Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favourably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
This is the story of a deeply vulnerable woman. We don’t know her name. She is defined by her relationship to the men in her life: a wife, a mother. But now she is neither. Her husband has died and so has her son, leaving her with no one to protect her and to provide for her. Her prospects are bleak. What future will she have? But then when she is on the way to lay her son to rest, she meets Jesus. Jesus sees her and is moved with compassion. Mention of Jesus’ compassion in connection with miracles is very rare in the gospels, so we need to take note! Before Jesus came to Nain he was in Capernaum, where he heals the centurion’s slave. Central to that event is the centurion’s faith, but not in this instance. What matters here is Jesus’ compassion. He is deeply moved by the widow’s plight, so moved that he breaks a purity law: he touches the funeral bier. When he tells the widow’s son to rise, the young man comes back to life. Love takes precedence over law and the outcome is truly life-giving.
The story is told with a minimum of detail. We hear nothing of the widow’s reaction or her son’s experience. (But then we can probably imagine these.) What we do hear is what the onlookers do and say. They are filled with awe and praise God, for they recognise what is happening. They immediately see the parallels with the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha. Elijah had done something similar for the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17) and Elisha had raised the Shunnamite woman’s son (2 Kings 4). And now they see it happening in Nain and that can only mean one thing: God has visited his people! God is present with them and active among them. In the midst of death, grief, loss and change God comes near with boundary-breaking compassion.
In raising the widow’s son, Jesus proclaims and demonstrates God’s presence with us. That does not mean that we will not encounter pain and suffering, or even death. We will. Life is like that. But through it all we can be confident that God surrounds us with love and compassion, even if sometimes we can only recognise it afterwards. Life will go on and, ultimately, death will not have the final say.
God of life and death,
we pray for all who mourn today.
In the compassion and love of family and friends
may they know you near.
Francis Brienen is the Deputy General Secretary (Mission) of the URC.