Archaeologist have found what they believe to be the town of Nain. It sits at the foot of Mount Tabor and looks over the extensive plane of Jezreel. It is 25 miles from the town of Capernaum where Jesus had just come from after curing the centurion’s servant before this incident in Luke’s Gospel. Nain is also 9 miles from Nazareth, it can be seen from Nazareth on a clear day.
Archaeologists tell us that this was not a walled city, as is suggested in the passage, and there was no gate or portico that they found. The reference to the gate might simply be where the house meets the road, and from this gate of the house is where the mourners and the dead body spill out.
The scene as described shows us a kind of collision between one large group coming out and one large group passing by. Picture the confusion: does one set of people let the other set of people pass, is there pushing and shoving and even some biblical swearing involved? According to the text it is in this biblical pile-up the main protagonists in the story stop, Jesus to watch and look, the woman to wait and listen.
It’s a strange story and no doubt. What is it about?
Is it about the feelings of Jesus? Is it meant to give us some clues to his inner life, even in an indirect way, a by the way, kind of peeking in kind of view? We hear more of this in other places: in the garden of Gethsemane that he is sad. We hear that he weeps at his friend Lazarus who has died. We hear that he is angry at what the sellers in the temple have done. And here we listen to the fact that he is moved with compassion. Moved because she has no husband moved because she has lost her only child and son. Moved because there is no one to support her and what it means is, destitution, loneliness and danger (no one has to respect her, none is responsible for her plight, she is on her own).
The passage tells us Jesus is a person of feelings, not an unearthly person, not a robot. He is not a person beamed down from heaven insensible to the disasters that beset us, he doesn’t have a stony heart, he is not carved out with an empty core. The passage tells us that he was moved with compassion. That tells us much about him.
Is the passage about Jesus’ relationship with women? This incident joins a whole list of encounters and experiences that Jesus has with women. In each of these encounters he steps out of his cultural situation and acts differently from his contemporaries, he never disgraces, never belittles, never reproaches and never stereotypes women. Where rabbis, especially traditional rabbis, might hold them at a distance, Jesus does not. He speaks to women, befriends women, make women his disciples, even allows women to give him tender gestures. Things that would have been outrageous and open to scandal for people who had set roles for women..
Is the story about the woman? The woman who says nothing, utters no words, makes no comment. Yet this woman who even although she remains silent, we can tell has borne much, the loss of a husband, the loss of a son, and now faces an uncertain future. Does she not represent many women, whom history see as invisible, whom history has put into a box, who are forced to rely on others? Jesus eyes are on her, he is moved with pity. Does this statement refer to something beyond just the immediate situation, to a greater compassion for women in every age? The load they have to bear, the fact that they are not free, the fact of a heavy hand that weighs them down.
Is the story about the man, who has no name, whom we don’t know anything about other than the town he came from, other than the fact that he is mourned over by his widowed mother? Jesus touches his litter or bier that he being carried on. That gesture would have been impossible, unthinkable and dangerous for a conventional rabbi. He has touched something dead and unclean and this would have made him impure, contaminated, and unable to be involved in any sacred acts of worship, to go into a synagogue, to keep holy days, to be among people. But he seems to care little for this, in the same way he cared little when he touched the man who had leprosy.
What is it that the man does when he touches the bier, he sits up suddenly and what a shock that would have been to everyone…dead bodies don’t sit up. But not only that, he shouts out. The word shout out is a key word that is associated with what a prophet does, he shouts out, can’t be shut up, proclaims, announces and won’t be silenced or gagged.
Its interesting that directly, immediately after the story of the raising of the widow of Nain’s son another prophet, John the Baptist sends an urgent message to Jesus asking him if he is the one that they are to wait for. The widow’s son in this moment is also a prophet, who like John cannot be silenced, whose voice cannot be stifled, he sits up and shouts out.
There is much for us in this passage.
In the year of Mercy that phrase must leap out – he was moved with compassion. God is not cold hearted and indifferent to the troubles of men and women. He is not a world away from the problems that we experience. He thinks like us, or better we think like him – we love like him, he loves like us. He was moved with compassion, it is not a throw away line. To have compassion and mercy is what God has, to have compassion and mercy is to be God-like. He is not unmoved by the poverty of a single woman: her loss, her destitution, the dangerous situation, the boy who dies young.
In just a few lines after this John the Baptist will send his disciples to ask if he is the one that they are waiting on or are they to wait on another. Jesus reply is to say – tell him what you see – the deaf hear, the blind see, the dead are raised…..tell him that God’s compassion and mercy are here. Tell him that there is no need to wait on another, the hour has arrived.