There’s a couple of ways that you can look at our gospel lesson this morning. I’d like to look at them both and then see if we can piece them together.
The first way goes something like this: in last week’s lesson, Jesus was called on by a Roman centurion to heal his servant. He was on his way to the guy’s house when the soldier sent word that Jesus didn’t need to come all the way to the house, but could just say the word and heal the servant from where he was. The soldier talked about having authority himself and how he understood that Jesus had authority too. Well, Jesus did what the man asked and healed the servant that very moment. The word that the soldier used was authority. We might also call it power. To heal someone when you are right there beside them, when you can touch them and speak to them, that’s pretty amazing all by itself. But to heal somebody by merely speaking the word from a distance? That’s power.
It says that the next day Jesus was going along and he was coming up to the little village of Nain where there was a funeral procession leaving town, on the way to the cemetery. The pall-bearers were carrying the bier, that is to say the board on which the body was placed. And Jesus walked up to it, put his hand on it, and said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” And the man sat up and began to speak.
It says that the people in the crowd, and no doubt the pall-bearers, were seized by fear. And they praised God. Now raising a man from the dead is truly an act of power and this is what the crowd recognized. In fact, so great was this act of power that they cried out, “A great prophet has risen among us.” What they are referring to is our first lesson from the book of First Kings, when Elijah the prophet raised from the dead the son of the Widow of Zarephath. The people see the power of Jesus and they recognize the similarity between him and one of the giants of their faith.
So that is the first way of understanding our lesson today. It’s about power. Jesus has it.
The second way to understand our lesson will also be familiar. It starts the same way. In the lesson last week, Jesus is called by a powerful Roman soldier who has a servant. In fact, he probably has a lot of them. And strictly speaking, he could have ordered Jesus to come to him. He didn’t, but he could have, because he was powerful guy.
The next day, Jesus was going along and he was coming up the little village of Nain and he came upon a funeral procession leaving town. And his eyes were drawn to a particular woman who was weeping as she looked up at the dead man. He perceived that this was her son, her only son. Her only child, in fact. And she was a widow. Here was a woman convulsed by grief, alone in the world, even as she was surrounded by a crowd. Here was a woman participating in the ceremony that ends with her son in the ground along with her joy, her love, her future security. Here was a dead woman walking.
A wave of compassion comes over Jesus. If you want to read it literally, it says that his guts poured out for her. He is devastated that she is suffering like this and determined to do something. He walks over to her, tells her softly, “Do no weep.” Then grabs the bier and stops it. The crowd is horrified, but Jesus doesn’t care. He says with a strong, clear voice, “Young man, I say to you, rise.”
In this second way of understanding our gospel lesson, Jesus raises this man out of compassion for his mother. It’s an act of spontaneous love for one who is suffering.
So then, how do these two accounts fit together? Are they both true? Is one more true than the other? I think the best way to put them together is to recognize that Jesus’ power, his lordship, does not exist for its own sake. The power of Jesus, indeed the person of Jesus, exist for a very particular purpose. When Jesus begins his ministry in Luke, he states clearly what that purpose is by using the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
(Luke 4:18-19 ESV)
The power that Jesus shows is only ever a means to accomplish what his true purpose is. He comes to those who are weak, who are poor, who are broken, who are captive. And he comes to show them compassion and to do something about it. He was a savior to that poor, grieving widow that day. And he showed his power so that she would be consoled.
And that is where we meet Jesus. In our failure. In our sorrow. In our brokenness. And he comes to pour out his guts, to have compassion on us, to be our savior. Amen.