We humans have the tendency of painting things either black or white without seeing any nuances, any greys. Recently, the popularity of Anna Hazare led to the views among many of his supporters that, if you are not on their bandwagon, you are implicitly supporting corruption. It takes only a little thought to realize that this is not a logical conclusion.
In a similar manner, we who have multiple copies of the bible – probably in different languages and versions – perhaps shudder when we think of those dark days before Johannes Gutenberg introduced the idea of movable type and printed the Gutenberg bible. Those were the days when scripture was not readily accessible by people – by even literate people. “How could a person of faith survive?” we might ask ourselves. What would happen to our daily devotions? And because of this, we perhaps think that the invention of movable type was and is the best invention ever. Many people have indeed made just this claim.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not wish to return to the days when books were not readily available. I am glad to have bibles in a number of languages and versions. But there is a downside to this. As printing became easier, printers took it upon themselves to do something that the last book of the bible warns us not to do. They added to scripture.
They added cross references to make bible study easier, when the study of scripture is nowhere said to be something that should be easy! They added red lettering to tell us which words were spoken by Jesus, as though the words not spoken by him were less authoritative. And worst of all, they added breaks by dividing scripture into subsections and gave us nice neat headings so we don’t really need to pay much attention to what we’re reading. “Jesus raises a widows son” Ah! Easy-peasy lemon squeezy! I know what this is about. What’s next? Jesus and John the Baptizer? Too confusing! I’ll just skip that.
And so today I find myself becoming a victim of this division. Does this incident have nothing to do with what came before it – the healing of the centurion’s slave? Does it not relate to what comes after it – the discussion about John the Baptizer? Is it even possible to make sense of these seven verses without the entire Gospel according to Luke? And even then perhaps we are restricting ourselves.
Repeated subjugation by powerful empires such as Assyrian, the Babylonian, the Macedonian and the Roman resulted in the situation where most Jews did not understand Hebrew, the language of their scriptures. So powerful was the thrust of Alexander the Great to make everyone speak Greek that even under the Roman rule, the language most commonly spoken in the Roman empire was Greek.
To address this situation, the Jews decided to translate their scriptures. And between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD they completed what is known as the Septuagint – a translation of the Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, into Greek.
As you all know the New Testament was written in Greek. And so linguistic comparison between the Old and New Testaments is best done with the Septuagint at the ready because that lets us know how the Jewish translators around the time of the New Testament understood their scriptures. But why even bother? Why with this seemingly easy passage should we bother about all this boring language based nitty-gritty?
Well, for the simple reason that in next week’s text we have John the Baptizer, the one who formally announced Jesus to the world, wondering if he had made a mistake. And then in the text for October 2nd, Jesus quotes from Malachi 3:1 to explain the ministry of John the Baptizer, and through that his own ministry.
What was it that Jesus was doing that made John uncertain? Last week we saw that Jesus healed the slave of a centurion. He had extended his ministry to the Gentiles – indeed to the Roman oppressors! To John the Baptizer, this was confusing. Why would Israel’s Messiah deal kindly with the oppressors of Israel? It just did not make sense. More to the point, as we will see, Jesus is doing something that points in a direction different and unsettling from what John the Baptizer had expected.
And so now, after Jesus has helped a Gentile, we find him at the gate of Nain. I do not wish to focus on the healing. We have read the text. Jesus restores to life the only son of a woman.
There are two occasions in the Old Testament where an only son, who had died, is restored to life. The first is in 1 Kings 17, where Elijah does this at Zarephath in Phoenicia, in Gentile territory. The second is in 2 Kings 4, where Elisha does this at Shulem which was south and slightly east of Nazareth, well within the kingdom of Israel. And here we encounter a problem.
Elijah ministered to a poor widow, while Elisha ministered to a rich barren woman. Elijah ministered to a Gentile, while Elisha ministered to an Israelite. Elijah ministered outside the territory of Israel, while Elisha ministered inside Israel. Different situations for both of them.
When we consider Jesus at Nain, we get contradictory cues. Jesus ministered to a poor widow. But she was Jewish and lived barely two kilometres from Shulem. Most of the parallels seem to indicate that Jesus was functioning like a new Elisha. And that would be in accord with John himself being the new Elijah.
But Jesus had ministered to a Gentile before this. Did that mean Jesus was the new Elijah? And that there was someone else after him? You see? John’s confusion stems from the strange fluidity of Jesus’ ministry.
But more than the Elijah-Elisha confusion is the fact that once we settle that confusion, we realize, as John did, that Jesus’ ministry was progressing in a direction hitherto unexpected, certainly unforeseen, and perhaps even sacrilegious to Jewish minds.
Luke helps us with the Elijah-Elisha confusion. What John found confusing, we need not find confusing because Luke tells us how to interpret Jesus. And this is where the Septuagint is immensely helpful. Given three stories, two in the Septuagint and one in Luke, with very similar plots, we would still expect the wording of the stories to differ considerably – especially when you reach the resolution of the story. You would like the resolution to be different, right? Who would remember your story otherwise?
But here Luke does something out of the ordinary. At the point of resolution, after the boy has been raised, Luke tells us, “And he gave him back to his mother.” Six words in Greek. And the identical six words from one of the accounts in the Septuagint.
This striking parallelism at the moment of resolution tells us which one – Elijah or Elisha – is the one, in light of which we should view the incident at Nain.
Luke resolves his account in exactly the same manner as the account about Elijah. So what Luke is telling us is that this is not just restoring a young man to life. Nor is it just that a woman who had lost her only son has been comforted because he has been brought back to life. No!
So how are we to view this event? Here the Greek language itself helps us. The word for ‘widow’ is derived from the word for ‘chasm’. In those days, to be a ‘widow’ was to have a big, yawning chasm in one’s life. It was a state that left a woman utterly devoid of the protection she would otherwise have received from her husband. It left her open to all sorts of abuse at the hands of individuals and society. It was a state of total powerlessness, where one knew that the reality one was experiencing was not the reality one had experienced.
Something had been lost. There was a big gap in one’s life – a gaping hole, a chasm, a grand canyon.
And so, when Luke tells us, “And he gave him back to him mother” we are to view this as Jesus’ giving this widow back the means by which she could bridge the chasm in her life, as though in some highly symbolic way, the revived son was now stretched across the chasm in his mother’s life so that she would be able to enjoy the life she was supposed to enjoy.
But by interpreting Jesus as taking on one of Elijah’s acts, Luke is telling us that we should view this event not as just another miracle. When Jesus draws from an act of Elijah – the person whom John the Baptizer was most associated with – it is something out of the ordinary. He is making an exception. And so this act of Jesus should be seen as a prophetic sign act, something quite different, like Ezekiel lying on his side or Jeremiah breaking the clay jar or Isaiah walking around naked.
In other words, this event at Nain is not just a miracle for Luke. It is filled with soteriological meaning, that is, meaning related to the method of salvation. But we must be careful not to view a prophetic sign act as an analogy. In an analogy there is a one-to-one correspondence between elements in reality and elements in the sign act. But in a prophetic sign act, the elements of reality are there, but we have to put them in order correctly so that they make sense.
In this incident, as in our lives, there are three critical elements. A parent who had lost a child to death; a person facing a huge gap between reality and destiny; and a person who bridges that gap.
Jesus, in line with the Old Testament prophets, was doing something that pointed to something greater. And here it is the fact that the Father had lost each one of us to death on account of our sin. Also, each one of us faced a huge wide chasm between the life we experience and the life we were supposed to enjoy.
Like the unnamed widow, we were destitute, powerless, consigned to being preyed upon by the forces of evil. And we needed someone to come and step in and bridge that gap so that we might enjoy the life we were created to enjoy. And Luke is telling us here, “Someone did. Read on!”
Today, as we participate in Holy Communion, we do so because Jesus did step into the gap. And so as we prepare for it, let us spend a moment in silence, considering what our state would have been had Jesus not stepped into the gap.
Heavenly Father, through my sinfulness I had reached a state in which there was a chasm fixed between you and me. This separation from you made me easy prey to the forces of evil. And through sins of both omission and commission, I made it all the more impossible to experience your love – the love I your created me to experience. Yet you, through in your wisdom and mercy sent your only Son, my Lord Jesus, to die for my sins. Lord Jesus, you placed yourself as the bridge between me and the Father. As a result I can now experience that love I was created to experience. Yet I still stumble and sin. But by your mercy I do not fall. Forgive all my sins since the last time I asked for forgiveness. And as I approach your table, enable me to know how wonderful your forgiveness and love are. Let my participation at your table be a reminder always to me that you did what I could never do – you stepped in the gap. In your name I pray. Amen.