Text: Luke 7:11-17
Date: June 6, 2010
Author: Catherine Thiel Lee
I have a friend who makes icons. Well…she doesn’t really make icons, but kind of. I’m not talking about the symbols on your computer that show a little picture of your file. I mean religious icons, pictures of Jesus or Mary or a scene from Scripture which are used in worship. Particularly in Orthodox churches, icons are used for contemplation. The figures often have large, exaggerated eyes, and include various types of symbolic images.
My friend is an artist and a printmaker. The two prints [on the walls] are hers, blown up so the quality is a bit off. They don’t come from our passages from today, but they were a kind of inspiration for this sermon and they offer two different pictures of Christ which may (or may not) help to stretch our ideas of who he is. And if you get tired of listening to me—or of just listening in general—perhaps you can look at them and hopefully still go home edified.
Icons point to God. They are meant to engage us in ways that lead us into the worship of God. At their best, when we interact with them at our best, by the grace of God—they direct our gaze toward understandings of faith that we wouldn’t see simply by hearing. They have the ability, goes the Orthodox and sacramental tradition, to come at our spirit and consciousness from behind, below, inside out and round about. My hunch is that there might be something to it, even if it is all hard to grasp, and, undeniably, easy to abuse.
Tonight I want to talk about the story in Luke 7. Now if any of you remember, last time I preached it was on the story of a widow being raised from the dead in Acts. And when I pulled up the lectionary readings for this week, what did I find? In 1 Kings and in Luke: more dead people! More raising! More widows!
Maybe that’s what got me thinking of icons—it gave me a different way in. I wondered if I, if we, could read this story as an icon of Jesus? I wonder if this idea of a still-frame, a visualized capture of a moment could be a way to read stories—especially familiar ones—so that they are free with the guidance of God’s Spirit to point us to something good and true about God.
It was this arresting detail that grabbed me the first time I read this story, and it had stayed with me as I’ve studied it. The point of Jesus’ miracle stated clearly in these simple words: Jesus gave him, [the dead man, gave him] back to his mother” (Luke 7: 15).
This is a story in which Jesus displays a profound public act of power—he brings the dead back to life. For the first time. In front of not one, but two crowds, the crowd following Jesus and the crowd with the widow. At the town gate, the most public of spaces in an ancient city. Luke shows Jesus healing someone who is gravely ill in the preceding story and now he raises the dead. He is one upping himself in the power and authority of his actions. All through these early episodes of Jesus’ ministry Luke’s keynote is power. He presents Jesus as “the Spirit-empowered conqueror of evil,” resisting the devil, casting out demons, defying sickness and even death (see Talbert, Reading Luke-Acts in its Mediterranean Milieu). John the Baptist’s disciples come and ask Jesus, “John wants to know—are you really the one?” Jesus’ answer is a long list of what he has been up to: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor hear good news (7:22). Acts of miraculous power which provide evidence of Jesus’ status as God’s agent of salvation (see Roth, The Blind, the Lame, and the Poor).
So Jesus is powerful. But it is not only, or even mainly in my view, about power. It is also about compassion and the way that God’s salvation comes.
All of Jesus’ healings, and much of his teaching so far, have been in response to people coming to him. Flocking to him. Begging him for mercy, for help, for healing. And he responds. But this story is different. Jesus goes to her.
To her? Wait, doesn’t he raise a dead man, you ask? Well, yes. But Luke focuses on his mother. The structure of the text describes the dead man at length, but all in terms of his mother. The phrases tumble out shifting the focus onto her, the only son of his mother…a widow…surrounded by a large crowd (7: 12).
A widow who has lost her only son has also, likely, lost her only means of support. As we talked about a few weeks ago, widows in Jesus’ time occupied a precarious position in a patriarchal society. She’s not necessarily destitute (she is surrounded by a crowd and may well have a supportive community, a fact often overlooked in assumptions about “poor widows”). But she is vulnerable. She is part of a funeral procession. She is going to bury her son. And she is weeping.
The scene is set such that the two crowds, the mother’s and Jesus’, cross paths at the town gate. In the midst of all those people, Jesus sees her. He “has compassion on her.” He says to her, “don’t cry.” He finds her, moves towards her, speaks to her. She is the focus of his attention.
This word for Jesus’ compassion, splagxveuo, has to do with innards and organs. Not just hearts, but lungs and livers and kidneys and stomachs—our guts. It is compassion and mercy that rises from the depths of our beings. “Compassion” sounds so sterile. This isn’t a moral or sentimental response we muster because we know we are supposed to. This is mercy and love welling up from inside, like vomit, like weeping.
And in this compassion, Jesus acts. He touches the bier, the pallbearers stop, and Jesus commands the young man to “Get up!” The dead man sits up and says something. And here we reach my iconic line: “Jesus gave him back to his mother.”
I have known a number of people, of women, who have lost their children. But the one I think of most when I read this story is my friend Rita. She lost her six month old to SIDS—he and my son Ian were same age. I haven’t lost a child, though maybe some of you have? I don’t know what that’s like and can’t fathom—don’t want to fathom—the depths of that pain. But I know that I love my children. A good portion of my days they drive me completely crazy. But there moments (and this is no discredit to the rest of you, I imagine God feels this way about each of us) when I recognize them as the absolute pinnacles of God’s creation. Many of you love my children too, but I have to tell you, as a mother I know things about them that you don’t know. The way that Joe holds a cup these days when he is thirsty and a little distracted, with a slight tilt but a surprisingly firm grasp—there’s something in the carefree extension of his arm that shows me how he’s growing. The lines around Ian’s eyes (they are like his father’s) and the slight protrusion of his front teeth when he smiles, the difference when the corners of his mouth turn down between a frown and concentration. I think about Rita, how she never got to see Jim’s grasp of a cup and the ways it changes, or guess at the intricacies of his two year old emotions. I know she sees shadows of them in her other sons, in my sons, probably especially in Ian. I know she would do anything to get him back. She’s an honest woman. When well-meaning people have tried to console her with the words, “at least he is with God now,” she shoots back, “Well, he seemed pretty happy with us.” She just wants her son back.
That’s what Jesus gave this widow. In the rawness of her loss, before she had time to begin to come to terms with the death of her child in a healthy way, before she learned to live with, or even to mask, her pain, Jesus gave her son back to her.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (6:21).
Jesus spoke those words to his disciples in the Beatitudes just one chapter earlier. They must have wondered what he meant. Now they have an idea.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (6:21).
And the crowds don’t miss the significance of this whole event. They are filled with fear. I suppose if a corpse in a funeral procession got up and started talking I would be afraid too. They are filled with awe. They herald Jesus as a “great prophet” (Luke 7:16). Earlier in the gospel he compared himself to Elijah and now he is acting like him; this miracle virtually mirrors Elijah’s raising of another widow’s son (1 Kings 17: 17-24). They claim that “God has come to visit his people” (Luke 7:16). That word “visit” indicates the visitation of God’s historical intervention (Luke 1:68, 78; Acts 15:14). You know, Creation, Exodus, the “big events” in Israel’s story. As one scholar wrote, “God’s compassionate and gracious visitation of his people is seen in the manifestation of his miraculous power” (Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, 660)
And certainly in his power. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to give you a sentimental picture of Jesus here. Luke all through his gospel seeks to answer the question, “who is Jesus?” And his answer most often identifies him as the one who fulfills God’s divine plan for redemption. Jesus is God’s hoped for fulfillment. His powerful displays of ordering and control over sickness and death are powerful signs of nothing less than God’s long awaited salvation.
But the story doesn’t point only, or even primarily, to an exercise of power. The story centers on Jesus’ compassion and the restoration of a grieving widow’s dead son. That is the part that is iconic to me, the part that, and this sounds cheesy, but it’s true: that takes me deeper into the heart of God and tells me how he saves. Jesus’ eternal, human, divine eyes as he sees a woman who is crying. It’s the picture that Luke paints for us, the print Scripture seeks to stamp on us. And it too must be the evidence that the crowds recognize as the visitation of God.
The Psalms were ancient Israel’s prayers. Most, if not all, of the people in those crowds were Jews who knew the Psalms. Psalm 146 tells of the Lord who “upholds the cause of the oppressed…gives food to the hungry…sets prisoners free…gives sight to the blind…watches over the foreigner, and sustains the fatherless and the widow” (vv. 7-9). It is a Psalm naming the reality of who God is.
Even, maybe especially, when it doesn’t seem that way. Psalm 146 also declares God to be the “Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them” (v. 6). The sea in Scripture is often a metaphor for chaos and disorder. It is symbol of all that is in turmoil and out of control. The sea was dangerous, unknown: this is before we crossed oceans, proved the world was round, and plumbed the deep waters with our fancy scientific gear. The sea was mysterious and terrifying. Yet God made it too.
Psalm 146 is also a prayer of hope, because when we look around us, we see lots of oppression and hunger and blindness that have yet to be relieved. The sea rages. Yet we keep praying the Psalm as a statement of hope toward the reality of fulfillment. Israel had been praying this prayer for centuries, waiting. Waiting for God to fulfill his promises.
The lectionary gives us two gifts this week to carry into our lives. In one hand, Psalm 146 is a prayer of hope for what God is in the midst of doing and of what he will do. Upholding the oppressed, feeding the hungry, sustaining the widow. Walter Bruggemann calls it the “hymn of true help” (Psalms and the Life of Faith, 128). In the other hand we have a story of fulfillment, the story of a widow on whom Jesus unleashes his compassion, for whom he brings the world to rights again.
We need both. We need this back and forth exchange of prayers of hope and stories of fulfillment. We can’t rest only on one or the other, lest we lose our grounding and place all our hope in some celestial, disembodied by-and-by in the future, or become muddled and weighed down by the seeming infrequency and overall inefficiency of the moments of fulfillment. The sea may rage around us, but we hold steady in our hands our prayers of hope, our stories of fulfillment.
What are places in our lives where we need that prayer for hope, where we see pain and turmoil, where we long to see peace, where it doesn’t look like God is in control or cares?
And what are the places where we see evidence of God’s fulfillment, where we see the kingdom of God here on earth, working itself out (if slowly and quietly)?
I’m not sure where I end up in this story. I started out grieving with the widow, thinking of my friend Rita, overwhelmed by the compassion this Lord of mine shows to another mother. And I moved to crowds filled with fear and awe and mouths overflowing with praise at the tangible hope right before them, God fulfilling his promises. “God has come to visit us!”
But in the end, I end up back in the middle of the story—one of those pallbearers. After he tells the widow not to cry, Jesus walks up to the bier on which the dead man is lying and, as Luke so blithely puts is, “the pallbearers stood still” (7: 14). They stopped. I mean, what would you do? Some guy walks up into the middle of a funeral procession and grabs the casket. Were they appalled and shocked? Touching the bier of a dead man would render a Jewish man like Jesus unclean. Were they confused? Afraid he was crazy? Or did they see the compassion in his eyes? Did anyone recognize him? He had a reputation at this point you know. Did they guess or dare to hope what he might do next?
Many days it feels like I am a pallbearer. Holding the coffin of Creation, as I long to dive down to the bottom of the sea and press my hands against that pipe bleeding oil into the Gulf, to hold it back, to make it stop. Holding the coffin of nations, as I long to press my hands over the muzzles of guns and bleeding wounds and shield the eyes and ears of children (and adults) from the terrors of war. Holding the coffins of my own children? as I long to shield their eyes and ears from the terror and injustice and wrongness of the world in which I raise them.
But then I remember Psalm 146:
Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord, my soul. I will praise the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save…Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is the Lord their God. He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea (pause) and everything in them—he remains faithful forever (Psalm 146:1-3, 6).
We may be holding the coffin of Creation, but Jesus is its creator. We may be holding the coffin of nations, but Jesus is their king. We may even hold the coffins of our children, figuratively and literally, but Jesus loves them, and us, too, loves them deeply, compassionately, gut-wrenchingly. He made the sea too—and remains faithful. Forever.
Maybe the job of a pallbearer is to do just what those in the story did—to stop. Stop—and hope—and see what this crazy, suspicious, wildly powerful and compassionate Jesus will do next.