Faith- not of human origin?
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
‘Jesus gave him back to his mother’.
‘His mother’ was a widow. When she had been a little girl, she was her father’s daughter. Her father was the undisputed head of the household. His wife and children were completely reliant on him, for only he could own property, and what happened to whatever money came into the house, was his decision. The little girl grew up, and hardly had she stopped being a little girl when she got married. Now what defined her was not that she was her father’s daughter, but that she was her husband’s wife.
She bore her husband a son, who grew up into a grew up into a young man, the pride of his parents, no doubt. But then her husband died, and she became a widow. In a culture in which a woman’s status- never very high at the best of times- was defined- always- by her relationship to a man- father or husband, to become a widow was like a divorce. With no connection to a man, a widow was almost an outcast. Not for nothing did the old Hebrew prophets say that God judged Israel according to how well they looked after those least able to look after themselves- beginning with the widows and orphans. For widows had to depend on charity in order to survive.
However, this widow had one hope left in life- her son. But when he suddenly dies, she is distraught. For her son had been her last hope of a respectable existence. He was the only member of her family left, and he would have looked after her. Now she must depend on the charity of friends and neighbours.
On the day of the funeral, many of her friends and neighbours follow as the young man is carried out of the town to the burial place on the funeral bier (often a kind of wicker basket). As the crowd reach the gate of the town, the widow is surprised to see another large crowd heading along the road towards the town. They have been a lively crowd, for they are following a rabbi who seems to be a kind of prophet, and they are having lively discussion as they go- sharing stories of miracles performed, asking questions of the rabbi and discussing his teaching. But as they approach the town, and realise that there is a funeral procession on the way towards them, the rabbi’s crowd falls quiet.
And at this point, Luke tells us something which says much about Jesus. Luke wrote his story for a Gentile audience. They would know that in many great works of ancient literature, the heroes were men who were rarely moved by emotion. It was a great Roman virtue not to be command of our self, and not to moved by suffering, especially the suffering of unimportant people with whom you has nothing to do. Indeed, there was a school of thought which was highly revered in the Roman world, whose name is still current in English- the Stoics.
But Jesus is not stoic, and the hero of the Gospels is quite unlike the heros of Roman literature. Jesus sees this widow, who has lost her only son, and he is moved. Even although he is a rabbi, a respected religious teacher, and she is just another unfortunate widow woman. Luke says of Jesus that ‘his heart was filled with pity for her’, using a word which was the strongest word in ancient Greek for ‘sympathy’. It’s a word used again and again of Jesus in the Gospels. He goes up to the woman and tells her not to cry, and he stops everyone in their tracks when he touches the bier, and then commands the young man to get up. Which he does, and then Luke says, ‘Jesus gave him back to his mother’.
The crowd rejoice. They are filled with a holy fear, or awe. There is indeed a prophet among them, and they realise that God’s saviour is here at last. Indeed, bringing the dead back to life is an awesome event. No wonder the people rejoice. Perhaps they sing Psalm 146: ‘Alleluia, praise the Lord, O my soul… happy are those who have the God of Jacob for their help, whose hope is in the Lord their God… who made heaven and earth… who gives justice to those who suffer wrong… the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down… he upholds the widow and orphan’.
Yet the widow of Nain had not asked for a miracle. Jesus saw a woman facing an old age in poverty. He saw a woman broken-hearted, not just at the death of a beloved son, but because her world had fallen apart in other ways as well- financially and socially. She had lost her place in a patriarchal, male-dominated society, and had become fit only to be an object of charity and compassion. Jesus sees this, and he feels deeply for her, and he acts. By restoring to the widow her son, he restored the woman’s status and self -respect as well.
With this act, Jesus does not bring to an end this patriarchal society in which women were always secondary to men. You could say that he almost helps prop it up, for he although he performs a miracle, he’s still operating within the boundaries of the culture. He does not preach that the society should change, and that it’s time for women to be equal, and that becoming a widow should not mean destitution. Nor does he preach a sermon encouraging the women’s neighbours to be really generous at supporting the childless widows among them. It needs for this woman to have a male family member to look after her, and so her restores her son to life.
And yet in doing so he has struck a blow for a better world. Within a few years, his church would be making sure that the widows among them would be looked after. And any childless widows in future would know that God in not uncaring, but is moved by their plight, and will not abandon them. Where once the great men of the Roman Empire prided themselves in being unmoved by the suffering of little people, now we hear that the God of the universe is moved, and calls on his followers to be moved, by the plight of those on the margins of society- the widows, the orphans, and the poor.
In the last few months, I seem to have been involved in lots of meeting about how the church could be more effective. We’ve had Future Focus, we’ve had the Presbytery’s local church review, we’ve changed the constitution of this congregation, and we’ve been remaking the Kirk Session. The same questions were being discussed at the General Assembly a few weeks ago, and this week I attended my first meeting of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council, where we thought about how we could ensure that the plight of people in poverty does not get overlooked in these difficult economic times. And there have been lots of conversations about how we can do things better, what we have to change, what we have to start or give up, how we can reorganise, how we can influence our society to make it fairer and more peaceful.
All our human effort is important, and ensuring that the church is effective in the world deserves our best efforts. But the Psalmist reminds us that we should not put our ultimate trust in human efforts and institutions: ‘Put not your trust in princes, nor in any human power, for there is no help in them’. Instead he says, ‘Happy are those who have the God of Jacob for their help, whose hope is in the Lord their God’. So in all our discussion recently, we have to constantly be asking, ‘Where is God in all this? How will we know when God is at work?’
The Christians of Galatia asked that very question of St Paul- where’s God in what you say and do? So he had to tell them: my mission is of God. In the very first sentence of his letter to the Galatians, his greeting is, ‘From Paul, whose call to be an apostle did not come from human beings or by human means, but from Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from death’ (1.1). And then in the passage we read today, he repeats the claim: ‘the gospel I preach is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any human being, nor did anyone teach it to me. It was Jesus Christ himself who revealed it to me’ (1.11-12). He goes on to remind them of how, although he was a very scrupulous Jew, Christ had called him to follow him, as Paul had been travelling on that famous road to Damascus. And like the crowd at Nain, who saw a dead man raised and restored to his widowed mother, so those who had know the old Saul of Tarsus rejoiced at what had happened to unexpectedly to make Paul and Apostle: ‘”The man who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith that he once tried to destroy!” And so they praised God because of me’ (1.23-24).
God worked through Jesus, as he worked through Paul, bring justice and hope to the world. And today we who follow in the footsteps of Christ and Paul and Columba all the other disciples down though the century- we are the ones through whom God will be at work. So how will we know if all our activity, all our organising, all our preaching and teaching are doing God’s work? We will know when things change for the better. When a persecutor becomes a man of faith. When a widow is restored to her place in society. When what seemed dead comes to life. When justice is done, and new truths come to light. And when people praise God because God is giving them hope for a better world.
Ascription of Praise
Happy are those
who have the God of Jacob for their help,
whose hope is in the Lord their God.
Psalm 146.4, Common Worship
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, except for Psalm 146, which is quoted from the Common Worship version (CH4 102)
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo