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The Widow of Nain’s Son 1 Kings 17:8-24; Luke 7:11-17

Most of you will probably know that Jeanette and I have both been widowed and subsequently met and married each other. We actually met as a result of the personal ads column in the MK Citizen, joining a club which we nicknamed The Merry Widows. We were among a group of friends who had experienced the loss of our spouse under the age of 50. Although the club no longer exists, the friendship and support we found in our unusual experience continues. Despite other’s best efforts, none could really understand what it was that we had recently experienced, not that we would wish it on them. Only a widow really knows what it is like to lose your closest partner in life. We tend to think of this kind of loss in psychological terms – grief, bereavement of a particular kind which counselling can sometimes ease. However, in our Bible readings today there are other aspects to what widowhood may mean which I would like to explore. I want to look at the story of the raising of the widow of Nain’s son from three different angles or perspectives. After I have offered those perspectives we consider three interpretations.

The most immediate level we might see this story is on the personal level. It is a story in which Jesus overcomes the double grief of a woman: she has lost her husband and on top of it, her only son has also died. I suppose most of us dread these two kinds of loss more than anything else. On a psychological level the death of a spouse and the death of a child are two of the highest kinds of stress that anyone can experience. This story in Luke’s gospel follows the one about Jesus healing the slave of a Roman Centurion. They are both stories of healing in different ways, and they show Jesus reaching out to those who might be considered outsiders to normal society – a representative of the foreign occupying power, who nevertheless is a kind man wanting to save suffering slave. The widow had many sympathisers who attended the funeral, but all their mourning couldn’t make any difference to the deep sense of loss the widow must have experienced. Luke tells us repeatedly throughout his gospel that Jesus had compassion on those he reached out to help. So Jesus reaches out to the widow and restores her son to her.

This is a wonderful story and may attract us to Jesus because of what he can do for people in distress. But we may also be left asking the question, “Why does Luke include this story in his gospel, especially when none of the other gospel writers do so?” That is to start looking at this story from a theological perspective. The answer lies in the reaction of the crowd to the miracle. Their first reaction, which we can easily understand, is that they have just seen something rather scary – they were at a funeral and the dead person was brought back to life – that is not what you experience, not what you are prepared for on such an occasion! But their other reaction was to exclaim, “A great prophet has arisen among us.”

As Jane Williams, in her commentary on this week’s readings puts it: “Perhaps some..[of the crowd] ..went home and thought further about what they had seen. Perhaps they even remembered the story of the prophet Elijah who also raised a widow’s son from the dead.” They felt they were experiencing something which their ancestors had – the presence of a great prophet which in himself conveys a sense of God being amongst them. The raising of the widow of Zarephath’s son, the story which follows on from today’s OT reading, ends with the rejoicing mother saying: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” All the gospels invite us to consider who Jesus is. Luke begins his account of Jesus by telling us about his unusual birth and the unusual visits he received. He ends by telling us about Jesus’ resurrection appearances in which he emphasises his identity as the Messiah. In the broad sweep of his gospel, at this stage Luke is still building towards that conclusion – at this stage he is a great prophet whose word is divine and whose word is truth.

Economic Justice
Little children ask the question Why interminably. After awhile they grow out of it, but in some ways it is a shame, because as adults we do not ask that question enough and are perhaps guilty of discouraging it in children so much that they give up. Having asked why Luke included this particular story in his gospel, there is another why question which we perhaps are not inclined to ask. The question is prompted by the way in which today’s gospel reading is accompanied by a similar one in the OT. They are both stories about widows who have nothing left. In our modern welfare state and our days of more equal access to the workplace we do not see the widow in terms of economic destitution. It is easier to see it in the OT story where Elijah’s request to her seems unreasonable – but of the little she has, she is generous and we find that God supplied what they all needed to survive the hardship of the times.

Although families and relatives provided a system of support for the needier members of society in those days there were still those who fell through the net of care– as they always do. Even though there were many who followed the coffin that day in Nain, it seems none of them were prepared to follow up by offering the widow continuing support for her living needs. By restoring the young man to the destitute mother, Jesus was restoring her means of living, of surviving. It was far more significant than simply comforting her psychological distress to bring him back to life – with her son alive again she had someone to provide for her – that was the sheer reality of the way life was organised in her day.

Three perspectives – three interpretations
As well as the question why we also need to ask what does this mean? Arising from these three different ways of looking at the story are also three interpretations. Each is valid and we do well to hold them all together.

On a personal level, if Jesus is the one who overcomes grief, the one who has compassion, then this story assures us that in him we find hope, comfort and new life. It is this Jesus that we might most readily experience and offer to others yet to find faith in him.

On a theological level, if Jesus is the new Elijah, the man of God whose word is truth, then we are called to follow and bear witness to this one in whom we can place our trust because he is the truth.

On an economic level there is also a challenge to us. In Jesus we are called to challenge injustice and restore the means of support to all who, like the widows in today’s readings, are destitute. We are challenged to ask the question why with the persistence of a 3 year old. Why do some people not have enough to live on? Why are there haves and have nots? Why does poverty and disease continue in a world that can send people to the moon and fix the genes in our bodies? The questions are endless and the parent in us or in society may discourage us from persisting.

St Luke wrote down what was being preached in his day by the first followers of Jesus. They had been stirred by all that they had witnessed in their lives. In some ways the miracle is that 2,000 years later the things that Jesus did are still being talked about. The challenge for us today is to see Jesus in all his fullness, on a personal level, on a level of truth, and on the level of justice. When we hold all these together we can be nearer the gospel and what can inspire us, or bring us to life when we are overwhelmed by our own lives and what the world is doing to the life of its people. “Surely a great prophet has arisen among us and God has looked favourably on his people!”




God of truth,
help us to keep your law of love
and to walk in ways of wisdom,
that we may find true life
in Jesus Christ your Son.