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.
Translation: And it happened, in the next day, he went into a city called Nain, and many of his disciples and a large crowd were going together with him. But just as he approached the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a large crowd of the city was with her, and when the Lord saw her, he was moved with compassion for her, and he said to her, "Don't cry." And he came (and) he touched the bier, and the ones bearing (it) stood. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, be raised." And the dead man sat up and he began to speak, and (Jesus) gave him to his mother. But fear took hold of all, and they were glorifying God, saying, "A great prophet has arisen in us" and "God has looked upon his people." And this word concerning him went out in all Judea and all the surrounding region.
Background and situation: Only Luke tells this story. It follows upon the story of the healing of the centurion's slave (7:1-10). Luke often pairs stories featuring healings done for a man and a woman, in this case, the centurion's slave, then the poor widow. Luke likes gender balance.
For additional background, see also 1 Kings 17:10-24, the story of the prophet Elijah and his encounter with a widow at the gate of Zarephath. The prophet revives the widow's dead son. Another Old Testament text with a connection to this week's lection is 2 Kings 4: 8-37. In this one, the prophet Elisha revives the Shunammite woman's son.
These are important because, by the end of the lection, Jesus will be hailed as a "great prophet" in the mold of Elijah and Elisha, yet even greater. This is a major theme for Luke. Previous posts discussing Jesus as prophet in Luke: 2:22-40, 4:14-21, 13:31-35.
The restoration of the poor widow: Jesus enters the town of Nain, which was a Galilean town--Luke calls it a "city" (polin)--about six miles southeast of Nazareth. He is accompanied by a sizeable group, a "large crowd" and "many of his disciples."
It is quite likely that, at least at certain times, Jesus was accompanied on his travels by many people in various stages of following. People tend to forget: Jesus was popular, and loved by multitudes.
As Jesus approaches the gate of the city, we are alerted--"behold!"--that something is about to happen. Jesus and the large crowd "with him" are met by another large crowd "with her," a widow who has lost her son. The large crowd of mourners is on their way to inter the body. Note the movement: Large crowd meets large crowd--one approaches the city, the other leaves it--a procession of life meets a procession of death.
The deceased is identified with reference to his mother--"the only son of his mother, and she was a widow." From its very beginning, Israel had recognized widows, along with orphans and strangers, as being particularly vulnerable. With the death of her son, the widow of Nain is now without any means of economic support and relegated to the fringes of the community. She has entered the realm of the "marginalized."
She is, however, very much at the center of this story. First, the crowd is "with her." Then, though Jesus is the primary actor in the story--the widow never speaks or acts--she is main recipient of his actions.
Jesus reacts to the woman in three ways. First, he "saw her." Not everyone sees the marginalized. This alone is significant. Second, Jesus "was moved with compassion for her." The word is esplagxnisthe, which means "deeply moved." Luke is rather sparing when discussing Jesus' emotional state. That he places Jesus' compassion at the center of the story, with the widow, is telling.
Third, he speaks to her. In those three actions, Jesus comprehends the woman's complete reality. He sees her, experiences her grief, and speaks words for her alone.
Again, at the end of the story, the poor widow is the recipient of the action. When Jesus raises the young man, he "gave him to his mother." Joel Green notes:
She who is husbandless and sonless and in mourning, she who epitomizes the "poor" to whom Jesus has come to bring good news, is the real recipient of Jesus' compassionate ministry. In fact, it is not too much to say that "healing" in this instance, although it entails the miraculous raising of this young man from the dead, should be interpreted as the restoration of this woman within her community. (pp. 289-290)
Christus Victor!: As he did with the widow, Jesus directs three actions toward the deceased young man. He came to the bier. It is not directly stated, but his action appears to stop the procession of mourners. (Jesus stops the death march in its tracks.)
Then, he touched. The touch of the funeral bier renders Jesus ritually unclean, not that he cared. He never seems to have missed an opportunity to make himself "impure."
And he spoke. His words are words of resurrection--egertheti, "be raised." The word is based in egeiro, which is the same word used to speak of Jesus' own resurrection. The "dead man sat up"--(I always liked that part.) Christus Victor! Jesus meets death square and beats it.
But fear took hold of all, and they were glorifying God, saying, "A great prophet has arisen in us" and "God has looked upon his people." And this word concerning him went out in all Judea and all the surrounding region.
Before Jesus' action, there were two crowds--one a procession of death, one a procession of life. Now, in light of Jesus' victory over the powers of death, this distinction no longer holds. The crowds are now designated as "all." They are together now, and gripped in common by both fear and praise.
Jesus is hailed as a "great prophet." He had announced his public ministry with the words of the prophet Isaiah (4:18). He had identified with the prophets (4:24). His actions in this lection connect him with both Elijah and Elisha. Now, the people acclaim him as prophet--even more, a great prophet.
The crowd is effusive and one strong statement is not enough. The crowd proclaims yet another strong message: "God has looked upon his people." Such good news cannot be contained, and "this word" about Jesus "went out" as though shot from a cannon.
It went to "all of Judea," which, careful readers will note, is not the venue of the story. The story takes place in Galilee, yet word of the "great prophet" Jesus who has power over death is first said to go to Judea, the place where he will be killed. (Message: Judea, you have no idea with whom you're about to tangle.) After that, only then does Luke tell us that "this word" about Jesus spread through the region around Nain.