Monday, May 30, 2016

Necessary Miracle


I love the story of the raising of widow's son in Nain (Luke 7:11-17), but I wonder whether I love it for the same reasons that Luke wrote it. The story itself is a short, direct, uncomplicated miraculous raising of a dead man. There's not a lot to pick apart here.

Sure, one could focus on how Jesus seems to press the limits of the laws of clean and unclean by touching the bier upon which the corpse is being carried, but I think that would miss the point. Also, one could preach a sermon on how a compassionate, uninvited Jesus walks up to the emotionally distraught widow and gives her a word of comfort--"Do not weep"--and then follows it up with the miraculous revivification, but I don't think that's the most important part. The RCL Track 2 gives us a parallel with 1 Kings 17 and the resuscitation of the son of the widow of Zarephath by Elijah. Perhaps that suggests that Jesus is a new Elijah but, because Jesus doesn't beg the Lord for intervention and, instead, intervenes on his own, also shows us that he is even greater, but I still don't think that's what Luke had in mind. I think Luke needed a dead-raising miracle, and he put one in the story.

If you read ahead at the verses that follow this Nain miracle, you find that the disciples of John the Baptist had come to Jesus to ask, on John's behalf, whether he was the one upon whom the people of Israel were waiting. Jesus replied, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me" (Luke 7:22-23).

This blended quotation by Jesus of passages from Isaiah (8:14, 15; 29:18; 35:5, 6) is very important for Luke. This is Luke's understanding of the messianic expectation and its fulfillment in Jesus. If you had asked Luke, "Why is Jesus important, and what does he represent for God's people?" his answer would have been something like, "In Jesus, the longings of God's people are fulfilled in that the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them." If you read Luke from start to finish, you can't help but see that this is the center of his telling of the gospel. This is Luke's good news.

But Luke needed a dead man to be raised, and so we have Luke 7:11-17. I'm not so cynical or skeptical to think that Luke invented this story to fill out his list of messianic qualifications. But Luke is the only one who tells this story, and he also inserts it into his account rather clumsily. Nain is about 30 miles from Capernaum, which is where the first part of Luke 7 takes place. That's a lot of ground to cover. Plus, nothing else takes place explicitly around Nain. So, in short, I'd guess that the widow's son was raised from the dead in Nain at some point in Jesus' ministry, but Luke weaves it in here to make a point. And the point Luke makes is the real focus of this story.

There were lots of messianic expectations in Jesus' day. Some expected a military leader to help overthrow the Romans. Some looked for a charismatic priest to come and renew the worship of God's people. Some hoped for a king. Some expected a prophet. For Luke, however, none of that was as important as the rescue of the needy. The blind can see. The lame can walk. The deaf can hear. Even the dead are raised. And, saving the most important for last, the poor hear the good news, too. The raising of the widow's son in Nain isn't just about the raising of the dead. It's about the fulfillment of God's promised reversal of fortune that happens not at the national level but at the personal level. It's about one woman getting her son back. It's about one blind man receiving his sight. It's about one poor, single mother hearing that God's good news is for her.

Don't read and preach on Sunday's gospel lesson in isolation. It doesn't make sense without Luke 7:22-23. This is good news for everyone.

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