Soon afterwards he 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. (Luke 7:11-17 – NRSV)
This episode, unique to Luke, provides us with a good example of the ways scholars believe the Synoptic Gospels were constructed. It is now generally accepted that Mark is the earliest Gospel, Luke and Matthew each basing their Gospels on Mark, both adding from another source generally referred to as “Q” – the first letter of the German word, Quelle, meaning “source” – and each having his own independent third source(s). Thus one scholar writes of this passage in Luke that it is part of “the so-called Little Interpolation, the series of episodes that runs from 6:20–8:3, which has been inserted into the Marcan material that he has been using ….. It introduces material from “Q” and “L” as well as modifications from his own editorial pen”. (Joseph A Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28), Yale University Press, 2008, 627.)
Fitzmyer believes that “in the main this episode is derived from Luke’s private source, ‘L’”. (Op cit, 656.)
Luke Timothy Johnson complements Joseph Fitzmyer: “Luke abandoned Mark’s order in 6:20 in order to present Jesus as the prophetic proclaimer of good news to the poor, and will return to Mark’s sequence again only in 8:4.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 119.)
Immediately prior to this episode, Luke has told us of the cure of the centurion’s servant (7:1-10 – shared with Matthew 8:5-10 and John 4:46-54). In that episode, the servant is gravely ill, whereas in this episode the widow’s son is actually dead. Luke is emphasizing the authority of Jesus. This also gives particular force to Jesus’ reply to the disciples of John the Baptist who have been sent to ask Jesus, “Are you the one …. ?” Jesus replies, “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” (7:18 & 22).
Luke gives us other accounts of “resuscitations” (Fitzmyer’s term) in 8:40–42, 49–56 (the raising of Jairus’ daughter) and Acts 9:36–43 (Peter raises Tabitha in Joppa). We might even include Acts 20:7–12 (Paul resuscitates Eutychus, the young man in Troas who dropped off to asleep and fell out the window).
Fitzmyer notes: “The passage (in Luke) recalls the raising of the son of the widow of Zarephath by Elijah in 1 Kgs 17:8–24. Jesus comes to a town (Nain), as did Elijah (Zarephath, 1 Kgs 17:10); a widow is met at the gate of the town (17:10); the son of the widow is restored to life (17:22); and an explicit allusion to 1 Kgs 17:23 is made in Luke 7:15. …. The identification of Jesus as ‘a great prophet’ (7:16c) and the allusion to the Elijah story (7:15) suffice to show that Luke uses this incident to cast Jesus in the role of Elias redivivus …..” (Fitzmyer, op cit, 656.) We should also note that Luke has already made explicit mention of this incident with Elijah: “But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.” (Luke 4:25-26)
The obvious question arises for us: Did Jesus in fact raise a man from the dead? Being children of a world dominated by rationalism and deeply influenced by those “masters of suspicion” – Paul Ricoeur’s name for Nietzsche, Marx and Freud – we are probably disinclined to answer this question in the affirmative. But the fact is we do not know the answer. Fitzmyer writes: “The problem of the historicity of such a story is perennial, and there is always the human tendency to rationalize the details. But to do so is to put to the text a question that it was not intending to answer and to miss the import of the story itself. Whether one will ever solve the problem of historicity or not, the episode proclaims to human beings the power of God working through Jesus and accosts them with a challenge of faith in that power. That would be the underlying pitch in all resuscitation stories.” (Op cit, 657-658.)
Nain: A town in southern Galilee. Today it is an Arab village about 14 kms south of Nazareth.
He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow: The stark tragedy of the scene is increased when we realise that the “only son” would have been this widow’s only means of support.
When the Lord saw her: The Greek word kyrios is used here. “This is the first time in the narrative that Luke himself has identified Jesus as ho kyrios, (‘the Lord’), but not the last. It is a distinctive feature of his Gospel to use the title so extensively in the narrative itself (see 7:19; 10:1, 39, 41; 11:39; 12:42; 13:15; 17:5–6; 18:6).” (Johnson, op cit, 118.) It is possible that the use of the title kyrios is a deliberate reference to Jesus’ divine status. Fitzmyer writes: “All this needs further scrutiny. It is impossible to spell out the details here, but suffice it to say that there is now evidence from pre-Christian Palestine that Jews did speak of Yahweh in Hebrew as ʾādōn, “Lord,” in Aramaic as mārêʾ and māryāʾ, and in Greek as kyrios, with the result that it is not impossible that early Jewish Christians in Palestine itself transferred the title ‘Lord’ or ‘the Lord’ from Yahweh to Jesus.” (Op cit, 202.)
(Jesus) had compassion for her: Some translations use the word “pity”. The verb is esplanchnisthē – from the root splanchna, meaning the noble viscera (cf William Barclay, New Testament Words, SCM Press, 1955/1980, 276-280) – and it is used again, for example, in Luke 15:20 when the father sees the prodigal son coming home. It is noteworthy that this event of resuscitation does not involve faith as such. It is first and last an expression of the compassion of Jesus. Of course, it does also affirm the faith of the disciples.
The compassion – mercy, loving kindness, etc – of God is absolutely fundamental to the revelation of God in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.
“A great prophet has risen among us!”: This is the first time Luke explicitly applies the term “prophet” to Jesus, although his prophetic role has been implicit in his ministry. This is probably a reference to the Torah: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” (Deuteronomy 18:15)
And Jesus gave him to his mother: This is exactly the same expression used of Elijah in 1 Kings 17:23.
Fear seized all of them: Fitzmyer translates the Greek word as “deep awe”. He writes: “Luke often uses phobos, “fear,” to express the reaction of bystanders to a heavenly intervention or a manifestation of Jesus’ power (see 1:65; 5:26; 8:25, 37; Acts 2:43; 5:5, 11; 19:17). A cringing attitude of fear would be too strong an explanation of what is meant; hence the translation “deep awe.” Joined to the glorification, it is intended as a sort of Greek-chorus-like reaction to the miracle that has been wrought.” (Op cit, 659.) William Barclay writes: “Phobos means ‘fear’, and in all ages of Greek phobos is sometimes known as a ‘middle word’. That is to say, the word itself is quite neutral, and, according to the way in which it is used and the context in which it occurs, it can have either a good or a bad meaning, and describe something which is useful and praiseworthy, or evil and contemptible. In Greek phobos, ‘fear’, can be the characteristic either of the coward or of the truly religious man.” (Op cit, 227)
“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.” This is exactly the same expression we find in the story of the prodigal son – the father saw the returning son and was moved with compassion (cf Luke 15:20). It is in stark contrast to the behaviour of the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan – they both saw the man who had fallen among robbers but they passed by on the other side (cf Luke 10:31-33).
In Luke 8:10 we hear Jesus cite the Prophet Isaiah: “They may see but not perceive, listen but not understand” (cf Isaiah 6:9). We can understand this in either a theological or a psychological way. Let us reflect on the psychological way.
We know the awful tragedy of sociopaths – they have little or no capacity to identify with or have empathy for other people. They might see but they will not be moved by compassion or any other fellow feeling for that matter. But sociopaths are extreme cases. What of us normal folk? Is it possible that the connection between seeing and being moved in some caring way is being diminished?
This was recently explored in a remarkable book by the Australian author, Anne Manne. The book is called The Life of I (Melbourne University Press, 2014). The book explores the thesis that we are – in the West particularly – becoming increasingly narcissistic. She describes the symptoms of narcissism as “a lack of empathy for others. …. grandiosity, obsession with personal appearance, willingness to exploit others for one’s own needs, a sense of entitlement, a belief in the importance and superiority of self over others, a determination to use any means for self-aggrandisement, and a destructive rage when thwarted” (p.12).
Manne begins with the example of Anders Behring Breivik. On 22 July 2011, he killed eight people by setting off a van bomb amid government buildings in Oslo, then shot dead 69 participants of a Workers’ Youth League summer camp on the island of Utøya. When the police arrived, Breivik asked for a Band-Aid for his finger which had a minor cut. However, it is us normal folk she is more interested in.
Manne continues: “There is very good evidence that the problem of narcissism is growing worse. Changes in our culture have created an economic, social and relational world that not only supports but celebrates narcissism, cultivating and embedding it as a character trait. (There is) an increasingly common syndrome, the ordinary, everyday, narcissists who have their very own cult of personality” (p.21).
Manne argues further that there are economic and social forces at play that actually create the narcissistic type “who fuels the consumption binge. …. Just as early capitalism and the era of industrialization had a predominant character type, so too do new capitalism and the consumption era need a new one. The narcissism epidemic is not an aberration. Without the narcissistic character, the new capitalism might collapse. …. ” (p.199).
Narcissism breaks the connection between seeing and being moved, a connection that was of the utmost importance to Jesus. If we do not find ways to effectively push back against this cultural trend, we may unwittingly become witnesses to narcissism rather than the Gospel.