Luke 7: 11-17
A long time ago in a small village called Nain in Israel, there lived a widow and her son. She loved him and cared for him. He was her life-line to sanity, he was her reason for living. It was the belief of her time that one found immortality through one’s descendants. Eternal life was not understood as we understand it. This lady saw her son as her future. Though this is not to say that she did not love him for his own sake, but certainly her interest in her son and his well-being was broadened by her cultures emphasis on immortality through one’s descendants.
They lived together in a small mud brick house. It had two rooms, a kitchen cum lounge cum bedroom and a storeroom. Her son had not yet married, but had his eye on a girl. When he did marry, his mother knew that she would live with him and his wife, as a respected elder and hopefully grandmother. She looked forward to that time. As a widow with a young son to support, life had not been easy. But because she lived in Nain, she knew everyone, and her friends and relations made sure that she had enough to get by on.Though her life was not easy, she felt that there was a future, and that things were going to improve.
All these future plans came to nothing. One day, her son became ill. And although she tried to give what aid she could, his condition quickly deteriorated. The local Rabbi could only offer up prayers; and even the charms to ward off evil spirits that she bought at great price from the local market, could not protect her son. On a lovely spring morning, he died. The widow wept. Her grief was inconsolable. Death was the ultimate and final part of life. No-one knew what lay on the other side. Her friends, her Rabbi, and her neighbours could only look on as this woman experienced the double tragedy of the death of her son, and the loss of the family name and future. Her loss was great and there was nothing anyone could do.
As soon as she knew he was dead, in her grief she tore her dress and cried and moaned out loud. Her cries would have been heard throughout the village, and would have signalled to all the loss of her son. With some effort, she laid her son on the ground. She cut his hair and got her comb and brushed it; she cut his nails and washed his body. Then with care she dressed him carefully. The custom of her time said that the family of the deceased could not eat meat or drink wine when there was a death. When she had to eat, she ate without praying and sat with her back to her dead son, who lay on the floor.
Her friends helped as best they could. Though not even her friends could help her with preparing the body for burial. To do so would have meant that they would have become ritually unclean, and this would have meant that they were in some way infected by death, and that much closer to dying themselves. But they helped by hiring the necessary musicians and professional mourners - for it was considered the duty of even the poorest Jew on the death of a loved one to provide at least two flutes and a mourning woman. The Rabbi offered to do the funeral oration for free; and for all this the woman was grateful- for such services did not come cheap.
Funerals and burials were, by necessity, held quite soon after a death. In the warm climate of the near east, bodies were prone to corruption, and so burials were speedily done to stop the smell of decay from spreading. So it was that on the evening of the next day, that the widow’s friends brought the wicker work bier to her door. For all her grief, and weakness from lack of food, she had to man-handle her son onto the bier by herself. Once this was done, her friends and neighbours entered and picked up the bier.
And so the procession started. At the front walked the Rabbi, proclaiming the good deeds of the widow’s son. Immediately before the bier that held her son, came the lady; wailing and moaning. The Midrash, the collection of Jewish law stated that because it was a woman who brought death into the world, so must a woman related to the deceased walk before the dead.
Because reverence for the dead was a core element in Jewish religion, the Bier would have been followed by nearly all of the villagers; those that could not accompany the bier would have stood as a sign of respect as the bier passed. As the procession wound its way out of the village to the burial site, chairs and couches were upturned - place upside down. The death of anyone in the village was the concern of all the village, and this act allowed people offer their last respects.
The bier itself, was supported by friends and neighbours, who at frequent intervals, would change places so as to allow as many as possible to take part in the good work. Whenever they paused to change bearers, this was an occasion for the hired mourners to cry out and moan in loud wailing voices.
Out of the village went the procession; the cries and moans, the wild chants of the mourning women, accompanied by flutes and the sound of a cymbal, could be heard even from a distance. Every once and a while, a trumpet would blast out the message that yet again the Angel of Death had done his job.
A ten minute walk from Nain to the East, along the road to Capernaum, via Endor, lay the graveyard; and it was as they reached it that they met another procession moving toward them. This multitude was following Jesus - the Prince of life! And so here on the road Death and Life collided. Yet between the Lord of Life and the dead man, was the widow. Her heart broken, her face wet with tears.
The woman saw the crowd moving toward her and in her heart she resigned herself to another difficulty to be overcome. She stopped, and waited for the crowd to move to the side of the road out of respect for the funeral procession. So lost was she in her grief, she was not aware of Jesus as he observed the tears fall down her cheeks. She thought only of her son, and mourned her loss. Through her tears she saw that crowd before her had not moved, and then she was startled by a man who said to her “Don’t cry.” the man moved past her and touched her son. She was surprised not only by his words but by the fact that he did not fear the threat of ritual defilement, and its terrors. In a loud voice he called out “Young man! Get up, I tell you!” Everyone was filled with fear and wonder, as he grasped the son’s hand and lifted him from his coffin. Still holding his hand he led him to his mother and gave him to her.
Inside the woman, life began to move once more. She could hardly believe what had happened - here was her son whom she had prepared for burial, alive! Her tears of grief turned to tears of happiness. The man Jesus walked on through the villagers who moved out of his way like the sea parting - full of fear, and yet praising God. “A great prophet has appeared amongst us!” they said; “God has come to save his people.”
In Luke 7:11-17, it doesn’t go into the detail of the event that I have (based on historical research), neither does it share with us the grief that was the widow’s. The story, as we find it in Luke, was written to assure us that our Lord has mastery over death. It was written so that we might know that Jesus is at work in our lives even when we least expect him, or even know that he is there. It was written that we might know that God loves us, and expects nothing in return. Jesus did not ask the young man or his mother to follow him, neither does he demand that we follow. He does not want our obedience like an IOU slip. What he desires is for us to follow him because we want to. The widow of Nain lost everything that was important to her, and unexpectedly was given back hope and life. This can be our story too, Jesus can come to us in out pain and loss and suffering and lovingly restore us to our hope, our life.
Many years later that young man died again; but he, like his mother knew that death would never be the terror it once was. They now knew the Lord of Life, who had entered their lives and given them victory over death. Death for them, was no longer the end of life, but the entrance into life everlasting in the presence of God. This is how it can be for you and for me also. If we follow the Lord of Life, instead of the death of out hopes and dreams, we will experience new and eternal life in him.