work, as we come to see it in and through Jesus
- is about conquering death and restoring life
- It’s about loving and caring for one another, and the world that God has made
- It’s about peace and reconciliation
And it seems that God has put some of the task down to us. What I mean by that is, as God’s people living in the world, we are given the task of proclaiming the good news through which God demonstrates mercy and gives the gift of eternal life…
We’ve probably all seen the images at one time or another in the news of a funeral procession in the Middle East, a corpse being carried on a bier held aloft on the hands of those who mourn the dead – a crowd processing along the street, crying out in their shared anguish. This is the scene we’ve entered into in Luke 7 – a large crowd carrying the dead body of a young man, the only son of a widow, processing to his burial place. This is a procession from life to death, the procession we must all make in the end, as we are all part of a fallen world marred by the realities of sorrow, sickness and death. This procession is moving out of the city toward the cemetery.
But this is not the only procession in Nain on this day. On the way to the burial place, this first procession is confronted by a very different procession. Coming along with Jesus, there’s also a large crowd, a procession, we might say, from death to life. Jesus is at the center of this second procession, and when he sees the widow, he has compassion for her. Now, remember, the word passion means “to suffer”, and the prefix com means “along with.” Jesus shares the widow’s sorrow. He has compassion. He begins to suffer along with her, and so he stops the funeral procession, and he says to the young man: “Rise Up!” and he’s restored to life – raised from the dead!
It’s a great story, a powerful witness to the power of God to grant life. But that’s not all. This isn’t just about granting life to a young man so that he can live a few more years or a couple more decades, before he eventually has to die again. No, there’s something else going on here that requires a little cultural background. You see, a widow with no son was about the most vulnerable person in society in those days. They had no social standing, no right to property, and no real means of caring for themselves. So notice in the parallel story we read today from 1 Kings, when the woman’s son dies and Elijah cries out to God, he calls it a calamity, and he means it! There was not much worse that could happen to a woman.
So, if we’re to understand Jesus’ ministry and mission as being about his Father’s work, then we learn something very important about it in these stories that can have major implications for how we are called to live in the world as disciples of Jesus, about how we are called to serve the world’s most vulnerable ones. In each of these stories about sons being restored to their widowed mothers, the focus is not on “other-worldly” concerns –
this isn’t about claiming another soul for heaven or any such thing. Rather, this is very much about the very real concerns of this world. Notice, Luke doesn’t write that Jesus has compassion for the dead son, but for the widowed mother – it’s her life that hangs in the balance here. When the young man dies, his life is hidden in God. He’s secure in the love of God, as we all are when we die. But her life is hanging in the balance, because the system was broken, because the very people who were supposed to care for the widow and the orphan weren’t living up to that obligation.
So Jesus raises the son from the dead, and restores him to his mother, and all the people begin to glorify God saying: A great prophet has risen among us, and God has looked favorably, or literally in the Greek, God has visited his people. And the point for us is right there in the visitation. You see, this visitation is to be understood as continuing in and through us, as we live in the world as disciples of Jesus. That is, we are called to continue to be about the Father’s work, even as Jesus had to be about his Father’s work – having compassion on those who suffer, advocating for those whose suffering comes as the result of our collective failure to care for and accompany
- the oppressed and excluded
- the under-privileged
- the resident alien
- the widowed and orphaned
- those who live on the margins of society
in their need.
You know, from time to time over the more than 5 1/2 years I’ve served as your pastor, people have asked about, and, quite frankly, some have objected to and challenged what they’ve perceived as a particular political bent or level of political involvement that seems to be evident in my leadership and in my preaching. So I just want to say that, for me, and I hope for you too, that this isn’t about politics, although, the way the system is set up in our current context, much of what needs to happen involves talking to those who hold political office and power and are elected to represent the will of the people. But what I hope we’re about as God’s people living and serving in the real world, is about “doing” the Gospel – living it, breathing it, inviting people into it, for the Gospel is the power of God to change lives, to take what’s marked by darkness and death and division, and to breathe life into it. It’s what compels us into the world
- To do justice
- To love mercy
- To strive for peace
- To love and serve God by loving and serving our neighbor…
And so I say to all of you:
- Rise Up! Follow the example of our Lord Jesus who risked becoming unclean, breaking the religious rules of the day, touching the bier which carried the corpse of the widow’s dead son in order to suffer along with the widow.
- Rise Up! Follow the example of our Lord Jesus who refused to keep the suffering and sorrow of this woman, who was a stranger to him before this and as far as we know after this day, as well, but still he refused to keep her suffering at arm’s length, instead, reaching out, and coming near, and accompanying her in her pain.
- Rise Up! Follow the example of our Lord Jesus, and put yourself in the middle of the pain your neighbor suffers – the pain of the stranger, the need of the outsider, the suffering of the powerless.
- Rise Up! Follow the example of our Lord Jesus. Leave the ways of death, the ways of inactivity, the ways of complacency and indifference and division, leave them behind. Bury them outside the walls of the city where the stuff of death belongs.
- Yes! Rise Up! Follow the example of our Lord Jesus. Be about our Father’s work. Go out from here in the power of God’s Spirit and live the kind of life that proclaims God’s gracious love – be active and proactive, caring and compassionate in the name of Christ Jesus, for the sake of the Gospel and the good of all the needy world!