( 1 Kings 17, 17-24; Luke 7, 11-17)
Those of you who like stage musicals will know that many of them are based on classical plays or stories: ‘Kiss Me Kate’ is based around Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’, ‘My Fair Lady’ on Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ and ‘Les Miserables’ on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. Sometimes the original story is updated, to a contemporary setting, as in ‘West Side Story’ where the Montagues and Capulets of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet become the Puerto Rican Jets and working class white Sharks of 1950s New York. No matter what the setting, the impact of a good story remains.
In our two Bible readings this morning, we see something of the same process at work.
There are obvious parallels between the story of the raising of the dead son of the widow of Zarapheth by the prophet Elijah and the raising of the dead son of the widow of Nain by Jesus. The stories depict the same scenario, and even some of the details and language are identical in the two accounts. As so often, the Gospel writers use a story from one of the great figures from Israel’s past and rewrite it to convey a message about Jesus and his person and his mission.
The widow of Zarapheth was not a Jew. She was a Gentile, from the coastal region of Sidon. Elijah was told by God to seek refuge with her from the anger of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, after he had asked God to send a drought on Israel as a punishment for their wickedness. He met the widow by the town gate and asked her for water and food. Although she had barely enough for one last meal for herself and her son, the widow gave it up to feed Elijah, and in return God provided enough meal and oil to keep the three of them fed during the time the drought lasted.
Having taken the risk and trusted Israel’s God to look after her, the loss of her son was all the more bitter. His death was not just the loss of a family member, it was the loss of her financial security and her personal safety. As a widow, she had no place in society, no one to defend her and no financial security apart from him. She saw God as a cruel judge, who was punishing her for her sins by his death. When Elijah restores her son to her, he also restores her faith in Israel’s God as a god of love and mercy.
The writer of Luke’s Gospel appears to have had a particular interest in the prophet Elijah. A number of incidents that are unique to his gospel recall incidents from Elijah’s ministry. Another significant parallel is that Elijah was taken up into heaven and had no earthly tomb, and that his spirit then descended upon his disciple Elisha; In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus ascends to heaven after his death and resurrection and then sends down the Holy Spirit upon his disciples.
All the Gospel writers feature the ministry of John the Baptist, and see him as the prophet whose coming would herald the messianic age. Some seem to see John as Elijah. But Luke has passages which seem to identify Jesus with Elijah, especially in chapter 4, when, after he is rejected by the people of Nazareth, he refers to Elijah’s stay with the widow of Zarapheth, implying that his ministry will be welcomed by the Gentiles like her and rejected by his fellow Jews. The mission to the Gentiles was a particular interest of Luke’s.
The story of the widow of Nain and the resurrection of her son is found only in Luke’s Gospel. The story comes immediately after Jesus has healed the Roman centurion’s servant. The centurion, a rich Gentile, who is sympathetic to the Jewish faith and has built a synagogue for them, expresses faith in Jesus, and his servant is healed from a distance. Jesus emphasises the contrast between him and the lack of faith from his own people by saying “I have never found faith like this, not even in Israel”.
Now Jesus turns to help a member of the ‘anawim’ the faithful Jewish poor who feature so often in Luke’s Gospel as the true believers. He meets the funeral procession at the town gate (a direct parallel with Elijah who met the widow in that same place). After the miracle, he gives the son back to his mother – another direct parallel.
But there are differences between the two stories, and these are intended to demonstrate that Jesus is not just a great prophet (as the crowd proclaims) but something much greater. There is no request from the widow of Nain for help. Jesus interrupts the funeral procession, drawn to help by simple human sympathy, sympathy not just for the human tragedy, but, as so often in Luke’s Gospel, for those in facing economic desperation. He touches the coffin to stop the procession – thereby rendering himself ceremonially unclean. Whereas Elijah throws himself on the dead boy three times, and cries to God to heal him, Jesus revives him with a simple command “Young man, get up”. His healing power comes from within himself, not from outside. To those who believe, he is so obviously much more than a great prophet; he is, as Luke calls him, the Lord.
Immediately after this, Luke tells us that messengers came from John the Baptist, asking whether Jesus was the person John said was coming. His answer was that the blind and deaf had been healed, the lame walked, and the dead has been raised to life. The miracles of the preceding verses are thus an illustration of this ministry. Then he tells his disciples that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven will be greater than John.
The miracles in which people are raised from the dead are probably the most difficult for modern Christians to deal with. But, as the Dean of St Albans reminds us in his book ‘Meaning in the Miracles’ the question of what did or did not happen is an unanswerable and and therefore fruitless question. The real and useful question is what the stories are intended to convey tell us.
In re-telling a story about Elijah, Luke is reminding us that God was at work through Elijah, as he was through all of Israel’s history. He is reminding us that God is a god of mercy and compassion, with a special care for the poor and defenceless. In retelling the story of the raising of a widow’s son, Luke is reminding us that greater faith is sometimes found outside the faith community than inside it. In showing Jesus performing the same miracle by a simple word of command, he is telling us that Jesus is a far greater miracle worker even than Elijah. In restoring her son to the widow he gives her back her future – as he gives back the future to everyone who believes in him.
All the resurrection miracles in the New Testament look forward to the greatest resurrection miracle of all, that of Jesus himself. The widow’s son is raised to physical life, but he will die again. What the resurrection of Jesus promises is resurrection to eternal life – to a future not just in this world, but for all eternity.
Physical death, like physical handicap, in biblical writings can be a symbol for spiritual malaise. We are spiritually dead when we are in the power of sin, or in thrall to the material things of life. It is only through faith that we can be raised from spiritual death to eternal life. And that is the most important resurrection.
The stories in the New Testament of Jesus performing miracles were told to strengthen the faith of those who heard them. They showed Jesus as not just a prophet of words, but as a prophet of actions – and as he told the messengers from John the Baptist, the Kingdom of God was being ushered in by those actions. Our job, as the present day disciples of Jesus, is to inspire and strengthen faith in those to whom we speak. We can do that by re-telling the stories of God at work in the world, as the gospel writers did and particularly by telling our own stories of the difference our faith makes to our lives.
We probably won’t have tales of people being raised from physical death to share, but many of us will have stories of individuals and communities whose lives have been redeemed from economic, moral and spiritual death, and who have been given back their future by people working with them in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the service of the Kingdom of God.
And those are stories which are worth re-telling again and again.