Who is Jesus? That is the question we are exploring for a few weeks in the Gospel of Luke. Other questions that naturally arise from that central one are: What difference does he make in our lives? How are we to make sense of his story and all that he said and did? Last week we learned that Jesus was able to heal the slave of a Roman centurion without even meeting the dying man. He praised the centurion as having the most faith he had ever experienced. What kind of rabbi has such power? This week Jesus spontaneously uses his power to heal and in that act we see echoes of the prophets in this fascinating story that is told only by the author of Luke and Acts.
Our story takes place in Nain, which today is known as Nein and is mainly Arabic, a small town in Galilee about 5 miles southwest of Nazareth and 25 miles from Capernaum where Jesus had just healed the slave. It is not clear why Jesus is going to Nain, but we are told that a large crowd is following Jesus. The word was spreading about his power to heal. As Jesus and the crowd approach the town, a procession of people going out of the city meets them. A man of the town has died and villagers are accompanying his mother out to the cemetery for his burial. We are told that his mother is a widow and he was her only son. That means she is now in a precarious place financially because without either a husband or son she would not have a source of income.
Her grief is new. According to Jewish burial laws she would have to bury her son within twenty-four hours of his death, so when Jesus encounters her he had just died. Surrounded by neighbors she is walking in pain and sorrow. Perhaps we can imagine the thoughts that were racing through her head — “What will happen to me? How will I survive without my son?” It is quite probable that in her sorrow and despair this unnamed widow would not have even noticed Jesus or the crowd surrounding him.
Jesus sees the widow and knows her situation. He also seems to know that this was her only son. Unlike the many stories where people solicit help from Jesus, he does not wait for the widow to approach him. He enters into what is a private time for her and stops the funeral procession. Although he is near the young man he does not actually touch him, he merely touches the casket on which his body rests and revives him. Amazingly, he sits up and begins to speak. The crowd is amazed, and many exclaim “A great prophet is among us!”
Who is Jesus? Is he a prophet, a rabbi, a miracle worker? The people in the crowd would conclude that he was a great prophet because they knew the stories of the prophets. Although some were confined mainly to prophetic speech, the great prophet Elijah and the prophet who followed him, Elisha; were both men through whom God worked miracles. During his ministry on earth, people thought Jesus might be Elijah returned to life. That was because of stories like our first lesson for today.
Elijah was in a desperate situation. He was fighting against King Ahab, who had married Jezebel a pagan woman and had promoted the worship of the god Ba’al among the Israelites. In retribution, God sent a drought to the land. So Elijah was fleeing Ahab in a land that had little food and no rain. Eventually he entered Sidon and encountered a widow who was about to prepare a last meal for herself and her son. After that meal was over, she expected they would starve to death. But Elijah instructs her to make a small cake for him first, and after she does so, she finds that the grain and oil do not give out, but remain enough so that she and her household as well as Elijah have enough to keep from starving.
Imagine the frustration that Elijah felt when the woman’s young son becomes sick and dies. Notice how the woman is transformed – instead of being worn out and resigned to a fate of death by starvation, she is ready to fight for her son. Having enough food has given her physical strength and the influence of Elijah in her life has renewed her spiritual determination. She turns to Elijah as the religious authority and demands to know if he has brought her to God’s attention. It was a common belief in the ancient Middle East that tragedies were the direct result of sin, even though that was not the teaching of Judaism. So this woman assumes that suddenly God has become aware of her past sins and is punishing her by taking her son’s life.
We don’t have to imagine how frustrated Elijah was at this turn of events. He takes issue with God, questioning why God would even think to take the life of the only son of this widow who was trusting and generous enough to give him food when she had so little. Elijah prays to God that the child would be healed, and God uses Elijah as the conduit for his healing power and the boy is revived. In response the widow testifies to her confidence that Elijah is indeed a man of God.
The people of Israel who witnessed the healing power of Jesus were very familiar with that story about Elijah, as well as a similar story where Elisha revives a boy whose mother has brought him to the prophet. Elisha follows a similar ritual to that used by Elijah, his teacher and mentor. No doubt Luke intends for both the crowd, and us, to see and understand the parallels between those two great prophets of Israel and Jesus. They are able to use the power given them by God to revive sons of widows, thereby giving life back to the sons and the possibility for survival back to their mothers. Elijah “gave him to his mother” just as Jesus “gave him to his mother.” But the prophets had to perform a ritual and invoke the power of God. Jesus has even more power than they do, he can perform this healing through his own power, without even touching the dead young man.
So of course the witnesses to this event ask “Who is this Jesus?” They have experienced his teaching, so they know he is a talented rabbi. But now they have witnessed him heal the sick and resuscitate those who have died. Is he a prophet as great as Elijah, or is he perhaps Elijah come back to life? Apparently there were some followers of John the Baptizer in the crowd who witnessed Jesus bring the young man back to life. In the verses that follow our reading, they go to John and tell him the story. John’s response is to send them back to Jesus to ask “who are you?” He had been telling the people that one who is more powerful than he was coming. So he asks, “Are you the one we have been waiting for, the one for whom I have been sent to prepare the way?”
This is notable because the encounter between Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptizer, is only found in the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells us that they were somehow related to one another, perhaps as cousins. John baptized Jesus in the beginning of his ministry; surely he must have noted something special about that event. Besides Mary, his mother, if anyone should know who Jesus is, it would be his relative John the Baptizer. Yet John is not quite sure, he, too, is asking the question, “Who is Jesus?”
In his gospel narrative Luke reports that Jesus captivated the crowds with his teaching, he healed the sick and even raised the dead. All of these things are meant to indicate who Jesus is. What is your answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” Amen.