10th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME LUKE 7: 11-17
Link to all three readings on USCCB site
Jesus journeyed to a city called Nain,
and his disciples and a large crowd accompanied him.
As he drew near to the gate of the city,
a man who had died was being carried out,
the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.
A large crowd from the city was with her.
When the Lord saw her,
he was moved with pity for her and said to her,
“Do not weep.”
He stepped forward and touched the coffin;
at this the bearers halted,
and he said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!”
The dead man sat up and began to speak,
and Jesus gave him to his mother.
Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, crying out
“A great prophet has arisen in our midst, “
and “God has visited his people.”
This report about him spread through the whole of Judea
and in all the surrounding region.
The Easter Season ended with the conclusion of the Feast of Pentecost back on May 15, and with it the resumption of Ordinary Time. However, with the special feasts of the past two weekends—Trinity Sunday and Corpus Sunday—it is only next weekend that we return to the sequential narrative of St. Luke. Because of the peculiarities of the calendar, there is a large hiccup in the Sunday Lukan narrative. The last piece of the narrative, on the Sunday of February 7, just before Ash Wednesday, described Jesus’ intervention in the miraculous catch of fish and the invitation to the laborers to become “fishers of men.”
In the several chapters of St. Luke that were not proclaimed in this year’s calendar, Jesus has been about many things. He continues to perform impressive miracles, including the cleansing of a leper (5: 12-16); the healing of a paralytic (5: 17-26); and the famous text that has worked its way into the very missal of the Mass, the healing of the Roman centurion’s slave (7: 1-10). In this last account Jesus offers to travel to the centurion’s home to perform a healing, but the military officer sends messengers to inform (command?) Jesus not to enter his house. This is an intriguing passage; the centurion admits through his representatives that he is not worthy “to have you under my roof.” But then he goes on to say that he (the centurion) knows something of authority, too, and a command to heal is just as effective as a personal intervention.
Interspersed with these miracles is a good deal of other matter. Jesus invites the tax collector Levi into his inner circle (5: 27-29) and he constitutes the body known as the Twelve (6: 12-16). Like Matthew he delivers a form of teaching we know today as the beatitudes (6:20-26) though he adds what I would call a “damnation clause” or a series of negative parallels where, for example, the reward of the poor is sharply contrasted to the ultimate destiny of the rich. Jesus goes on to teach a new moral spirit (6: 27-36), where he speaks of loving enemies, avoiding judgment of others (6: 37-42), and a variety of other assorted sayings in what we might call a wisdom vein of moral and human experience—building a house on a sound foundation, etc. Jesus has two notable confrontations with Jewish opponents: questions about fasting (5: 33-39) and observance of the Sabbath (6: 1-11).
So by the time we get to this Sunday’s Gospel a lot of water has passed under the bridge. (The movie mogul Sam Goldwyn famously mangled this saying when he remarked, “we’ve all passed a lot of water since then.”) When I reached the Franciscan major seminary in 1969, my older confreres told me about a professor who would begin his lectures by saying, “moving ahead by way of review….” For the biblical reader, and certainly the preacher, something of a review is necessary this weekend. This Sunday’s Gospel is a popular narrative of Luke. Theologians might anguish over whether this miracle was a true raising of the dead or a resuscitation—a question of massive importance in the study of Christology—but pastorally this text is truly one of the “feel good” stories for which Luke is famous, and we can easily understand its placement in a Gospel that also contains the story of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. “Feeling good” is not meant here in a derogatory sense—the coming of God’s kingdom ought to rouse sympathetic euphoria, as the old Christmas hymn “Joy to the World” acclaims so well.
As our in-house commentator on St. Luke this year, Joel Green, explains in his commentary on this text, (pp. 289-293), the raising of the widow’s son is intimately connected to the preceding texts, and actually to the entire themescape of Luke’s Gospel. If one returns to Chapter 1 of this Gospel, the identity of Jesus as the uniquely Spirit-filled being from his conception will empower him to do the impossible. It is no accident that Sunday’s first reading, from 1 Kings, describes a raising of a woman’s only son by the Prophet Elijah, “The Man of God,” as he has been revered in Jewish history. Over the years I have come to amazement at the way in which Luke engages Hebrew Scripture and faith into a Gospel written for a cosmopolitan Christian Church. As you might recall, on Easter Sunday Jesus went to great pains to explain to the two Emmaus disciples how his own life—and particularly his gruesome death—were ordained by God through the Hebrew Scriptures. The parallel between Elijah and Jesus—delivers from death—is no accident and the Church has arranged Sunday’s Lectionary to reflect this reality.
Luke’s Gospel has been singled out for its sensitivity to the poor, and Green comments upon the “catastrophic state” of the widow of Naim. With the death of the one remaining man to support and reflect her, “she is delegated to a status of ‘dire vulnerability’—without a visible means of support and, certainly, deprived of her status to the larger community and any vestiges of social status within the village.” (p. 291) This is a marked contrast to the miracle that precedes this one, where the petitioner is a well-heeled Roman male centurion seeking recovery for a slave who, quite frankly, could be easily if perhaps sadly replaced in the centurion’s household in the event of his death.
So, in addition to the actual miracle of the son’s healing, Luke is making a social statement, one that is consistent with his entire Gospel. The poor are as worthy, probably more so, of the riches of the kingdom of God. From Mary’s Magnificat through miracles, teachings, and warnings, Luke portrays Jesus as the ultimate prophet of God’s mercy. Even on the cross, Jesus extends unthinkable mercy and promise to a dying man whose life’s work was criminality. His intervention next Sunday in Naim is no isolated act of charity, but a sacrament of Jesus’ identity in God’s Providence.