A little later Jesus went to a city called Nain. His disciples and a great crowd traveled with him. As he approached the city gate, a dead man was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow. A large crowd from the city was with her. When he saw her, the Lord had compassion for her and said, “Don’t cry.” He stepped forward and touched the stretcher on which the dead man was being carried. Those carrying him stood still. Jesus said, “Young man, I say to you, get up.” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.
Awestruck, everyone praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding region. – Luke 7:11-17 (CEB)
In Risk and Controversy I and II, I reflected on Jesus’ healing of a Centurion’s slave – specifically on the people that were in that story and the Centurion’s humility (in not coming to Jesus himself) and courage of faith (since his words could be considered treason and blasphemy). The story that follows in Luke, the widow at Nain, is just as controversial (the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath underlies this story – I blogged about that here).
First, Jesus chooses to walk through Samaria, we suppose on his way to Jerusalem. Then, he chooses to speak to a Samaritan widow. And finally, Jesus touches the stretcher of a dead man – something a Jewish rabbi would not do. Luke is also controversial in his telling as he refers to Jesus as “the Lord” for the first time.
Traditionally, we focus on the miracle of Jesus raising the man and giving him to his mother. And this truly was miraculous – but there was also another miracle that day. Just as we considered the crowds in Capernaum, we need to consider the crowds in Nain.
This is not one uniform group of people.
One crowd had come with Jesus from Galilee. Mostly Jewish, there were probably a few Pharisees (although the really pious would not have followed Jesus into Samaria). These are not the religious elite, but small town rabbis and regular people – and probably a few Gentiles – who are wondering who this Jesus is.
But the crowd they encounter is quite different. It, too, is made up of regular people. But they are “Samaritans” and not really Jewish. They are not there to see Jesus but to mourn the death of one of their own. For the widow, this is the last time she will hold a place of standing in the community. All her men have died and she is now at the mercy of her brothers, if she has any, and the goodwill of the community.
The convergence of these two crowds hinges on Jesus. If Jesus chooses to walk on, his crowd will follow him. But Jesus chooses to stop.
And when we are following Jesus, we stop when Jesus stops.
There are two potential outcomes to this convergence of crowds. Either they will pass by, pretending the other does not exist. Or they could let their emotions run wild and get into some sort of religious fray. But Jesus is here, so there is always a third option.
Jesus chooses compassionate engagement. Just as he was willing to enter the Centurion’s home, Jesus is willing to enter into the Samaritan widow’s despair. Jesus only utters two short sentences in this passage – both to the marginal and excluded. To the widow: “Don’t cry.” To her dead son: “Get up.”
And in doing so, the real miracle occurs. These two groups of people are brought together as one body. And together they echo Luke’s earlier statement of divinity: “God has come to help his people.” These two diverse groups become one in the reconciling and compassionate presence of Jesus.
In 17 short verses, Jesus breaks all sorts of religious customs. In Luke 7:1-10, Jesus appears willing to enter a Gentile house. Now, he intentionally travels in Samaria, engages with a Samaritan widow, and touches a dead man’s bier. And the results are a miraculous demonstration of faith and the uniting of two very different crowds of people into one Body.
In these 17 verses, Jesus isn’t interested in religious ritual. What he seems to be interested in is reaching out and breaking down the barriers we have built up between people groups. In these two encounters, Jesus engages, accepts, loves, and restores the two people groups that the religious leaders hate the most. In this passage, we get a glimpse of the Kingdom of God and the Body of Christ.
I like both of these stories, but they also ask a lot of me. Who do I encounter as I follow Jesus – and do I stop when Jesus stops?
It wasn’t the Centurion’s actions that Jesus praised but his faith. Through the Centurion’s words, Jesus saw how God was working in his life. Am I willing to listen to those who are “unclean” or “of this world” to see how God is working in their lives?
When Jesus saw the widow, “the Lord had compassion for her.” In the original language the word for compassion is σπλαγχνιζομαι (splagch -ni-tso-mai). It means “to have the bowels yearn.” Or in other words, to have your guts wrenched. The word is only used 12 times in the New Testament. Luke uses it three times: here, to describe the Good Samaritan, and the father in the parable of the prodigal son.
Luke is not describing mere pity or doing a good deed because it’s the right thing to do. Jesus has empathy for the widow. He feels her anguish. For whom do I have this type of compassion?
These acts of love unite two disparate groups of people so that all are able to perceive grace. Jesus is reaching out and breaking down barriers. As the Body of Christ, we are called to the same. Will we?
Dear Jesus, the truth is that I do not always want to stop when you stop. I would prefer that you continue on to something more important and comfortable – and am tempted to keep on going, hoping you will catch up. It is hard to love people who aren’t like me or don’t share my values or may cause me to change.
But everyone who comes in contact with you, Lord, is changed. And so I offer myself to be changed by you, so that world may be changed through me. Unite what the world separates and build up what the world divides so that the Body of Christ would become what you desire.
In your great love and to your great name, Amen.
 Luke 10:33 and 15:20