Another week, another healing miracle. If you were here last week you might recall that the Gospel reading for the day was the healing of a centurion’s slave. This week we hear of an even more extraordinary miracle. A widow’s son is raised from death. In fact, two widows’ sons are raised from death. Sometimes it’s hard to see how the various Bible readings are related to each other, but this week it’s obvious. Elijah restores life to the son of a widow in the Phoenecian town of Zarephath; Jesus performs the same miracle hundreds of years later in Nain in Galilee.
If you were here last week, you might remember that I started by making two points about miracles, and they apply just as much to these miracles as they did to last week’s. The first was that in the ancient world miracles weren’t regarded with quite the same astonishment as we might bring to them today. All of life was a miracle. People didn’t expect life to follow scientific laws – it was all simply in God’s hands. The second point I made last week was that because of that, miracle stories in the Bible weren’t intended simply to amaze their readers. They were there to make a specific point, to tell us something about God, or ourselves, to make us think. That’s why there’s not a lot of point in trying to explain, or explain away, how a miracle might have happened. It just wasn’t a question the original writers or readers were asking.
So, that’s the recap, in case you missed all that first time round, but what about these two stories? What is it that they are trying to tell us?
I’d like to suggest two things. The first has to do with the fact that they both concern widows. Widows are often mentioned in the Bible. They are high on God’s list of priorities. There are 128 mentions of them – I counted so you don’t have to! - and the message that is hammered home again and again is that widows need and deserve special care and concern. “Cursed be anyone who deprives…the widow of justice” says the book of Deuteronomy (27.19)
We might think that was obvious. Of course those who grieve should receive compassion and care. But the Biblical preoccupation with widows isn’t really about that. Widowers grieve too – now and in Biblical times – but they aren’t mentioned at all as a group.
The particular problems widows faced in the ancient world were rooted in the fact that women generally had lower status in society – all women, single, married or widowed. And the raw truth is that in societies where women don’t have the power and the freedom to act independently of men, to run their own lives, earn and control their own money, they are always going to be especially vulnerable when the men they are forced to depend on die. That’s as true now in many parts of the world as it was in Biblical times.
The United Nations estimate that there are 1.5 million widows in Afghanistan at the moment, far more than you would expect naturally because of the war there. Their plight is often dire, simply because their lives as women are so restricted by the attitudes of their society. It can be almost impossible for them to support themselves; respectable women don’t go out unaccompanied by a male relative, let alone work outside the home. They are completely dependent on the charity of family members. Younger widows are often forced to remarry, whether they like it or not. If they don’t have any family to take them in, and they can’t find a second husband, widows are often reduced to begging or prostitution.
That’s why aid agencies so often focus on their needs and the needs of the children they support. It’s also why widows merit such special attention in the Bible. Widows were often put in an impossible position then too, ostracised if they did try to support themselves, condemned to abject poverty if they didn’t, denied help, but also denied the opportunity to help themselves. It was the same for other vulnerable groups – the sick, the landless, the stranger. Again and again the prophets pass on God’s command that they should be given what they need and treated with equal dignity. Jesus restates that message over and over too. It can feel like a bit of a stuck record. “All right, God” we might want to say, “we get the message, you can stop going on about it”. Except that we haven’t got the message, any more than those ancient peoples had. We still scapegoat and stigmatise groups of people for things that are not in their control at all. It might not be widows; it might be people struggling with other problems - unemployment, poverty, disability, mental illness. Those who are already carrying heavy loads find themselves weighed down by the extra burdens of prejudice, disapproval, lazy stereotyping and labelling, called scroungers or skivers, told to pull themselves together. As long as our society still does that we still need to hear this message.
So that’s the first thing we need to know about these stories. They are stories about vulnerable people and the extra, and quite unnecessary loads society sometimes imposes on them. In Biblical times, widows were the group which most clearly epitomised that vulnerability.
But if that wasn’t bad enough, for these particular widows, life had just got a whole lot worse.
They had at least had sons – just one each, but that was enough. However difficult it had been for them, there had been hope for the future. Their sons would look after them, and would one day marry and, they hoped, have children of their own. They would be secure in old age, and remembered with love too. But now that hope had been destroyed. Their sons had died.
We don’t know any more about the widow of Nain than we are told in this incident. She isn’t mentioned again. But we have got a bit more of a “backstory” for the widow Elijah helps. He’s been staying with her for some time by this point. He first met her when he was on the run from the evil King Ahab, in a time of drought and famine. Elijah ended up way outside Israel, in the Phonecian town of Zarephath. And the first person he met was this widow, on the edge of town, foraging for firewood. He asked her for food, but she explained “I have … only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in jug. I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” She hasn’t quite given up – she is still preparing this last meal – but she can’t see any further than that. Elijah promises, though, that if she cooks what she has and shares it with him, there will be more where that came from, and so it proves to be. The jar of meal never quite runs out, and the jug of oil always has just enough in it to meet their needs.
But then, having come through all of that, her son, her precious only son, dies anyway, of some random and completely unconnected illness. How cruel is this? Is God playing games with them all, giving with one hand and taking away with the other? Whether it is really God’s doing or not, Elijah isn’t having it, and he doesn’t mince his words when he appeals to God, just as the widow hasn’t minced her words with him. He more or less insists that God gives this child back his life, and the widow back her future, and that is what happens.
Elijah is moved to help by sheer, simple compassion, and the same is true of Jesus. He looks at the widow in Nain and has compassion for her too. The the Greek word that’s used here actually says he is “gutted”, gutted at the knowledge that everything she has hoped for has been wiped out at a stroke, gutted to see the realisation on her face that she might as well be dead herself now. When Jesus raises her son he isn’t just performing a miracle that displays God’s power at work in him – if that were the case, raising any dead person would have done – he is giving the gift of a future to a woman who thought it was all over for her, that there was no hope left anymore.
These stories aren’t really about the restoration of physical life to those who have died – that is not something which happens routinely in the Bible. Death is part of life, something that comes to us all and is not in itself to be feared. These are stories about those moments when, for whatever reason, we might feel there’s nothing to live for.
God cares about life, say these stories, this life, here and now. It is not meant to be just a waiting room where we are tested and shaped so we can one day enjoy life in heaven. It is God’s first and greatest gift to us, and his intention is for all of us to live it to the full. That means that we are meant to seek what is life-giving for ourselves, but it also means we are called to combat anything that makes life less lively, less joy-filled, less wonder-filled for others too. There are unavoidable sorrows in every life, losses we can’t predict or prevent, but they don’t have to mean the end of everything when they strike. On a personal level, the small acts of care and compassion, the refusal to write others off, the determination to include rather than exclude can all help the seeds of new life to flourish in people’s lives, however fragile they might appear at first. On a broader level, the political decisions we make, the economic systems we build, the attitudes we teach our children can create a climate where life flourishes for all, or where death prevails.
We can’t raise the dead to life – I can’t anyway – but the greatest and truest miracles are not always the most instantly spectacular. They are those which enable people whose spirits have been crushed by the world, whose hopes have died to live again as they discover they are loved, valued, precious children of God. Each one of us has it in our power to make those miracles happen if we are prepared to let ourselves be gutted, moved with compassion, as Elijah and Jesus were.
http://www.widowsrights.org/ for more details of the challenges faced by widows around the world.
http://www.widowsrights.org/ for more details of the challenges faced by widows around the world.