June 5, 2016
William G. Carter
Soon afterwards [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
To hear Luke tell it, Jesus is on a roll. Momentum has been building in Galilee. Jesus has speaking the truth about God and gathering enormous crowds. He has healed a man with a terrible skin disease, lifted up and restored somebody whose bones didn’t work, and healed a young servant of a Roman centurion who was near death.
Now he interrupts a funeral. There is a procession moving out of the village that he is passing. There is a large crowd of people following a casket. Jesus pushes his way through the crowd. He sees the body of the man who has died. He says to the man’s mother, “Don’t cry.” Then he stops the whole thing, and you heard what happened.
That’s not the sort of thing that happens every day. Sometimes there are interruptions in the middle of a funeral. I’ve told some of you about a moment that I endured at a local funeral home. I’m up front, trying to find something nice to say about the deceased, and one of his relatives pulls out his cell phone and answers the call. I mean, there’s a funeral going on, and this guy is having a conversation. He doesn’t stop, so finally I stop. In a funeral, you only need one person talking at a time. When he was done, I sprinted toward the benediction.
Trust me when I tell you, the man who interrupted us was definitely not Jesus.
But today, we have a Bible story about Jesus stopping a funeral in its tracks. He stops it. And if I am honest, I can think of any number of reasons why. There is no fun in funeral, not at least if you take the death seriously.
We are living in a season when a lot of baby boomers are facing the final curtain. So to avoid their anxiety, they may do whatever they can to soften the experience of an actual loss. Stand at an open microphone and tell some jokes. Pipe in some classic tunes from the Doobie Brothers. Pull out a glass, lift it, and propose a toast to Brother John, “wherever he is.” Presume that the afterlife is only a continuation of this life, and declare sister Sarah, the scratch golfer, is now teeing off on a cloud. Fill the casket with knick-knacks and a bottle of booze, just like the Egyptian pharaohs. I’ve seen all these things.
They sound like fun, but all of them are an enormous distraction from what is really going on: that somebody has died. Somebody has ceased to live any more. They aren’t coming back, not in this lifetime at least. The familiar voice is silenced, the companionship has been is cut off. We don’t like that. Nobody likes that. A lot of people want to soften death or pretend it isn’t real … and six months later, one of might stop by to see the pastor and confess., “I haven’t been sleeping very well.”
Death is hard. Let me tell you how hard it was for the woman in our Bible story. She had a son, her only son, and he died. She was a widow. Not only does that mean she had experienced death before, and quite possibly the current loss is stirring up the feelings of the previous loss. It also means she was about to lose everything – not just her son, not just her father, but her entire livelihood.
That’s how it was in the time of Jesus. Women could not hold jobs in ancient Israel, unless they were disgraced and worked in the shadows after dark. They had no income, there was no such thing as life insurance, and nobody had a savings account tucked away just in case. For most people, it was a hand-to-mouth existence. And if your husband died, you better have a kid to earn some money, because otherwise you weren’t going to eat.
And if you only had one child and he passed away, you had nothing. Yes, that sounds grossly unfair, but that’s how the culture was. So for centuries, the Bible had taught, “Take care of the widows and the orphans.” They are the most vulnerable people in the whole town.
So here’s this woman who has lost her only son, and Jesus said to her, “Don’t cry anymore.” The Gospel of Luke said it’s because he had compassion. He knew what it was like. His feelings were impacted by her feelings, and he suffered with her. That’s the definition of compassion: “com” (with) “passio” (suffer). He suffered with her – and he probably didn’t even know her name.
The compassion was deep inside his gut, says Luke. He was deeply moved. So what does the Lord do? He stops the funeral, touches the case of the casket, and says, “Young man, be raised.” With that, the man in the coffin sat up and started to talk, so Jesus gave him back to his mother.
It caused quite a ruckus. We can imagine that. I’m pretty sure the mother stated crying again, but she was crying a different kind of tears. Some of the people standing nearby didn’t know what to do: they came prepared to weep, but now the situation is changed.
Back at that time, too, there were professional mourners. Did you know about that? In Middle Eastern cultures, there were people employed to weep and grieve, especially if the family was small or the deceased person was unpopular. For some people, that would come in handy. Don’t have any friends? Call 1-900-Tear-Jerkers-R-Us, and a team of professionals will show up in black, carrying wet Kleenex. Some of these people are there when Jesus disrupts everything; are they going to get paid?
The text gives us plenty of reactions. Some people saw the whole thing. They gasped and started stammering out words about God. “God has raised up a new prophet,” was one of the exclamations. What did they mean by that? Well, centuries before, the prophet Elijah had raised from the dead the only son of a widow (1 Kings 17:8-24). Here, Jesus had just done the same thing. He gave that grieving woman a new future by giving her son back to her, completely alive.
So some said Jesus is a new prophet, while others present burst out with a different exclamation: “God had looked with favor upon his people.” That’s the sort of thing that a lot of people said when Jesus came to their town. Good things started happening when there was no other reason for good things to happen. It was a sign of grace, a sign that God loves his own people and does good by them.
Grace is the work of God’s good heartedness, and that’s precisely why Jesus doesn’t ask permission to interrupt the funeral and raise the boy from the dead. He simply does it, for this is a sign of God is toward us. God gives life, specifically or spiritually. God doesn’t wait until we shape up before acting with kindness toward us. God doesn’t wait until we are perfect before feeling compassion for us and then doing something with that compassion. This is what Jesus reveals about God as he stops a funeral from proceeding.
But here’s what I want to know: how come the first response from the people standing by is fear? Sure, there is a lot going on at the moment. The widow mother is hugging her boy and sobbing for joy. The townspeople, at least the religious ones, are blurting out good words about God. Yet the first and most visceral response is “phobia” – fear! It “seized all of them.”
They were immobilized, not out of reverence, but of terror. Why do you think that is?
Certainly it was a creepy moment. Seeing a dead person sit up in a casket is a good bit terrifying, and then hearing him talk again is probably going to make you scream. Any of us who have lost a loved one to death still want to hear that voice one more time. Sometimes I call a family a week or two after a funeral to see how they are doing, and they haven’t taken the old voice off the answering machine. It can set you back a little bit… and I understand why they haven’t deleted that voice – because it would be like deleting the person, and we wouldn’t want to do that.
When it comes to death, there is a whole lot of creepiness in our culture these days. We don’t have to wait until Halloween to see it. Every year or two, we survive a few more zombie movies. Or there’s an end-of-the-world scenario and death sneers at us with yellow teeth. Or what’s up with our ongoing flirtation with deadly drugs? They lie about making people feel better and enslave them with a kind of despair that is worse than death.
So my hunch is that the powers of destruction were served notice that day, as Jesus interrupted the funeral. The fears and phobias and spine-tingling feelings that get into us all were told loud and clear that there’s another player on the field. “They were paralyzed by fear” says Luke. I think that’s the Gospel writer’s way of saying Jesus has come to town and he won’t have any of it.
He has no time for this addiction to deadliness that we’ve never been able to shake. So he comes to interrupt it. He comes to chase away the professional grievers and doesn’t care if they don’t get paid. He comes to confront an unjust economic system that robs a poor widow of living when her only son passes away. He comes to serve notice on Death with a capital “D” that it does not rule over us. No more fear, no more
God has come into our world in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the One through whom all things were created and given life. That’s why he will not give in to death. Not now, not ever. Even when the powers of destruction nailed Jesus to the tree, he breathes forgiveness that cancels fear (Luke 23:34). There is always a new beginning available wherever Jesus is.
For those addicted to fear, Jesus comes to break the chains that paralyze us. He embodies that great line from a sermon in the early church: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear.” (1 John 4:18). He comes on the lips of the Harlem poet Zora Neale Hurston, who said, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place”
Anybody here want to live by fear? No, it’s not for us. We are the people that Jesus brings alive.
And I suppose that’s why Christian people do some of the things they do. They take seriously those old commandments about caring for the widows, and they confront an economic system where most women are still paid a lot less for doing work identical to men. Because that’s what we do if Jesus brings us alive.
Christian people sit with those who grieve. They don’t flood them with empty words. They don’t tell them stupid jokes. Before they say anything at all, they go along side in compassion, to “suffer with.” Some losses can’t be fixed, but every loss can be accompanied. Our compassionate presence with others is a visual announcement that death has not won. Because that’s what we do if Jesus brings us alive.
Wherever there is hunger, Christians offer food. Whenever someone has no bed, Christians open their homes. Whenever a victim is demeaned, Christians lift them up. Whenever a person is abandoned, Christians go alongside. Whenever death laughs its hellish cackle, Christians point to the empty cross of Jesus and say, “Death, you have no more power over us.”
Because that’s what we do if Jesus brings us alive.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 See Amos 5:16 and Matthew 9:23, for instance.