|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
It's been nearly 15 years since I started creating these "Gospel Notes." Now I normally pull up a computer file of what I wrote three years ago and modify them. However, when I pulled up the file on Luke 7:11-17 there was nothing written. I believe that the last time this text was used on a Sunday morning was 1995. I have a sermon archived on this text from that year. (In the early years of the "notes" I didn't keep them filed on my computer.)
I also note that Luke 7:1-10 which is assigned for Proper 4 C / Lectionary 9 C is used even less than our text. (I have no sermons archived on that text.) These two stories should be studied together. Together they illustrate one of Luke's themes: the all inclusive nature of Jesus' ministry that he often indicates by contrasts in adjacent stories.
Some contrasts between Luke 7:1-10 and Luke 7:11-17.
male vs. female
centurion vs. widow
wealthy vs. (probably) poor
position of status vs. position of little or no status
gentile vs. Jew
honored slave vs. only son
deathly sick vs. dead
requested the healing vs. Jesus intercedes uninvited
faith is praised vs. no faith mentioned
healed from a distance vs. speaking directly to the corpse
Within the larger context, Jesus has just finished his "Sermon on the Plain" (Luke 6:17-49). Then comes the healing of the centurion's servant with an emphasis on Jesus' authority and the power of his words.
After raising the widow's son, disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus and ask if he is the one who is to come, or are they to wait for another. Part of Jesus' answer to them is that "the dead are raised" (Luke 7:18-23) -- something he had just done.
These two miracles begin a section of revealing Jesus as a great prophet (Luke 7:16) and even more than a prophet -- the Messiah of God (Luke 9:20).
The story of raising the widow's son at Nain is unique to Luke. It is not found in the other gospels. However, a similar story is recorded in 1 Kings 17:17-24 -- the First Reading in the thematic series -- more about that later. Philostatus has a similar miracle attributed to Apollonius (Apollonius 4.45). However, this miracle story was written about 200 AD -- and may have been influenced by Luke's story, and this pagan story begins, "A girl appeared to be dead." Later, "[Apollonius] merely touched her and said something under his breath and thus aroused the girl from her supposed death." This later miracle is not really presented as a "raising the dead" event like our text.
Jesus is on the move. The healing of the centurion's servant took place in Capernaum. He and his disciples have come to the city called Nain. This is the only time this city is mentioned in the Bible. It is generally thought to correspond to the modern Arab city of Nein. It is about 5 miles southeast of Nazareth and about 25 miles (or a day's journey) from Capernaum.
This distance suggests to me that when Jesus and the disciples and the crowd arrived at Nain, they were worn out. (I'm a bit worn out after walking 2 miles.) To have Jesus stop his travels just as they are about to reach their destination and can sit down and rest, would probably not have been the desires of those with him.
Why does Jesus' stop? "He had compassion for her" (v. 13, NRSV). "His heart went out to her" (v. 13, NIV). It is a wonderful Greek word, partly because it is nearly unpronounceable: splagchnizomai. Literally it refers to having feelings in the bowels (or other inward parts). We tend to make the heart the seat of emotions, e.g., "his heart went out to her," but they centered them in the bowels. We do that to some extent, too, e.g., butterflies in one's stomach, or "gut" feelings.
This verb is used two other times in Luke. The next occurrence is the feeling the (Good) Samaritan has for the beat-up man on the side of the road (10:33). Then it is used of the feeling of the father when he sees his prodigal son return home (15:20). In both cases, those with those feelings acted contrary to expectations. The Samaritan helps the injured Jew. The father goes running (an improper act for a man) to his now-found son. Jesus delays the rest tired, worn-out entourage to help this widow -- something she didn't even ask for.
Jesus' words to her, "Do not weep," would probably result in a reprimand from a CPE supervisor. This woman was a widow. Her husband had died some time before leaving her to raise her son alone. Now her only son has died. Why shouldn't she weep? She has good reasons to cry. (However, Jesus will do for her what none of the CPE students I know have been able to do. So, perhaps, he can make statements that we shouldn't make.)
I noted earlier that Jesus' Sermon on the Plain occurred just before the two miracles that open chapter 7. In his teachings, Jesus said: "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh" (6:21b). Our text gives an example of one who was weeping, and who will probably laugh and rejoice over what Jesus will do for her.
There are times for weeping. Later in chapter 7, Jesus says: "To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.'" (vv. 31-32).
A few verses later (v. 38) a woman stands behind Jesus, weeping, and bathes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. Jesus does not tell her to stop weeping.
Jesus weeps for the city of Jerusalem (19:41). Peter weeps after he realizes he had fulfilled Jesus' words about denying him (22:62). There are times when it is appropriate and expected that one will weep.
Luke has told us about a widow before this text. I suspect that the readers/hearers of this gospel were meant to remember that widow as they hear this story. In chapter 4 after Jesus preaches in his hometown with rave reviews, he says: "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 (vv. 25-26).
What did God do through Elijah for the widow at Zarephath? He provided her with food and oil throughout the famine; and, directly related to our text, he raised her son from the dead (1 Kings 17:1-24). Both that miracle and ours ends with the same words: he "gave him to his mother."
Thus, it is understandable that the crowds -- remember there were two crowds, one that came with Jesus and one that was with the funeral procession -- praise God, concluding, "A great prophet has been raised among us." (v. 16 -- Note, the Greek has a passive verb -- also in v. 14, where Jesus more literally commands the young man, "Be raised" -- same Greek word in both verses.) Jesus did for a widow what Elijah had done for a widow. He is exhibiting the power and authority that God had given the prophet in the past.
The significance of the passive is that it implies that God is doing the acting in both statements in v. 16. God has raised up a great prophet among us; and God has looked favorably his people. The two are related. God's favorable look results in raising up a prophet who has the power and authority to raise the dead to life -- to turn a widow's weeping over the death of her only son into joy.
The Greek word episkeptomai has nothing quite equivalent in English. Part of this seen by the different ways it is translated in v. 16. NRSV has "looked favorably." TNIV/NIV have "come to help".
Lowe and Nida's Greek-English Lexicon give four definitions of this word:
to choose or select on the basis of having investigated carefully – to select carefully, to choose after careful investigation [see Acts 6:3]
to go to see a person on the basis of friendship and with helpful intent – to visit, to go to see
to care for or look after, with the implication of continuous responsibility – to look after, to take care of, to see to
to be present with the implication of concern – to be present to help, to be on hand to aid
Any of these definitions could be used of God's actions towards his people. God has chosen us. God has visited us. God cares for us. God comes with concern for us to help us. All of those are implied in this word.
God does more than just "look at" or even "look favorably". God sees a need someone has and then cares enough about that person to do something about the need. Matthew uses the word in 25:36, 43 in regards to the help given to the sick and those in prison.
Luke used the word twice in Zechariah's song (translated in two different ways) 1:68, 78.
The NT text with this word that is most closely connected to our text is James 1:27: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."
We have been commanded to "see needs others may have, then care enough about the other people, that we do something about the need" -- especially the needs of orphans and widows.
I note again, that neither the widow nor anyone in the funeral procession asked for Jesus' help. Jesus saw the need and acted. (In contrast, the centurion first sent a delegation of Jewish elders to ask for Jesus' help -- and they report how worthy the centurion is to receive his help; then he sent friends who report that the centurion is unworthy to have Jesus come to his house. This probably indicates the centurion's knowledge that it brought defilement for a Jew to enter a Gentile's house. He was not worthy to have Jesus defile himself, even though Jesus seems ready and willing to do so.)
Some time ago I read a book that contained some autobiographical stuff about the author (a man I know). He came to realize that he and his mother had quite different ways of thinking about things. Growing up he lived by the idea, "If she wants me to know, she will tell me." He discovered later that his mother lived by the idea, "If he wants to know, he will ask." He didn't ask. She didn't tell. For years there was significant information that wasn't being shared.
This aspect struck me because I am often like him. I usually believe that if people want me to know something, they should tell me. I shouldn't have to ask. In contrast to that, I've seen people who just jump in and start doing stuff that needs to be done without ever being asked -- sometimes over the objections of a host or the person they are trying to help.
I can imagine the mother being taken aback when Jesus and his crowd confronted the funeral crowd. And then when he said, "Don't cry," what should she think? That's not the kind of help she wanted or needed. He was imposing on her parade. However, Jesus gave her help that she didn't even think was possible. Her crying undoubtedly turned to tears of joy.
There have been occasions when I have visited a member and they said afterwards, I didn't know that I needed a visit, but I did. Thank you for coming.
What do we expect to happen when God comes to visit us? Do we not believe that God comes a-visiting every Sunday morning when we gather in Jesus' name, when the Word is proclaimed, when the meal is shared? What kind of care and help do we expect God to do for us? Should we not declare to the world, "God has come to us" "God has helped us"?
I mentioned at the beginning of these notes that I found a sermon I preached on this text in 1995. I related a significant event in my life during that week.
Earlier this week I didn't like our gospel text. In fact, I sort of resented it. Very early, a little after 1:00 am on Tuesday morning I woke up with a terrible pain in my side. A little after 3:00 am I was in the hospital emergency room. The doctor said that a kidney stone was the most likely source of my pain. After some pain medication, I was sent home. Since I had already started looking at this gospel text, I thought, "If God has the power to raise the dead, why can't God make this pain disappear?"
Later in the gospels we read that angels rolled away a huge, heavy stone from in front of Jesus' tomb. Wouldn't it be a simple task to push aside a little, tiny stone from my kidney?
However, as I was mulling over such texts, I also realized that the large stone stayed in front of the tomb for three days. I wanted quicker action than that. We aren't told how long the widow's son had been dead before he was raised, but we know that when Jesus raised Lazarus, he had been dead for four days. I wanted quicker action than that. Then there is the Apostle Paul's "thorn in his flesh" which God never removed. I wanted a lot quicker action than that. Maybe these texts had nothing to do with my suffering earlier this week.
For those who might be interested, I passed the stone the next day just as my pain medication was running out and I had already made an appointment to see the doctor to get more pills. Did God have his hand in relieving my suffering? Did the prayers of the ladies on the prayer chain affect God's treatment of me? Did God have a hand in the passing of the stone on Wednesday so that I could have our band practice, and could spend 12 hours on Thursday getting our son from a band camp? Yes, I believe God looked favorably on me. I believe God cared about me and came with help for me. Perhaps it wasn't as quickly as I wanted, but help and relief came.
Another chapter in the kidney stones sage happened nine years later. I had another stone. Events in my schedule were a bit more crucial. I was to leave the next day to drive 10 hours to play piano at a nephew's wedding. There was pain again. There was an emergency visit to a doctor, but the stone passed in time for me to be at the rehearsal and the wedding. Was God involved in some way with the healing? I believe so.
I tell these stories not to draw attention to me, but to God, and as a conclusion to our Gospel lesson: "This word about Jesus spread through Judea and all the surrounding country" (v. 17). If we don't spread the word about Jesus, who else will? If we don't talk about ways God has looked favorably on us or has come to help us in times of need, who else will? I think that it is appropriate at times to be autobiographical in our sermons. I think that we need to continually challenge our people, "If you aren't telling others about Jesus, why not?"
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901