Friday, March 12, 2010

Luke 7:11-17 Commentary

Jesus Raises a Widow's Son
11 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.

Dig Deeper
Not too long ago, my wife decided to buy me a new cell phone as a gift. I am appreciative for the gift but one problem has popped up since she gave it to me. It’s a great phone but I have trouble figuring it out. There are so many gadgets and new technological features that I just have trouble doing the simplest things on it. I am finally figuring out many of the features but in the first week that I had the phone I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to close this particular application that somehow got open. I spent over an hour trying to click on different things and move things around and I could not get that ridiculous application to close. Finally, after all that time, I got it closed but I wasn’t even sure what I had done. Imagine spending all that time and getting the desired result only to not really understand how you did it. Then my then six-year old son came into the room and heard me complaining that I got the thing closed but didn’t know how, which would be a problem if I ever got it open again, which I also didn’t know how to do that. My son, who to my knowledge had never seen a phone like that before, said “oh, let me see it dad, I’ll explain it to you.” I handed it to him, confidently knowing that he would be humbled by the overwhelming technological expertise needed to operate this space-aged item. Much to my chagrin, he grabbed the thing and in less than a minute had checked it out and was explaining to me how to both open and close the various applications.

It can be very frustrating when someone can figure out technology, put together a puzzle or read a book much faster or with much more ease than you ever could. It certainly demonstrates that they have talent or an ability that you simply don’t. In other situations, it can demonstrate that someone has an authority that you don’t have. The next time you’re at an airport, watch how much easier it is and how much quicker it is for a pilot to get from outside the airport and onto the plane than it is for you. Or think about how much easier it is for the President to get into the White House than it is for you. He simply has an authority that you don’t.

As we have seen already, Jesus seemed rather intent on representing Israel and at every turn showing that he is the true Israel. He has gone where God’s people in the past have failed and has succeeded in doing God’s will and being the true servant of God, the true Son of God. But he has gone beyond just reversing Israel’s failures. He also went to the great and memorable moments of Israel’s history, moments like the great healing miracles of Israel’s prophets of the past. Many of Jesus’ miracles, in fact, were intentionally mimicking the great miracles of those men of God but with an important twist. As we will see in this miracle account, it is very similar to one of the great miracles of the Old Testament but Jesus has an authority beyond any of the Old Testament prophets. So while there are many points of contact, and Luke is quite intent on making those echoes rather clear, Jesus performs this miracle with an ease, a power, and an authority that the prophets could never have even hoped to equal.

Just as the previous miracle brought to mind the healing of the leprous Naaman, this passage has seemingly obvious parallels with 1 Kings 17:7-24. As both stories begin, both Jesus (Lk. 7:12) and Elijah approach the town gate (1 Ki. 17:10). Both accounts deal with a grieving widow (Lk. 7:12; 1 Ki. 17:9, 17) and the death of an only son (Lk. 7:12; 1 Ki. 17:17). In both accounts, the son is brought back from the dead (Lk. 7:15; 1 Ki. 17:22). In each account, the risen son is given back to his mother, both physically and metaphorically (Lk. 7:15; 1 Ki. 17:23). And in both accounts the mother realizes that she has witnessed a great man of God (Lk. 7:16;1 Ki. 17:24). But as we shall see in a moment, there is one major difference between these two incidents (although there are many other minor details which vary as this miracle is an echo of Elijah’s miracle and not a recapitulation of it). Before we get to that, however, let’s enter into the scene that Luke has described.

As Jesus enters into this town, he was immediately struck by the sights, smells, and sounds of a funeral procession. It was the regular Jewish custom to bury a body on the day that the person died, partly due to the heat of their region and the smell that would quickly begin to emanate from a decaying body. The body would have been prepared, wrapped in a cloth tightly, placed on a board and carried through the town while the friends and family mourned and wailed loudly.

At the center of this crowd was a grieving widow who was surely stricken by the loss of her beloved son but the reality is that there were even more difficult times ahead for her. A widow was a common Old Testament picture of the most helpless person in society and the death of an only son as a sign of a truly crushing loss (Jer. 6:26; Amos 8:10; Zech. 12:10). A widow would find it very difficult to provide for herself and would have virtually no standing within the community. She would generally be at the mercy of the rest of the community. But even worse than that, this woman would be left alone with no children, with no protection, and the devastating reality that the family line had come to an end. This was a devastating event for this woman on virtually every level.

One thing we might notice, though, is missing from this account. Where is the faith? There is no faith mentioned on the part of this woman. No, Jesus seems much more moved by his own compassion than by any faith that this woman might have had. This is what it looks like when the radical love that Jesus taught in chapter 6 breaks into the real world. This is a combination of Jesus’ compassion, his love, and his unparalleled authority. Jesus’ heart went out to this woman and he comforts her, telling her to not cry. Jesus had said in Luke 6:21 that when the kingdom breaks into someone’s life, weeping is turned to laughter and that would truly be the case here.

As Jesus turned his attention to the dead boy, he reached up and touched the board on which he was being carried. This was an act that would have left him unclean for seven days according to Numbers 19:11 (simply touching the board on which the corpse laid was the same as touching the corpse itself according to the Jewish interpretation of the law). That touch, though, showed that Jesus was far more concerned with showing mercy to this woman and her son than with his own condition. It is a touching reminder to us that truly helping others and touching their lives generally requires that we get a little dirty and “unclean” ourselves. The last miracle-at-a-distance showed Jesus’ incredible authority but this moment of compassionate touch shows his overwhelming love and mercy.

Now for the major difference between this account and that of Elijah’s raising of the widow’s dead son. When Elijah raised the widow’s son, it took him a great deal of effort. Elijah cried out to God in distress and appealed to him in passionate prayer to do something mighty. He stretched his body out across the boy three times and again fervently appealed to God to raise the boy from the dead. It was the LORD himself who heard Elijah’s cries and answered his prayer, showing that Elijah was a man of God. But this is the major difference between Elijah and Jesus. We see none of that effort and pleading with Jesus. There is no fervent crying out to God, pleading with him to raise the boy. There is no stretching out over the boy. Jesus simply tells the young man, by his own authority, to get up. That’s it. There was no effort and no struggle needed. Jesus merely spoke and showed that he had authority even over death.

Who could possibly have authority over death itself but God alone? What the people there that day did not yet fully grasp is a point that Luke surely intended for his readers to catch. The people clearly caught the connections between Jesus’ healing and that of the prophets, though, and are quite ready to declare him a prophet. They were right inasmuch as they could comprehend but as Luke’s readers we already should start to be piecing together the clues that he was much more than just another prophet. This was what it looked like when the God of Israel fulfilled his promises to return. The God of the Exodus who had once dwelt directly with his people finally had returned to come and help his people. Thus, Jesus was a great prophet, but simply giving him the status of prophet was not enough. No prophet had the authority to simply speak on his own behalf and move the power of death to the side.

Before we close the book on this passage, though, there are perhaps two other things that we should take a moment to consider. The first thing is that surely this incident echoed back to the miracle of Elijah (as well as Elisha’s miracle of 2 Kings 4), but there are also echoes that point clearly forward to a time when Jesus’ own widowed mother will mourn at the site of his death and his body wrapped in cloth. And just as this man was brought back out of death, so Jesus would not be bound by the chains of death. But just as his miracles were far greater than those that any man of God could enact, so would his resurrection be beyond any resuscitation from the dead. Jesus would not walk backwards out of death, only to die again one day. He would storm into death itself and come out the other side, transformed, glorified, the same yet somehow different. This is only an echo of that, though, we will have to wait to get to the real thing.

The second thing that we should consider is how this passage plays out in our own lives. You may not be grieving the loss of a child right now but what area in your life needs that compassionate and healing touch of Jesus? What situation do you fear or dread that can only be healed by the touch of the Master? Whatever it may be, rest assured that though his healing touch may not come the way you would like, but God’s healing presence will come and carry you through if you only let him.

Devotional Thought
When Jesus saw this woman he took compassion on her and made himself unclean in order to reach into her life and assist her. Are you willing to do that? How can you reach into someone else’s life right now and touch them with compassion even if it means getting a little messy yourself?

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