Pentecost 3: 5 June Luke 7:11-17
This passage comes at the end of a series of events which Luke began to narrate as the first part of Jesus' ministry. Before his home town synagogue Jesus had declared his mission. It was "to bring good news to the poor, ... to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 9 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour" (4:18-19). The events which follow in 4:31 - 7:17, show Jesus doing just that. Set in the centre of the account is Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus declares: "Blessed are you poor, for yours in the kingdom of God" (6:22).
Our passage brings the events to their conclusion. John the Baptist's disciples report what has been happening and John sends them off to Jesus to check: is he the one to come or not? These remarkable deeds are impressive, but John had been looking for someone who would come to bring God's fierce judgement. Jesus' reply summarises the activities: "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me!" (7:22-23). Jesus had not quite met John's expectations, but Jesus confronts John with a challenge to see what the true signs are of God's presence. The poor receive good news not only with a promise for the future but also with action in the present.
It is interesting that Luke has made our passage the climax in the series. Widows were notoriously poor and vulnerable and this one has lost one last avenue of support, her son. One can imagine grief for her son but also for herself. Luke probably wants us to see the story as typical and representative. Jesus responds with compassion. He raises the dead to life. Perhaps the arrangement already indicates that Luke has an eye to its symbolism. Jesus has come to raise people from death to life, to make possible new beginnings.
At a literal level, as doubtless the story was first understood, this is sheer miracle, an exercise of divine power. The crowd responds with what the first storytellers will also have had in mind, by declaring Jesus a prophet. Indeed, a prophet like Elijah, who also resuscitated a widow's son (1 King 17:17-24). Luke employed a number of early traditions which had connected Jesus with Elijah. Here it was, happening all over again. Jesus is like Elijah - and more! Like Elijah's call to Elisha, Jesus will call people to leave home and family to follow him, but more - not even taking to say farewell (9:57-62). Like Elijah the disciples see the rejection of Jesus as warranting wrath from heaven, but unlike Elijah, Jesus refuses such a call (9:51-56).
We have no way of testing the reality of what might have happened, whether the son really was dead, whether symbolism or legend created the account, whether it emerged from creative attempts to link Jesus and Elijah. Luke and his sources would not have doubted its reality. It belonged to a range of reports of Jesus' miraculous ability. The reports mainly served to enhance Jesus' reputation and most seem focused on the "wow" effect. This one is slightly unusual as one of only few that emphasise compassion at its heart. It would have made a huge difference for the widow, but she was only one among hundreds, perhaps, thousands, and representative of millions across the world's history who have faced dire poverty.
Christianity has no claims to the magic which might work such needed wonders in our world. This makes the story something of an isolated wonder and makes one wonder about the story. Something is seriously missing if we imagine that our faith depends on such short-cuts to human suffering; and failure to see this can make us seem naive if not offensive in the face of real human need and those struggling it. It can also lead people to consign Jesus to the world of fantasy and irrelevance.
Whether or not one wants to defend the historicity of such accounts or is happy to see them as legendary expressions of faith, they still have a role within a broader perspective. This one, in particular, deserves to be allowed its symbolic potential. The ministry of Jesus and ours is about addressing real human need and it is about compassion. This is indeed his mission, God's mission.
Such compassion and caring in action has few short-cuts to success, if any. A cross stands in the road, which unveils reality for both the carers and the world in need of care. In the midst of the complexity of human need is hope and the possibility of renewal and life. It is built on the foundation that all people are of value and none is to be dismissed or despised. Our world still needs that kind of good news and our challenge is to become it and help others become it.
Epistle: Pentecost 3: 5 June Galatians 1:11-24