Monday, June 04, 2007

New Life

St Luke implies, but does not say, that the widow and her family were poor.[1] This wasn’t true for every widow, of course. Rich widows had more control over their affairs than any other women. They could choose whether or not to remarry, whom to marry, and how to spend their money until they did marry again. But poor widows were in a real fix, because there was no welfare state, so they were dependent upon their children to earn money for them – especially their sons. And the widow of Nain had only ONE son! If they were poor, his death would mark the end of all hope for the rest of his family, including his mother. They would be reduced to begging, or to relying upon the charity of their neighbours.

Yet even a rich widow might grieve especially for the loss of her only son. If she cherished the memory of her husband, she would be especially conscious that it was her son who was supposed to carry on the family name. And, anyway, ONLY sons often have a special bond with their mothers.

If we take the miracle at face value, as the people of Nain clearly did, it immediately evokes the memory of the great Prophet Elijah, who also raised a poor widow’s son from the dead. On seeing that miracle, the widow said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth." This is what the people of Nain recognise about Jesus. ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ they say, and the word about him spreads throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. But Luke is anxious to emphasise that comparisons with Elijah are very far from Jesus’ thoughts as he enters the town. He isn’t seeking what one commentator calls the ‘Wow!’ factor in front of a large crowd of impressionable onlookers, he is simply responding with compassion to a woman’s tears.

I say, ‘if’ we take the story at face value, because there are two problems which all readers of the story have, at least, to consider.

The first is this. Was the man really dead? At the time it was customary to bury a dead person within twenty-four hours, and mistakes did sometimes happen. A deep coma can very convincingly mimic death. Only recently, mortuary attendants were startled when a corpse suddenly moved. It was only then that they realized the person wasn’t dead after all. So it’s impossible to come to hard and fast conclusions about whether the widow’s son was really raised from death.

From a purely historical perspective, it doesn’t really matter, of course. Whether or not he was dead, the man was obviously gravely ill and Jesus intervened to restore him to normal life. And, as regards the comparison with Elijah, we again have to ask whether the widow’s son was really dead in that story, too. If the boy WAS dead, of course, then Jesus can only be as great as Elijah if he is seen to be doing what Elijah did.

However, if we leave Elijah OUT of the equation for a moment, it is in some ways easier to interpret the story correctly if the Widow of Nain’s son was NOT dead, but only very ill. For the second problem with the story is that it makes it very easy for the reader to confuse raising the dead with the miracle of resurrection, whereas Christianity teaches us that they are two quite different things. We are all destined to share in the RESURRECTION of the dead, but only a very select number are ever likely to be raised FROM the dead.

People speak very loosely about the two ideas as though they are interchangeable. St Paul is particularly naughty in this regard. He does it eight times in his surviving letters. But the two things are not really the same and if we read St Paul carefully we can see that he is using the term ‘raised from the dead’ in a very different way from the sense in which St Luke uses the word ‘rise’ in his telling of THIS story.

Resurrection is life AFTER death or BEYOND death. “It is life, Jim, but not as we know it.” Being raised FROM the dead, at least in the context of people like Lazarus or the son of the Widow of Nain, means being brought BACK to the life we knew before. It means living to die again. It means being given another chance, but not necessarily a new KIND of chance, whereas when Jesus offers us the hope of life everlasting, or abundant life, he is talking about a NEW kind of life which has much greater possibilities than the life we experienced before, and which cannot be overcome even by death itself.

So what does the story have to tell us today, if we find ourselves standing in the Widow of Nain’s shoes? It tells us, first, that nothing is impossible for God – though, of course, we must balance that by reminding ourselves that – as Benjamin Franklin famously said – our death, like taxes, is certain to happen to us. Christianity isn’t an insurance against suffering and pain. That’s why the concept of resurrection has, in a very real sense, so much more to offer us than simply being raised FROM the dead.

Second, the story reminds us that we believe in a God of compassion, who is moved by our suffering and our tears. That’s why Jesus not only raised the Widow of Nain’s son, but also died for us on the Cross, to make resurrection a real and living hope for all who put their faith in him.

Finally though, and without necessarily any adverse reflection on its historicity, I think the story deserves to be treated SYMBOLICALLY, as a reminder of what God can do to help us in lots of different situations. Can God, for instance, raise dead and dying CHURCHES to new life? And, by that, I don’t just mean to a new lease of the old life – more of the same – which is what many church members often secretly hope for. I really mean, can God raise churches to the new, resurrection life I spoke about earlier? In other words, can God give us a Fresh Expression of Church for the Twenty-First Century? I am sure that he can!

And can God bring new hope, and breathe fresh life, into political stalemates and disasters? What about the Northern Ireland peace process? The fact that Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley can not only sit around the same cabinet table now, but also share a joke with one another, is no less of a miracle than the raising of the Widow of Nain’s son. The demolition of the Berlin Wall, and the peaceful transition of South Africa were also astounding miracles of modern life.

We can only hope that God can have compassion on us now as we struggle to resolve the Palestinian Conflict and to bring greater peace and understanding between Muslims and Christians, or can come to help us overcome the threat posed by global warming. If God CAN help us rise to overcome THOSE challenges, he really will have looked favourably on his people!


[1] Luke 7.11-17

6 comments:

Steven Carr said...

It is pretty obvious that the author of Luke searched the scriptures to find suitable miracle stories he could use to write about Jesus.


Jesus in Luke 7 raises the son of a widow from the dead. In 1 Kings 17, Elijah raises the son of a widow from the dead. Both stories employ exactly the same words - and he gave him to his mother.The Greek is 'kai edoken auton te metri autou', copied word for word from the Septuagint version of 1 Kings 17.


Did Luke use 1 Kings 17 as a basis for his story? Jesus met the widow at the gate of a city. Elijah met his widow in 1 Kings 17:10. It should come as no surprise that it was at the gate of a city. Luke 7 also copies other phrases from the Septuagint version of 1 Kings 17.

Luke copies 'kai egeneto' (and it came to pass). 'Kai egeneto' is used many, many times in the Greek Old Testament and Luke used this phrase from the Septuagint so much that it has become a cliche. When writing the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith also used 'and it came to pass' a lot. Here he was copying from the King James Bible , but we can see that the writer of Luke's Gospel copied in a very similar manner to Joseph Smith.

Luke writes 'tay pulay tays poleos kai idoo' (to the gate of a city and behold), which is almost identical to the Old Testament Greek of 'tou pulona tays poleos kai idoo'.

This is hardly the only example of plagiariasm.

Of course, similar techniques were used to write the Koran and the Book of Mormon.

Methodist Bishop said...

I wouldn't dispute much of what you say, Steve. In my own posting about this passage I pointed out the ways in which St Luke uses the story of Elijah and the Poor Widow as a commentary on his story and to establish the true significance of Jesus. It is very clear that 1 Kings 17 has influenced St Luke's telling of the story, but whether we should conclude from this that the miracle is an invention is another matter altogether. There is no real evidence to support your contention. On the other hand, since Christians have always believed that the Old Testament prepares the way for the New, shouldn't we expect that they would want to show how the coming and the ministry of Jesus had been foretold.

Steven Carr said...

Christians did believe the OT prepared the way for Jesus, and so naturally turned to the one infallible source they had for 'facts' about Jesus.

Word-for-word copying is pretty much a dead give away, and it happens in other miracle stories as well.

Muhammad did pretty much the same when he wrote 'So when Talut departed with the forces, he said: Surely Allah will try you with a river; whoever then drinks from it, he is not of me, and whoever does not taste of it, he is surely of me, except he who takes with his hand as much of it as fills the hand; but with the exception of a few of them they drank from it. So when he had crossed it, he and those who believed with him, they said: We have today no power against Jalut and his forces.'

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to find the Old Testament story that was a basis for that story.

Methodist Bishop said...

Well, in case anyone doesn't know, I presume you are talking about the story of Gideon. Again, I would agree that this has influenced the telling of the story of Talut, although Talut is traditionally identified as Saul. In any event, the Qur'an is here commenting on an earlier Old Testamanet story and drawing fresh revelation from it.

That is not quite what is happening in the case of the parallels drawn in the Gospels between Jesus and Elijah, a link which Jesus himself made during his lifetime, because here we have a new historical figure being interpreted in the light of an earlier one. I think it is still impossible to untangle what is historical fact, retold with reference to stories about Elijah, and what is made up stuff intended to suggest that Jesus is a new Elijah.

You assume that we are dealing with the latter in the case of this story, but there is no evidence to support your theory. All I would say is that, if the writer was merely recasting the earlier story as a Jesus miracle, he could have made the parallels even closer.

Steven Carr said...

'All I would say is that, if the writer was merely recasting the earlier story as a Jesus miracle, he could have made the parallels even closer.'

As close as the parallels between John the Baptist and Elijah?

How close do you want parallels to be?

In 2 Kings 4:27-37 a distraught parent of an only child comes to Elisha just as in Mark 5:22-24 (which continues in verses 35-43) a distraught parent of an only child comes to Jesus,pleading for help.

In both stories someone tries to discourage the parent from bothering Elisha and Jesus.

In both stories it is unclear to some people in the story whether the child is dead ,dying or asleep.

In both stories the child is in a house some distance away.

In both stories a second source comes from the house and confirms that the child is dead.

In both stories Jesus and Elisha continue anyway to the house.

In both stories the parent precedes Elisha or Jesus

In both stories Elisha and Jesus seek a high degree of privacy by turning people out of the house before their miracle .

The story in Mark is such an obvious rewrite of the story in Kings that if I remind you that Jairus in Mark 5 falls at Jesus's feet, you can guess what the parent in 2 Kings 4 did.

The name Jairus has 2 meanings. 1 is 'he enlightens'. The other is 'he awakens'. Is not 'he awakens' a remarkably apt name for someone in a resurrection story, where Jesus says that the child is not dead but sleeping?

As confirmation that Mark used 2 Kings 4 for his stories of the feeding of a crowd, and the raising of a dead child, Mark 5:42 says that after the miracle, the parents were 'amazed with great amazement' (exestesan ekstasei megale), while 2 Kings 4:13 we have 'amazed with all amazement' (exestesas... pasan ten ekstasin tauten)


If miracles are possible, can we rule out legends?

Methodist Bishop said...

Well now you have moved on to a different story, by a different author. If your point is that the Greek translation of the Old Testament influenced the way the story of Jesus was told, I absolutely agree. In fact, even before the New Testament was written, Christians had already decided that Jesus was a new and greater Elijah, so they were bound to mine the stories of Elijah and Elisha for parallels, just as they mined the Psalms for sayings 'about' Jesus.