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04 June 2018

Jesus interrupts a funeral.

But for the best of reasons.

Luke 7.11-17.

Whereas Jesus mighta raised the dead before—though he insisted she was only asleep—here it looks like he definitely raised the dead. Only Luke tells this story, and sets it the day after Jesus cured the centurion’s servant.

The location is Nein, which is not pronounced as the Germans do. (The KJV has “Nain.”) It was a tiny village 14km south of Nazareth—and 40km southwest of Kfar Nahum, which is quite a day’s walk; and Jesus must’ve got to this place before sundown, as we’ll see from historical context. As you might recall about Nazareth, people in the region didn’t expect much of Jesus, and certainly never expected him to do anything like this.

Luke 7.11-17 KWL
11 This happened the next day: Jesus went to a village called Nein.
His students, and a large crowd, were traveling with him.
12 As Jesus approached the village gate, look: One who died was being carried out.
He was the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. A large crowd was with her.
13 Seeing her, the Master felt compassion for her and told her, “Don’t cry.”
14 Walking over, Jesus touched the coffin and its carriers stopped.
He said, “Young man, I tell you get up.”
15 And the dead boy got up, and began to talk. Jesus gave him to his mother.
16 In fear, everyone praised God, saying this:
“A great prophet rose among us!” and “God visited his people!”
17 This word about Jesus spread in all Judea and all the region.

Skeptics like to point out this story is similar to pagan stories. Which stands to reason: Back then, people used to bury or cremate you when they thought you were dead. Or at least pretty sure you were dead… and yeah, sometimes if they really wanted you to be dead, and weren’t particular about how you weren’t quite dead yet. But more than once they buried or cremated someone alive. Every once in a while they dramatically discovered they were wrong—someone’d wake up from their coma on the funeral pyre, or after they were stuck in a sepulcher. Standard worst-nightmare stuff. And that’s where our urban legends come from… and of course our old myths.

Anyway the hero of more than one myth would check out the “corpse,” find out they were only mostly dead, and there’s your happy ending. Well, unless they died soon thereafter of whatever made ’em look dead.

For Pharisees it was a little more likely they’d inter someone prematurely: Their custom required them to put a body in the ground before sundown. It was based on God’s command to bury a hanging victim the same day, Dt 21.23 and if you gotta do it for a criminal, you should do it all the more for anyone else. So if it looked like someone had died, you didn’t always have a lot of time before you had to dispose of the body. Plenty of chance people would be mistaken.

But Luke said this boy was dead, so there was no mistake here. Jesus didn’t come across a boy who wasn’t really dead, so it only looked like a miracle. Jesus raised the dead. First time we know of that he did that.

The impoverished widow?

In Jesus’s culture, a híra/“widow” was a woman whose husband was gone. Not necessarily dead, but necessarily not coming back. Which meant she was on her own—in a largely patriarchal society, which was kinda tricky. Not impossible, but tricky.

But since people nowadays don’t know what Jesus’s culture entails, they presume she was a poor widow. Thing is, bible doesn’t say she was poor. Bible doesn’t say anything about her income level. We have no idea whether she was poor.

Not that this has stopped the commentators from speculating like crazy. They imagine widows, and women in general, had few job options back then; that either they had to resort to gleaning fields like Ruth, or tap the local storehouse for the needy. Or if things were dire enough, turn to prostitution. Clearly they don’t know the culture, and may refer to their wives as Proverbs 31 women, but they really gotta read that chapter sometime. Women could grow crops, raise cattle, run a farm same as any man; they could be shopkeepers; they could be employed by someone else’s family; in desperation they might resort to slavery, not prostitution. This was ancient Israel, not the 19th-century France of Les Miserables. Nor the United States in the 1950s.

I heard one preacher claim because this woman‘s husband was dead, all his property therefore went to his brother, and that’s why she was poor. Pretty sure the preacher skipped the bit in the Law about how inheritances work. If a man died, the LORD spelled out to Moses the order in which people would inherit his estate. Nu 27.8-11

  • First his sons, with one of them (typically the eldest) getting a double portion as the new head of the family.
  • If no sons, his daughters.
  • If no children at all, his brothers.
  • If no brothers, his father’s brothers.
  • If no father’s brothers, his closest (male) relative.

So if the widow’s husband had any estate, it’d pass to their son. Though because this boy had just died, the estate was about to go to her husband’s brother… so maybe this preacher just mixed up his wording. (Knowing him, I doubt it.) But all this inheritance talk is pure speculation anyway. We still don’t know whether this widow was poor, was becoming poor, or even had an estate of her own, inherited from her own dad, which made her independently wealthy; which meant she owned Nein for all we know. We don’t know. Bible doesn’t say.

Despite this, all this totally irrelevant money talk manages to worm its way into interpretations of this story. Jesus, preachers claim, felt compassion for this poor widow, especially now that she had no son to care for her in her old age. She already had no source of income, but she did have a son, who‘d grow up one day and make a buttload of money and make her a bunch of grandkids. He was gonna be her provision in the future. But he died. So now she was gonna stay poor and die poor.

In so doing, they tie Jesus’s compassion to the widow’s standard of living. She was gonna have a hard life now, and Jesus doesn’t want anyone to have a hard life, right? He wants us to be fat and rich and comfortable, right?

Yeah, it’s a very materialistic way to look at this story. Very American. Very wrong, too. I’ll say it again: We don‘t know this widow’s economic situation. Luke didn’t included it.

Because it doesn’t matter. Jesus felt compassion for the widow because she lost a son. Not because she lost a future source of income, not because her standard of living was gonna change when his uncle inherited the estate instead of her, not because of money. Because her only child had died. Because now she was alone, and it hurt.

You know, real reasons to have compassion.

Curing death.

Jesus was approaching Nein with an entourage of students and a large crowd. I’m not sure why a large crowd would travel 40 clicks to a tiny village with Jesus, but (and I’m just spitballing) it may be that they were headed to Jerusalem for a festival, Nein was along the way, and they figured to stop there. In any case they got there just in time for the funeral procession: One crowd coming out the gates, and another crowd approaching. Wonder which crowd was bigger.

I also don’t know whether Jesus already knew the widow, whether a bystander filled him in on the details, or whether the Holy Spirit did. All Luke has is Jesus saw her, had compassion, told her not to cry, and raised her son.

He touched the sorú/“coffin,” KJV “bier,” the box they put the boy’s body in, which obviously wasn’t closed. This got the people carrying it to stop walking. He then ordered the boy to get up, and the boy did. I would expect the pallbearers to drop the box.

Everyone’s response was to freak out. Raising the dead wasn’t an unprecedented thing for prophets to do; both Elijah and Elisha had done it. 1Ki 17.17-24, 2Ki 4.32-37 It’s just they’d never seen such a thing in their lifetimes, and it looked to them like Jesus was one of those mighty Old Testament style prophets who could raise the dead.

Jesus instructed his students to raise the dead too. Mt 10.8 That’s why we have the Holy Spirit: We’ve been granted the same power as those mighty Old Testament prophets. Only reason we don’t do it, is we don’t believe this, so we don’t obey Jesus. We should be interrupting far more funerals.