The Raising of the Widow’s Son
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Pentecost II, Cycle C
11Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12As 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. 13When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” 17This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
The problem with hearing the stories of the gospel in little bits, as we generally do in our churches, is that we miss the sweep of the whole story. Hearing this miracle today about the raising of the widow’s son, we forget that it follows immediately upon another story, that of the healing, sight unseen, of the boy servant of an Imperial Roman officer. We forget that the famous paraphrase of that officer, recited at every Roman Catholic mass, “Say but the word and [my servant] shall be healed,” a mere three verses before.
Why does this matter, you say? It matters because Luke is taking on the entire Roman world-view. As Luke is writing, the Emperor Nero is at the top of the Imperial pyramid, and so Luke has to be careful. To take Nero head-on was always fatal. He was capricious, mentally unstable, and viciously cruel to those whom he distrusted, with reason or not. So Luke is careful. But here we have it. One would think that as an officer in the military, that unnamed centurion, would know who the head guy is. One would think that this centurion, like most officers of the army, would owe his complete and total allegiance to Rome. Rome: the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Rome: the creator of the quotidian narrative by which everyone lived. Rome, whose religion and civil order defined the normative universe.
But that is not where Luke is going with this tale. Military officer though he may be, this centurion is portrayed by Luke as a non-Jew, but a friend of the Jewish community who has sufficient means and a philanthropic spirit. This man, Luke has his interlocutors say, has built the synagogue in the town. So, we already suppose that he is a person of some divided loyalty. But, his boy is sick, perhaps dying. Now, it matters neither to the sweep nor the teller of this tale that the Greek word used here and translated for us as servant suggests a sexual relationship between this young man and the officer . . . but it might matter to us in the churches as we seek to meander through the theological thicket presented by modern-day considerations of sexuality. No, it matters not to Jesus. He does not ask, “Well, what kind of relationship do you have with this lad?” He doesn’t say anything like it: merely compliments the military man on his faith, “Not even in Israel have I seen such faith,” and the boy is healed from afar.
In this amicable collision with an officer of the imperial army, Jesus is on his way to the challenge of empire that will ultimately lead to his death.
Instantly, in the text, we are taken to the town of Nain. There is background here that the text presumes but we do not know. The text describes Jesus arriving at the gates of the town with a large crowd. There is a conceit going on here which is invisible to us in the twenty-first century. The emperor would visit towns, and it would be customary for him to arrive at the gate of a town with a large retinue. Luke is comparing Jesus to the emperor, ever so subtly. Now, especially in the outlying districts, the emperors were thought of as divine. They carried various titles such as “Son of God” and “Prince of Peace.” So, Jesus, we are told, arrives at the gate with his retinue, and (do we project too much or may we assume that it is in considerable humility?) absent are the spangles and banners of an imperial parade. Jesus just arrives at the gate with a crowd of followers, and is not met with the cheering townspeople, but rather, a funeral procession. An untimely death has occurred, again involving a lad. This time it is a mother’s only son. Now, widows, in that day and age, were dispatched to the margins of society. We are not told whether she had any near relatives or not, but if she didn’t, she would have been forced to live the remainder of her life on the streets, relying, like the legendary Blanche DuBois, on “the kindness of strangers.” So, in Jesus’ raising of the widow’s son, he’s doing much more than restoring a life — he’s preventing a nasty future for this lady whom he presumably does not even know. And his action is immediately perceived by the crowd as divine intervention — as a sign. They are frightened at first, but then the acclaim him. “A great prophet has arisen among us.”
In this crowd are two of John the Baptist’s followers, who, in these days before Internet communication, run off immediately to tell him what has happened. So John sends them back to find out who this Jesus is. “Are you the One who is to come or shall we wait for another?” And Jesus canny response, indirect, so as to avoid offence, for the time being, to the powers-that-be:
Go and tell John, what you have heard and what you see, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Go and tell what you see and hear!
Now, we don’t know whether Nero ever visited Nain. (Or, at least, I don’t know.) But, I can wager that if and when he did, he raised no dead, nor did he make the deaf hear or the blind see. He was far too vain for that! So, Luke’s purpose is to compare Jesus with that star-spangled imperial imposter. Luke’s purpose is not only to show Jesus as champion of the poor, but to show him the real son of God, the real Prince of Peace — to Hell with the emperor!
God, once again, as in the days of Moses and Egypt, is no fan of empire.
So, in these waning days of spring sandwiched between two great holidays of our own empire — Memorial Day on the one hand, and Independence Day on the other — we can reflect on God’s judgement of our own imperial program. Our nation’s founders did not project that we would ever occupy the place we do in the world in which we live. As far as they were concerned, they were exiting from imperial claims, and it was a bit miraculous that they did. Ben Franklin, on his way out the door from the first congress, uttered a famous aside to the bystanders, “Well,” he said, “You have a republic . . . if you can keep it . . .”
Well, the truth is, despite all the rhetoric, we haven’t. As John Dominic Crossan says, “You can have a republic, or you can have an empire, but you can’t have them both at the same time for long.” And we are, like it or not, the new Rome. Time and again we have participated in imperial expansions, varnished with high ideals of preventing the spread of communism or giving democracy to hapless souls who don’t have any, all the while killing thousands of them, but remembering only the minuscule percentage of our own dead. That is what empires do: whether they are the empires of Babylon or Egypt or Rome or Britain or us — the U.S. — us.
So, what do Christians do in the midst of empire? How should we believe? Where should we stand? How should we behave? Who is our leader? Or, do we wait?
We do what we’ve always done. We practice the reality of an alternative paradigm. We practice a community of love and justice — we acknowledge Jesus as Lord. You know, because we live in a society in which there are no lords, we don’t often get it, what that means. “Lord” in the sense of “landlord” — the lord who owns your house. Only, in a land of lords, the lords own you! So, we acknowledge that Jesus, that humble peasant carpenter turned prophet and shaman, owns us! Jesus who preached good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and new life to the dead, owns us.
In God’s name, Amen.