Raising the dead by a touch or a word is quite some trick, yet just because today’s account of the raising of the widow’s son makes it to the pages of the New Testament, we should be honest enough to admit there is still uncertainty about what is described and it may not even have happened in the way it was presented.
Of course we might always attempt to intellectualise what we read about this strange happening. For example it is true that in a previous age, such apparent events as the dead returning to life, were not unknown if only because then without modern medical techniques, death was difficult to distinguish from unconsciousness. This situation continued right through until comparatively recently and as a consequence in old style church burial grounds there was a covered Lych gate (literally a corpse gate) at the entrance to the grave yard, where the coffin or bier was delivered the evening before a funeral and some social histories say that someone (often a deacon) would be delegated to sit beside the deceased over night in case the body recovered.
But even if there were some natural science explanation for this instance of Jesus returning the widow’s son to life, there is far more to this story than faith healing writ large. We should for example note that the son is in effect resuscitated not resurrected to immortality. Presumably some years later, as for all mortal human beings, there would be another funeral – but this time with no unexpected reprieve. Here, some might be surprised to learn that despite my training in science, I am not using this as an excuse to rubbish faith healing. Sick people – and in some instances very sick people with a claimed incurable condition – have been known to unexpectedly recover. To many scientists, the jury is still out on whether or not faith can affect this healing process. And the recently deceased can occasionally be brought back to life. There are many recorded instances of people whose hearts have stopped having been resuscitated and there is always room for the unexpected, even if the miracle is only that someone cared enough to make the effort.
Yet at the very least we would be wise to not assume anyone with sufficient faith could perform the same miracle in the same way Jesus was reported as doing. On the 19 December last year at a funeral in the suburb of Richmond in Christchurch, New Zealand, a young, well dressed funeral gate-crasher waited until the celebrant invited anyone who chose to say a few words on behalf of the deceased. At that point, to the consternation of friends and family, the young man made his way to the front shaking hands with the family as he did so. At the front he started waving his arms and appeared to be speaking in tongues – and then instructing the body in the casket to wake up and come out. As I guess you have already expected, in this case no miracle occurred, and far from being grateful the relatives were understandably horrified.
But let’s go back a step to think why Luke was recording this miracle of Jesus in the first place. Its context is provided by the section of the story that follows today’s account of the raising of the widow’s son. John the Baptist, referred in other places as Jesus’ cousin, had heard of the many strange and wonderful things that had been apparently happening for Jesus, and even although the stories circulating about Jesus suggested his behaviour was rather different from what the Jews taught would be the characteristics of the Messiah, John decided to send his disciples to find out if this Jesus was the one.
Jesus, as enigmatic as ever, did not give a direct answer. They asked: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” ……22And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”
Notice it was his actions rather than his title – many of which had a common theme of acts of compassion, which marked him as the Messiah. As intending followers of the Messiah, might it be that we learn from Jesus’ answer? “ Are you a Christian?” is occasionally a question we might hear addressed to ourselves. “Stick around, watch and decide for yourself!” Is that an answer we would dare give?
Whatever Jesus was doing in his actions, as far as Luke was concerned, Jesus was showing genuine compassion to the widow who would have been entirely dependent on her son, whose death would presumably have left her with hope of support. We might also wonder if Luke was helping his readers understand that Jesus was a prophet.
We should not be surprised that the crowd responds to the action of “raising” the widow’s son by saying Jesus is a prophet. After all it was in the same general area of the country that, years before, the prophet Elijah had also raised a widow’s son. (1 Kings 17: 17 – 24)
The crowd are reported as accepting the event as confirmation that Jesus is a prophet. The modern commentators are clearly divided about what actually happened. Some are happy that this be accepted as a dramatic miracle – and others insist that it is a purely symbolic story to show the sort of attitude Jesus had to the needy. Regrettably we have no way of knowing for certain if this particular miracle actually happened as recorded.
For what it is worth, I suspect Luke at least, believed that this story was an accurate account, but since it came from an age of oral traditions, it is also likely that the story had been already been shaped by the need for symbolism.
But if this story is to have meaning for us, it would not do to place too much emphasis on the miracle part, if only because such gifts are not readily apparent in those such as ourselves. Putting it directly, we are not Jesus. What is clear however is that the world in which we live follows the laws of nature, and nature is without regard for what we might prefer to be the case. A tornado can form in response to atmospheric conditions and wreck a town in Oklahoma, killing innocent young children as well as adults, and prayer does not change the course of the tornado. An earthquake can destroy the heart of one city in New Zealand and leave other cities unscathed, and there seems no correspondence between the force of an earthquake and the number of believers in the vicinity. We might want to feel an earthquake is a consequence of God’s judgement on human behaviour, but the physics of reaction to stresses and fault lines on the Earth’s crust seems a more logical explanation. In the same way, a much needed parent can contract terminal cancer as a consequence of a stray mutation, and a widow’s son can still die in accordance with the happen-chance of nature for no apparent faith related reason.
Just as misfortune follows the application of natural law, natural law limits us on what forms of cure are available. Even Jesus was demonstrably limited in how much suffering he could address. Whatever means Jesus might have had to alleviate the suffering of those poor and needy souls he was able to help, presumably there were also many in Palestine who remained un-helped. Today’s gospel report focuses on Jesus using a wondrous intervention for this particular widow but we should note that the many thousands of people facing similar disasters on the face of the planet were not thereby relieved of their turn for suffering.
We must also be honest enough to admit, no matter what Jesus may have been able to accomplish in his day, we ourselves have no access to magical short-cuts, and indeed as Bill Loader has pointed out in his commentary on this passage: “failure to see this can make us seem naive if not offensive in the face of real human need and those struggling it. It can also lead people to consign Jesus to the world of fantasy and irrelevance”.
Ultimately, if our attention is only on Jesus and his actions as a way of finding and admiring his strange abilities to affect unexpected cures and miracles, we would have missed his intention. His intention seems rather that he came bringing a message of hope and promise to people desperately in need of hope. His challenge to his disciples – and I guess that includes a challenge to those of our generation who wish to follow, is that they – and hopefully we ourselves, should take over the task of living and sharing this gospel.
If there is a message for us to take from the story of raising the widow’s son it may simply be that since Jesus showed compassion to this situation of need, since our faith teaches that even the least among us have real value, we too must respond as best we can when in turn such situations confront us.
True we may not be able to do much to help the dead, but inspired by Jesus, we may at least attend to some needs of the living. If the gospel is to continue to have meaning, Jesus’ care for the needy must continue to hold a central place. And if we chose to hold back from involving ourselves with this aspect of mission, who else is there to take our place?