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MISSION TO THE OUTSIDERS Galatians 1:11-end; Luke 7:11-17

Introduction
Sixteen summers ago I lost my first wife suddenly and unexpectedly. I recall feeling as if I had just broken up with a girlfriend. It seemed an odd kind of feeling since I hadn’t split up, I had just been widowed. Later I realised that it was all to do with the feeling of deep loss: I had lost a lover – it made no difference psychologically whether she was girlfriend or wife.

The Widow of Nain’s Son
Try and imagine the funeral scene from today’s gospel reading. In Jesus’ day it was probably much more like the chaotic looking scenes we see on our TV’s of Middle Eastern funerals. There is no attempt to hide grief. Women ululate, men beat their breasts, there is loud wailing and the body is carried high aloft, sometimes openly displayed. According to religious tradition and because of the hot climate, and without refrigeration, funerals happen without delay, when the shock of early grief is still fresh.

For the widow of Nain the loss of her only son was not just a psychological blow but an economic one, too. Without a man to support her she was going to be destitute. Poor women could not survive in that society because they could not work unless they turned to the “oldest profession” as it is sometimes called. That would mean becoming an outcaste of society. There was not much compassion in a community beyond turning out for the funeral.

Luke tells us, as so often, that Jesus came across someone in a desperate situation and had compassion on them. In fact, the story of the raising of the widow’s son in Nain is one of a pair that Luke relates at this point. The first half of chapter 7 is about the healing of the Roman centurion’s servant. They form part of a wider plan Luke has in the way he tells the story of Jesus.

Jesus is for outsiders
Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts form two parts of the Christian
story. The first half tells the story of Jesus and the second the story of Jesus’ first followers. Luke wrote his two-part story for someone called Theophilus, possibly a Roman official. Reading between the lines of Luke’s account we see that he is explaining to an important person why Christians are different. Christians often got into trouble with the authorities in the early days of the Church and they were misunderstood. So Luke sets about saying that far from being a troublesome Jewish sect, the followers of Jesus actually have a message for all people. The message about Jesus is for outsiders, for people who don’t belong to God’s chosen race. The centurion at Capernaum and the widow of Nain are two examples amongst many throughout the gospel of Luke of people whom Jesus helped.

There is another resonance that Luke built into this story, though. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus set out his mission statement at Nazareth. You may recall that after his temptation in the wilderness Jesus went to worship in his local synagogue and was handed the scroll of Isaiah the prophet. He read out a passage about what the Servant of the Lord had been sent to do. He said that it was being fulfilled in their very presence. So far so good, the people loved it. But then Jesus started to talk about Elijah and how he was sent, not to any needy widow in Israel to help, but to a gentile widow outside of Israel who had lost her only son. His message didn’t go down well at all because he was implying that God was turning to offer salvation to the outsiders, to the people the Galileans were oppressed by, the people the Jews of the day felt deserved none of God’s grace. Now, in a clear parallel to Elijah, Jesus raises a widow’s only son. The people recognise it and exclaim that a great prophet has risen amongst them. Whether he is a representative of the enemy or she is a woman about to become an outcaste, Jesus turns to the outsider with compassion.

What we need today
So how can all of this apply to us today? What is good news for our
situation? Perhaps we feel helpless in the face of modern day anxieties. Unlike the widow who had just lost her only son, our welfare state protects us from being destitute. But there are other ways in which we are vulnerable. A Christian writer commenting on this passage suggests that we suffer as a society from fear of the stranger, mistrust of our leaders, and worry over the rapid changes around us which leave us feeling insecure. We fear for the future, for our children, grandchildren and our planet in an era of climate change. We are horrified by things like the shootings this week in a quiet corner of Cumbria. Perhaps that kind of tragedy reminds us of other kinds of mass killings caused in part by our allowing so many people of different cultural backgrounds to settle in our country. Or perhaps on a more personal level, we feel in some way that we are outsiders. We feel different because we are [deaf,] widowed, elderly, disabled, divorced, unemployed. We feel outsiders to “normal” society.

Jesus came to the grieving widow who was fearful of what she was facing, and said “Do not weep!” It sounds a bit feeble until you realise what he was about to do. He restored to her what she would need to live with dignity – a son who would support her. She need no longer be an outsider in her own community. Is not that the message we celebrate as followers of Jesus? St Paul expressed that feeling of being an outsider who actually belongs in his letter to the Galatians. The persecutor had become a champion proclaimer of Christ even though some were still suspicious of him. Paul is astonished that the Galatians are so lightly abandoning their new found faith when he himself had struggled so hard as he began to follow Christ. Do they not realise that Jesus draws together a community of apparent outsiders to belong together in him and that this is the real gospel? So Jesus comes to us with compassion as we face the problems of our personal lives, of our fractured society and of our sick planet. He says, “Do not weep!” It sounds so feeble in the face of these enormous challenges. Do we have faith in what he can do among us? In him is the transformation of our loss into new life. As people of faith we do not give up. We join with others of faith and work where we can to rebuild society, to accept outsiders as allies, and to join with others in caring for our planet.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith

 

   


 
 

Holy God,
faithful and unchanging:
enlarge our minds with the knowledge of your truth,
and draw us more deeply into the mystery of your love,
that we may truly worship you,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Amen

 


 

 



Acknowledgements