1 Kings 17.17-24, Gal 1.11-24, Luke 7.11-17
Life and death; our readings today are full of them. The Old Testament and Gospel readings both tell of widows whose only sons have died; human tragedies we can all recognise. Even if we haven’t been in such a situation ourselves it’s easy to understand the grief and shock these women might be feeling. Just this week we’ve seen the shootings in Cumbria, the Israeli attacks on the Gaza Convoy and tropical storms in Central America too; all have left bereaved families in their wake. Their images have been all over the news, stunned faces, full of the questions which sudden death brings. How can someone be there one minute, healthy and happy, full of plans for the future, and the next minute lifeless, gone?
But of course there is one big difference between the stories on the news and the stories we’ve heard from the Bible today. The widows of Zarephath and Nain see their dead children raised to life again. And that creates all sorts of problems for us, because it goes against all we understand about reality. Suddenly what were recognisable stories of human loss become utterly foreign to us. Our experience tells us that the dead don’t simply come back to life like this. So what are we to do with these tales? Don’t they just add insult to injury for those who have been bereaved? Are they supposed to expect something similar to happen? We are often left floundering when we come across miracles like this in the Bible and it’s tempting just to ignore them, but it’s important that we don’t, because if we give them a chance they often still have something to say to us.
The truth is that the people who first heard these stories wouldn’t have found them nearly as troublesome as we do. We approach them with a twenty-first century scientific mindset, a mindset which puts its trust in observation, experience, experiment and analysis. We tend to assume that if only we could take everything in the world apart we’d be able to fathom out how it worked - and maybe even control it. For the people of the Bible though, that wasn’t the case. The world was full of mystery. They didn’t expect to understand it or control it – that was God’s business. It might sound odd to us, but it meant that they could believe that anything was possible. God could do what he wanted. If it was God who gave life, for example, and God who took life away, why shouldn’t God be able to give it back again? There was nothing necessarily unlikely to them about the dead rising; they might never have experienced it personally, they might not know of anyone who had, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen. So, though we come screeching to a halt at this point, defeated by the thought of these dead people coming to life, those who first heard these stories wouldn’t have been. They’d have been impressed. They’d have been astounded. They’d have been awestruck. But they wouldn’t have thought it was impossible. What they would have wanted to know wasn’t “how could this happen?” – that’s our question – but “why did it happen? Why were these people raised? Why at this point? Why through the prayers of these men – Elijah and Jesus?”
Trying to make these ancient stories fit our modern mindset is like Cinderella’s ugly sisters attempting to cram their feet into the glass slipper – it can’t be done, and the sooner we recognise that, the more pain we’ll save ourselves. What we need to do instead is accept the stories as they are, tales of their own time and place, and ask what they meant in that time and place.
So what is going on? We have two widows, with two dead sons. To be a widow in the ancient world was a very precarious thing. With no social security safety net, people depended on their families to care for them when they were in need. These boys represented their mothers’ hopes for the future, their security, their support, and their status in the eyes of their community. Their sons were their life; without them physical survival would probably be hard, and social survival – having a place in their community – would also be threatened. Both Elijah and Jesus recognise this. It is compassion for the women which prompts them to act, rather than a desire to impress, or even compassion for the dead boys actually. When they are brought back to life, the first thing both Elijah and Jesus do is to give them to their mothers – the phrases are identical. These boys receive the gift of life, but they also become a gift of life to their mothers, who would otherwise have been as good as dead in the eyes of their society, and perhaps in their own eyes too. These women are raised to life by this miracle just as much as their sons are.
There are other gifts of life on offer in these stories too. Zarephath, where the first of our widows lives, isn’t in Israel. It is far to the north, near Sidon in the ancient land of Phoenicia – foreign territory. Elijah stumbled into her village in a time of famine, when he was on the run from the rulers of his own land, and she gave him hospitality. But she’s a foreigner, not an Israelite, from an area notorious in the Bible for idolatry and dissolute living. She wouldn’t have expected Elijah’s God to have any concern for her; gods were assumed to be as territorial as humans. Yet she discovers she isn’t an outsider to God – there are no outsiders to him – he is ready to help her. “Now I know that you are a man of God,”she says to Elijah, “and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth”. When her son is raised from death, she finds spiritual life too, a source of truth and hope that she’d never known before.
In the Gospel there is new life for the whole community, not just an individual.. “A great prophet has arisen among us, “the crowd says. “God has looked favourably on his people”. It’s a significant turn of phrase. A few chapters earlier, as Jesus began his ministry he stood in the synagogue in Nazareth and read from the prophet Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sigh to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” “The year of the Lord’s favour” was shorthand for the time when God would send his Messiah, intervene in the affairs of the world, bring justice and peace especially to the vulnerable and disadvantaged – widows and orphans. They expected that this time would be marked by miraculous healings, by the up-ending of the normal course of things. When Jesus raises this young man from death they know what this means. The moment has come, the year of favour; new life for the nation, a new sense of purpose, a new beginning. God is on the move, and wherever he goes life springs up.
These stories are stories about life – that is obvious. The dead rise. But it’s a mistake to focus too much on the physical miracles here. I doubt whether these women were the only widows in Zarephath and Nain to have lost children, and they aren’t all raised. That’s because the real purpose of these stories isn’t simply to impress or astound us, it is to remind us that life is far more than simply a pulse, breath, and brain activity, the physical animation of a body. If we could heal every disease so that no one ever died, if we could live forever, would we necessarily be better off – would we even want such a state of affairs? Physical life, on its own, isn’t enough; to be truly alive takes far more than that. You can be perfectly healthy but feel dead inside. You can have the constitution of an ox, but feel that nothing you do is worth doing, that your energy is being poured out on things that are worthless. You can live to be a hundred, but never really feel you have lived at all. The saddest funerals I have to take aren’t those of babies or children. Their lives may have been short, but they have usually been packed with love, treasured for every second they have lived. The saddest funerals are for those who have seen many years, but have never really seen themselves , never really seen others, never wondered what they had to give, never taken a risk for the sake of love, never allowed themselves to dream of a world that is different from the world they know.
The most important question these stories prompt isn’t “how could these dead people have been brought to life?” or “Could any of this actually have happened?” No, what really matters is that we should ask “what about me? Am I alive - really alive with the life God wants me to have? If I should die tomorrow will my life have been worth living – not in terms of wealth or worldly success or fame - but will it have brought love into the world, and healing and peace and justice for those around me?”
“Young man, I say to you, rise!” says Jesus. Perhaps there are times when we need to hear that call too, not so that we can cheat death, but so that we can live the life we have, because, in the end life isn’t about counting the days; it’s about making the days count.