|By Akash52525 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], |
via Wikimedia Commons
First, to understand this passage, we have to surround it with some cultural context. In this culture, men were the lifelines of women. It’s an unfortunate truth and an uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless. A woman’s worth, economically and religiously, came from, 1) her being married and 2) her ability to bear children. This is why we have this law in Deuteronomy 22: 28-29 where Yahweh commands that if a man rapes an unbetrothed woman, he is commanded to marry her. This may sound extremely barbaric to our 21st century ears, but it was actually the opposite; it was offering the woman an opportunity at life. Without this law, the woman would be deemed unclean due to her loss of virginity and would not be able to marry. And in a society where men alone worked for monetary gain, owned property, and held an authoritative voice, this would be devastating to a woman, especially after her mother and father passed and could no longer support her. She would essentially be reduced to the social status of a beggar, marginalized and disregarded.
In essence, this is what is happening to the widow of Nain. Since she has been widowed, the responsibility of caring for her falls to her male children, of whom she only had one; this one, being carried out the city gate to be buried. This is the point in which she is likely beginning to understand that her son’s death might just mean her own.
Now apparently Jesus picked up some endearing fans as he was traveling, since the text tells us he’s accompanied by a large crowd. And as he’s walking up to the city gate, he sees the woman and the NRSV translation says "he had compassion for her.” The Greek word used here is ἐσπλαγχνίσθη (transliteration: esplagknisthe). Try saying that ten times fast. This word carries a passive connotation. Jesus did nothing. It was what happened to him. This is a powerful image if only we consider it. There was no deliberation, no discussion of sociological ethics or pondering on whether she deserves compassion or not. It was something that simply moved through the person of Jesus, without him having any choice or say in the matter. This should cause us to pause and ponder, friends. This is the incarnate second person of the Trinity, silenced and moved to compassion by a person regarded as nothing in the eyes of those around him.
How many of you have seen the movie called The Sandlot? For the ones who haven’t seen it, I would encourage you to repent of your sin. Don’t worry; the blood of Jesus covers all. But until then, let me give you a quick rundown: Scott Smalls moves to California two weeks before summer vacation, leaving him no time to make friends for the summer until Benny Rodriguez invites him to play baseball with him and his friends at the sandlot, a small, makeshift baseball stadium. The team was weary of Scott until one fateful day. Behind the sandlot, however, lives Mr. Myrtle, “the meanest old man who ever lived” and “the beast: a huge gorilla-dog-thing that ate one kid already.” Both direct quotes. When the team loses a ball one day, Scott Smalls breaks into his step-father’s den and steals a baseball, signed by Babe Ruth and proceeds to ace it to the beast when he rips a massive home run over the fence into Mr. Myrtle’s back yard. I won’t spoil the rest of the movie for you as they try to retrieve the ball before Scott’s dad gets home, but in that moment, the new kid who was regarded as nothing in the eyes of those around him, was seen as worthy, accepted, and as part of something bigger.
The creator of the universe looks upon one lowly woman with compassion and yet we, his creation, routinely refuse to do the same. In this story we are often not the ones mourning with the woman, but the ones back behind the city gate, divorced from the fact that someone in our community is suffering. When Jesus resurrected the young man and gave him back to his mother, he was not just giving her back her son: he was giving her back an opportunity at something more than just subsistence. He was giving her worth. He was giving her dignity. We are the earthly-historical body of Christ. Because Jesus does this, we are to do this. And when we don’t, we aren’t the church.
We are inevitably left with the question: So what? What does this mean to us 2000 years later? What does it look like to give dignity and worth to human beings as the earthly-historical body of Christ? To proclaim that “God has looked favorably upon his people” in the 21st century? Shane Claiborne, a social activist and missionary currently based in inner-city Philadelphia, took a trip to work at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying and Destitute in Calcutta. While he was there, he visited a leper colony where he met people whose job it was to make custom shoes for those who had lost parts of their feet due to the disease. And other people who took on the task of tending to others’ infected wounds. And others who fashioned synthetic limbs for those who required amputations. These are people who are acknowledging the humanity of those completely pushed to society’s fringes. They are giving them back their worth, their dignity. Now I know we don’t typically have people afflicted with leprosy here in the States, but just because we recognize one extreme, does not mean we can do away with the other: The people of color in our society who have been oppressed by systematic racism in our judicial system, the single mom applying for food stamps, and the homeless we see as we walk down New York’s 5th Ave.
We need to understand that the gospel has this amazing ability to shape-shift.
It doesn’t always look the same. It’s not always words on a page or the spoken “testimony” of a believer. To the hungry, the gospel looks like food. To the orphan, the gospel looks like community. Paul became “all things to all people” in order to win people to Christ. Jesus identified with the lowly and downtrodden of the world by identifying, first and foremost, with their struggles. Though we cannot absolve someone from all their problems or change their heart, we need only be obedient. Mother Teresa said "we are not called to be successful, we are called to be obedient." Her goal at the Home for the Dying and Destitute was not to keep everyone alive, but to allow them to die well and to die with dignity. We should approach the gospel the same way. Our goal should not be to fit the entire gospel into a single conversation or to expect someone to come to faith when we want or expect them to. We need only to obediently serve them and present the gospel in the way they need it. And we need not wander far to do this. Mother Teresa, again, said "there are Calcuttas everywhere if only you have the eyes to see. Find your Calcutta." Our local streets need love and compassion and only when we exhibit that to people might we earn the privilege to speak of our God. There's no reason for anyone to care about the Christian God if it's believed that he doesn't care about them. It's our job to merely show them that's not the case; show them, not just tell them.
How might we change if we actually believed in the resurrection? How might our lives change, individually and collectively if we really believed Jesus was raised from the dead, just like this young man? Jesus shows us that resurrection has real-world implications. Resurrection can change the world if we only let it. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:26 that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” And this includes the means of death: economic and physical, spiritual and material. On the day that the Son of God returns, God’s kingdom will rise up and death will finally be dethroned. But until that day comes, we are commanded ever more fervently to work toward it, to pray for it, and live as if it is already here.