1 Kings 17:17-24New International Version (NIV)
17 Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing. 18 She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?”
19 “Give me your son,” Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. 20 Then he cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” 21 Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!”
22 The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived. 23 Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, “Look, your son is alive!”
24 Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.”
Luke 7:11-17New International Version (NIV)
11 Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. 12 As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”
14 Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
16 They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” 17 This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.
The late pastor and professor Fred Craddock tells a story from his years growing up in rural Tennessee that seems appropriate for our message this morning. Craddock recalls the many missionaries and international relief workers that came to his church during his early years. He heard stories from missionaries from the bushlands of Africa. He heard stories of relief work in post-WWI Europe. These stories were deeply moving and powerful for sure, and Craddock recalls speaking with his pastor one day after hearing a particularly challenging story from a missionary. The young Craddock said to the pastor, and it is important to recite these words with a slow, southern drawl, “It sure is a shame that God isn’t doing anything here in rural Tennessee.”
I don’t share this story to criticize international mission or relief work. These are of enormous importance! But often, we are so drawn to the stories of work that is being done around the world, that we fail to see the way God is acting right here among us.
I’ve chosen to read both the Old Testament and Gospel reading from the lectionary today because, as you may have noticed, there is a common theme or two weaving these texts together. In both stories we find an interaction between a man of God and a grieving widow. In both stories, the widows have not only lost their husbands, but also their sons.
Let’s try to enter the biblical context before we look at these stories. One thing that we find repeatedly throughout both the Old and New Testaments is God’s commandment for his people to care for the foreigners living among them, the widows, and the orphans. This is not because these people are lazy and they just need to get a job. God commands his people to care for the foreigner, widows, and orphans because these people couldn’t provide for themselves in the biblical era. Land was divided among the tribes of Israel. Husbands were the only breadwinners in the family. Children were often employed as apprentices, but not financially compensated for their time. So the principle behind the commandment to care for the foreigner, widow, and orphan comes down to helping those who can’t help themselves.
Now notice especially that the widow in our story from 1 Kings 17 is the victim of a situation that is outside of her control. She is living in a territory that has been hit hard by a drought. She was already scraping together what she could to get by, and with the drought, she has next to nothing.
Earlier in this chapter we are told that God takes care of his prophet, Elijah, through an unlikely source. Elijah’s water comes from a brook, but where does he get bread and meat? From ravens. Scavenger birds of prey bring Elijah his food throughout the drought. That’s weird in any culture, but it is downright unlawful in Elijah’s day. Leviticus 11:15 tells us that ravens are unclean animals, and a good Hebrew like Elijah is to have no contact with them. So while eating food brought to you by a raven isn’t directly condemned by Leviticus 11:15, I assume it would be frowned upon.
This is only the first “unclean” act that God commands Elijah to commit. In verse 9 God says to Elijah, “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.”
After being fed by the unclean ravens, God sends Elijah to be fed by an unclean Gentile.
When Elijah meets the widow and asks her for food and water, she tells him that she does not have any food. All she has is a little flour and a bit of oil. In fact, she is gathering wood to take home, make one last meal for herself and her son, and then die. She knows that when this flour is gone, there will not be any more.
But Elijah knows something she doesn’t. He tells the widow to start making bread and see what happens. The flour and oil will not run out until the drought is over.
Sounds a lot like another man of God who took a little boy’s lunch of loaves and a couple of fish and fed an entire crowd with it.
The food provided a temporary fix to the drought problem, but we are told that the widow’s son became ill and he died. Elijah takes the dead boy into his arms, and because the boy was dead, he was unclean. Elijah carries him up to the room where Elijah had been staying, laid him in the bed where Elijah had been sleeping, which made both Elijah and the bed unclean, and prayed for God to bring the boy back to life. And God did just that.
I love the response from the widow in verse 24, where she says, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.” I laugh at this, because, you know, Elijah had been feeding himself, the widow, and her son from just a bit of flour and oil for days, weeks, maybe even months. It is only after Elijah brings her dead son back to life that she realizes that maybe he is a man of God! Some people clearly need a little more convincing than others.
Let’s jump ahead a couple hundred years. The story isn’t the same, but it is very similar. This time the man of God isn’t Elijah, but Jesus. Jesus is entering the city of Nain, so this was an Israelite community. Luke tells us that there is a crowd following Jesus and that Jesus and his crowd meet another crowd, this one mourning the death of a loved one. The fact that Luke mentions both the crowd that is following Jesus and the crowd of mourners should start to form an image in our mind. Luke also says that they are all at the city gate, which would have been a bit of a bottleneck because only so many people could go through at any one time.
So there is the crowd of Jesus’ followers, and the crowd of people mourning the death of a young man. They are all trying to pass through one gate, and Luke tells us that Jesus saw the mother of the deceased. And like the woman from Zarephath, this mourner is also a widow. This woman who has had to struggle for who knows how many years has now lost her son.
Let’s pick up at verse 13, “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came up and touched the bier, and those who carried it stood still.”
In John’s Gospel, Jesus turns water into wine. In Luke’s Gospel, he touches beer, or is it bier? A bier is the table-like structure used to carry and display a body at a funeral. It was even more scandalous for Jesus to touch the funeral bier than it would be for a teetotaler to find out that Jesus handled alcoholic beer. To touch a bier that supported a dead body would render a person unclean. It was like eating food brought to you by a raven or eating with and living under the same roof as a Gentile.
So why did Jesus reach out and touch the funeral bier if it would render him unclean? Could Jesus have just healed the widow’s son without touching him? Absolutely. The story right before this in Luke’s Gospel is of Jesus healing a centurion’s servant. The centurion tells Jesus not to even bother coming to his house, where the sick servant was, to heal him. Just speak the words, Jesus, and I know it will be done. That’s all it took. So why do we see Jesus and Elijah touching these corpses? Why does Elijah pick up the dead boy and carry him up to his own room, and lay the body on his own bed?
Again, look at Luke 7:13. Jesus and Elijah had compassion for the widows. The stories of Elijah and Jesus healing these dead boys are more than just stories of healing. They are stories of compassion.
The Greek word that we translate as compassion is—are you ready for this?—σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagknizomai). Splagknizomai is only used three times in the Gospel of Luke: in the story of the Prodigal Son, the father is said to have had compassion on his wayward son when he sees him returning; and the story of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan has compassion on the beaten and bloodied traveler.
When we consider the word compassion, we need to remember that it literally means to suffer alongside someone. The root of the word “passion” does not mean to be passionate. Someone might be passionate about their favorite ball team or favorite presidential candidate. You might even be passionate against a certain candidate. But in the Christian tradition, “passion” means to suffer. So when we talk about the Passion of Christ, we are talking about the suffering of Christ. So to have com-passion means to be a companion in the suffering of another, or to suffer alongside them.
In both stories we have widows and boys who have lost their fathers. Elijah shared a home and many meals with this family, and I have no doubt that he suffered with the widow of Zarephath when her son died. Jesus knew what it was like to lose loved ones as well. We don’t have any documentation that says Jesus’ father lived to see him grow into a man.
These biblical accounts are stories of seeing these woman for who they are. I’m sure that many saw widows as a nuisance, as people always looking for a handout, always looking for help. They were unclean and likely marginalized by their communities. But when Elijah and Jesus saw these widows, they didn’t just see them as people looking for a handout or unclean people. They just saw them as people. People who need loved. People who need to feel the touch of another human being. People who need other people.
So what are we to make of these stories and how do they apply to our lives today? I’m going to go ahead and confess something to you all. I know you look at me and hold me in high esteem. Surely, if ever there was one, Kevin is a man of God! Okay, maybe you don’t quite use those words. Regardless, here is my confession. I’ve never brought anyone back from the dead. I’ve never even prayed for someone who was really close to death and seen them turn around. Yes, I’ve seen some prayers answered and I’ve seen people get better. And maybe my prayers had something to do with that. I’d like to think that they did!
I’ve also prayed for people who suffer from substance abuse. I’ve prayed with and for couples that are struggling to stay together. And I’ve prayed for friends and family members who are going down the wrong path to turn their lives around. Sometimes I see miracles happen. But I’ve also seen many times when addicts relapse. I’ve seen far too many marriages end in divorce. And I’ve seen loved ones continue down dark paths and never come back.
I don’t have the ability to work miracles. I believe that God does, for sure. I’ve heard stories about the miraculous things that God has done and is doing. But sometimes I feel like that young Fred Craddock in rural Tennessee. Sometimes I wish God would do something right here in Staunton, VA.
And in a way, I know that he is. God is doing something right here in Staunton, VA, every time we are compassionate, every time we suffer with others.
The real miracle in the story of the widow’s son isn’t that the young men were healed. The real miracle is the gift of presence, the gift of compassion. Even for people who society had rejected and called “unclean.”
I read a story this week written by a Lutheran pastor named Janet who was telling about the last days of her father’s life. Janet’s father underwent surgery in a local hospital and things went poorly. The decision was made to send him to a larger hospital in a nearby city. However, the weather made it impossible to transport him by helicopter, so Janet’s father was taken by ambulance for the hour-long drive. Janet drover her mother while her father rode with medical personnel in the ambulance. Knowing that the situation was not looking good for her father made the trip all the longer.
Janet writes that she could not remember parking the car, nor could she remember taking the elevator up to the Intensive Care Unit. She couldn’t even recall finding her father’s room or what floor he was on. Here are Janet’s words describing what she does recall: “What I do remember is this. The nurse who rode with him in the ambulance tracked us down that night. And while I did not, do not, know her name and would not recognize her if I passed her on the street, I will never forget what she told us then: ‘I want you to know I held his hand all the way here.’”
The chances of any of us ever praying someone back from the dead are slim to none. Sure, it could happen, but that isn’t likely. What we can learn from both Jesus and Elijah, though, is even more basic and perhaps even more powerful. We may not hold the power to bring the dead back to life, but we have the power of presence. We have the power of compassion. When people suffer, we can see them as being in the way, as an outcast, as a marginalized or unclean individual. Or we can have compassion and be there with them.
So to the young Fred Craddock who said, “It sure is a shame that God isn’t doing anything here in rural Tennessee,” I would say what Craddock would come to learn as he matured in the faith. God is doing something in rural Tennessee and even here in Staunton, Virginia. God is doing amazing things every time we show compassion for those our world has neglected.