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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before June 5, 2016

Luke 7:11-17

11Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12As 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. 13When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” 17This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

What I Am Learning:

Once again we see Jesus "the magician" at work. He walked to walk up to a woman whose son had died and raised him from the dead. A nice parlor trick. But for those of us living after the modern age, we are confronted with at least two questions:

  • Is raising someone from the dead possible?
  • What difference does it make, since other sons, daughters, mothers and fathers have died?

Of course, none of the people in the first century would have asked these questions, at least not through the lens of a scientific and individualist worldview. This doesn't invalidate the questions, however. But before we deal with them let's review what first-century Jews would have considered as important.

First, all mothers are grief-stricken when their children die. In the first century, however, a son's death meant not only grief but destitution. This young man was her "only son" who had legal standing to own the property. When he was healed the mother not only had her son returned to her, but after his rising could have her basic survival needs met along with the rest of her family.

Second, key to this miracle story are these passages:

Isaiah 61

1The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Isaiah 3-6

3 Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’
5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

These passages were first spoken by Isaiah (most probably a series of prophets) to the People of Israel when they were captive in Babylon. For people in Jesus' day, these passages were equally powerful - they saw them as a part of the promise of God to release them from occupation by the Roman Empire. They saw these passages as forming expectations of what an anointed one would do. This anointed one, or messiah, would bring lead them to freedom and to live out God's vision for humanity.

Just as God saved them from Egypt and Babylon, so God would save them from the Roman Empire.

Notice the set of values in these texts. Isaiah says that God values care for people who are the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the captives, those who mourn, the weak, fearful, the blind, the deaf and the lame.

When God is portrayed as being angry in the Hebrew Scripture, it is almost always because human beings were not valuing other more vulnerable human beings.

So when Jesus raised this young man from the dead and returned him to his mother, the crowd callsed Jesus a prophet. They saw in him the promise of God to create a just and equitable and compassionate society and to release them from Roman occupation.

They saw Jesus' healing of this young man as a sign of something far bigger than one healing, one family reunited, one mother glad.

Now let's come back to our questions. It is important to remember that for most of human history the idea of a miracle was not considered impossible. It might have been rare, but not impossible. We must remember that it really is not fair for us to impose our 21st century western worldview on the text in such a way as call it and them stupid. I think even those most encapsulated by a scientific, rationalist, individualist worldview might wish there were miracles. For myself, I think life is too mysterious, the universe too big and human understanding too limited to deny that miracles can happen.

But this does not yet address the second question: what difference did it make? By this I mean that there is so much suffering in the world, what substantive difference does one miracle make?

If we take it on our terms, not much. But if we see this story as a sign of God's value for the vulnerable at work in the life of Jesus then it changes everything.

For we are not called to sit around waiting for one big miracle to fix everything, but to live out in our lives how God values the vulnerable. Sometimes we are the vulnerable. Other times others are. Being vulnerable is baked into the cake of life. In our dog-eat-dog  in which we pretend that being vulnerable won't happen to us if we are rich, beautiful and smart enough we are often shocked to find ourselves or others vulnerable.

God envisions a society in which vulnerable and beautiful human beings care for one another and strive for equity and justice for everyone. In the moments we strive for this, the miracle of Jesus raising a young man to his mother takes place again.

Perhaps striving for such a society is miracle enough for us.