Signs are how we see who GOD is, that GOD comes through these people and is revealed to be a protector and a healer and liberator of the people.
The widow and a gospel of transformation
Proper 5C | Luke 7:11-17
Now that we’re in the longest season of the year, the six months we call Ordinary Time, we might be tempted to see this time after Pentecost with ordinary eyes. But the readings in our lectionary have continued the themes of Pentecost, that extraordinary event when the Spirit came to continue the transformation of the world.
These aren’t all that ordinary of stories. And we aren’t living in all that ordinary of a time.
There certainly isn’t anything ordinary about raising someone from the dead.There certainly isn't anything ordinary about raising someone from the dead. Click To Tweet
This story of Jesus and this widow from Nain is certainly not ordinary. But notice how it connects us to that story from Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures about Elijah. There, much like Jesus, the prophet is called on to help a widow and he raises her son from the dead.
In Jesus, we get these echoes: these opportunities to look back, to see how he resonates with tradition. Perhaps allowing us to see how he comes from this prophetic tradition. That Jesus is connected in some deeply important ways to those major figures in Hebrew tradition and history.
Early followers, who before they were called Christians, were known as Followers of The Way, certainly saw connections between Jesus and the prophets. They saw one between Jesus and Elijah. In the gospels, he is often getting compared to Elijah. Remember hearing those times when other people hear about Jesus; who do they confuse him for? Elijah. John the Baptist. Or one of the prophets.
Who is with Jesus and the three disciples up on the mountain for the Transfiguration? Moses and Elijah.
These two are deeply connected in our tradition.
Today we connect them around this unique and uncommon gift of raising a widow’s son from the dead.
To get at what makes these two stories pop, I want to dig into last week’s stories.
GOD vs. Baal
Last week we had this amazing story of GOD’s only remaining prophet: Elijah taking on Baal’s 450 prophets. It is a stunning story of faith and power. But we might easily lose track of its context. This is under King Ahab, great great grandson of Solomon, four generations removed from the united kingdom, the building of the Temple and then one more generation removed from GOD’s most faithful servant David.
Ahab is truly a son of David. A terrible son, however. In those four generations, they have so abandoned their part of the covenant with GOD, that another god, Baal, has 450 prophets to GOD’s one. In just four generations. You don’t have to go far down the list of commandments to see where the problem is. They’ve been breaking the first one since David’s actual son Solomon was king.
So here, Elijah is setting the scene for GOD to show off. He taunts the followers of Baal, suggesting that their god won’t come to them because he’s “indisposed” or maybe passed out drunk. The prophets try and try to summon Baal to no avail.
Then Elijah gets them to soak the altar he built for GOD with water…three times. So much water no fire could light. Here we pause to remember that Baal is a storm GOD and his stock and trade is in water. At this time, Elijah is also prophesying a drought to prove the weakness of Baal before the might of GOD. And so this water is an instrument of Baal, that it might stop and prevent GOD’s power from working, but all the water is consumed by the mighty flame.
Signs of GOD, Signs of Power
This sign of the might of GOD, to overcome another god, the power of GOD to come through Elijah, as through David against Goliath, as through Samson and the Judges, as through Moses with the staff, these are moments of revelation, of GOD’s power being made known! We can see these moments are signs, not just of power itself, but how it is used. In that way, signs are how we see who GOD is, that GOD comes through these people and is revealed to be a protector and a healer and liberator of the people.
In Jesus, we get that same sign throughout the gospels.
Every year I think the lectionary drops us off at the beginning of Ordinary Time one chapter later than it should. If we had read chapter 6, we would have Jesus transforming their understanding of Sabbath law and naming his followers his apostles – to do his ministry in the world now. Chapter 6 has a Pentecostal commissioning which fits right in with what we are covering now.
It then moves to the Sermon on the Plains, full of blessings and woes. He commands love of enemies and to not judge their neighbors. And concludes with a call to heed his word and follow his teachings, like the firm foundation of faith in a mighty GOD.
Then we have the Centurion and the healing of his slave: a first ministry to the Gentiles. And it is after this teaching and commissioning and breaking the rules with regard to Jew and Gentile relations that Jesus comes to this widow at Nain.
When I read this, several things all jump out at me.
- The Breaking of Purity Laws. You’re not supposed to touch a dead body. So this is another example of Jesus operating from a different understanding of purity and law from the rest.
- Jesus has compassion for her. It doesn’t say that Jesus goes about healing random people or that he felt like bringing the man back from the dead, on account of him, it says that he brought the son back to the woman because of his compassion for her. She is the center of the story, not the one raised. Because she is the one who is healed.
- They are literally outside of the city. As symbols go, this one is subtle, but it raises the challenge of what happens to a widow with no male children. Their means of connection to the community have all literally died away leaving a widow to truly be an outsider. Her position in society is expressed by her physical position and presence in the story.
- Restoring the son’s life would restore the widow’s life, too. Jesus’s action quite literally saves her life, but it also gives her access to her community again.
In these first two events after the apostles are commissioned and taught that they are to love like he does, Jesus breaks the boundaries by healing a Gentile and then compromises his ritual purity to restore life and reveal the power of GOD to the world.
This is what he’s saying his followers are to do. So if you haven’t gotten the hint yet, that means, Jesus is showing us what we are supposed to do.
Let’s take all of these stories which reveal the power of GOD and the love of GOD through these two messianic prophets.
- A GOD who overcomes the power of other gods and seeks to restore the people to right relationship.
- A GOD who raises two widow’s sons to new life from death.
- A GOD who would bring healing grace to even one outside the faith community.
- A GOD who would restore the innocent outcast to her place in the beloved community.
This is the GOD revealed in our scripture. It is also the GOD revealed through the gospel lived in our own community.
GOD sends people to do the work of transforming the world, to restore creation to its state in the beginning when GOD declared it all to be good.
GOD sends these people out and the power flows through them. It came through Elijah. It came through Jesus. And because of the Holy Spirit, it comes through us.
We aren’t to be the divided kingdom, the 12 tribes, separated and divided by both a lack of faith and a misunderstanding of the law. As disciples of Jesus, Followers of the Way, we are named apostles, we are given extraordinary power and called to a ministry of love and reconciliation; of restoration and returning community; to be bringers and wagers of peace.
We bring that love and that power with us when we bring health and opportunity to the homeless. When we bring health and opportunity for school children and struggling families. And when we begin to bring health and opportunity to the hungry, not only through food pantries but also through our neighborhood soup kitchens.
We are light bearers and bringers of life and hope, blessed by GOD to bring about GOD’s kindom. We are the next great healers and prophets, called to bring back from the dead the faith of those around us and to heal the broken in our neighborhood. We are the proof that GOD is good. That GOD is about doing good at least as much as GOD is about being good. And probably more. More, like Elijah and David and Saul and Peter and Abram and even Jacob, GOD is also about becoming good.
Becoming prophets, becoming healers, becoming the liberators of this shackled and imprisoned humanity. Our power is love. A power GOD gives us to be used generously and constantly in worship, formation, and mission. That we might be how GOD transforms the world and the kindom comes.