#22. Raising the Widow's Son at Nain (Luke 7:11-17)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Luke 7:11-17

[11] Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. [12] As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out -- the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. [13] When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, "Don't cry."

[14] Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, "Young man, I say to you, get up!" [15] The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.

[16] They were all filled with awe and praised God. "A great prophet has appeared among us," they said. "God has come to help his people." [17] This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.


Exposition

When you reduce this story down to its bare essentials it comes down to two people. Jesus, coming into town, and a weeping, heartbroken widow leading the procession that bears her dead son to his final resting place. Just two people, not even a prayer uttered, and compassion that touches the heart of God's Son.

Traveling with a Large Crowd (7:11)

This was a popular time in Jesus' Gallilean ministry. He was engaged in an itinerant teaching ministry, going from town to town throughout the whole region declaring the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Originally he traveled alone. Then others began to come along. The Twelve Apostles whom he specially called, but others, too. The large assemblage with him today is made up of "his disciples" and "a large crowd."

If you had been alive in Galilee in those days, you'd want to be with him, too. He spoke the words of life day after day, washing people's souls and making them whole with the truth. And where he went miracles took place. The sick, the mentally anguished, the demon oppressed, the lame, the blind, the lepers -- all found hope, because in his presence, through his touch, life could be different for them. Yes, you'd be in that crowd, too.

The Town of Nain (7:11)

I picture Jesus leading the way, except for an eager child or two running on ahead. Clustered around Jesus on the narrow road would be a few of his disciples engaged with him in conversation, and a few from the learners in the crowd who couldn't get enough of his words. Strung about behind them for perhaps a quarter of a mile along the road were hundreds and hundreds of others, walking, following, expectant at what Jesus would do at the next stop.

And the next stop was the village of Nain, southwest of Capernaum about 25 miles[1] -- a good day's journey if they had come all the way from Capernaum, and if that is the case it would be nearly dusk, a common time for Jewish funerals.[2] Jesus was nearly to the town gate when the noisy funeral procession began to file out of the town.

Luke mentions the town "gate," but archeology has not found any evidence of city walls, so "gate" may be used in a more figurative sense of the main entrance to the town, the place where the elders gathered to discuss town business.[3]

Burying the Dead (7:12)

The women would usually lead a funeral procession, accompanied by great weeping. This widow may have been too poor to hire professional mourners and the mournful flutists, but the whole town seemed to have turned out to support her in her time of grief. Accompanying the body to its burial place was considered a "good work" that any believing Jew could not neglect.

The body was carried upon a bier, which Alfred Edersheim describes as a wicker conveyance. There was no casket, especially no closed casket. The body would have been wrapped in a burial shroud, the face exposed. And the men would take turns sharing the honor and pious privilege of pall bearer. They were on their way to the burial grounds in some caves a few miles outside of town where all their dead were buried.[4]

Widowhood (7:12)

It was the same place where the grieving mother's husband lay. Now her son was gone and she was alone in the world. Widowhood is hard enough in our own century. There is the emptiness, the loneliness. Social life often seems centered around families, but the fatherless and widows are too often at the fringe.

When a husband died, the wife would struggle with her children to work to farm. To plow in the spring, and to plant. To harvest in the summer, and winnow and gather the grain. As well as all the duties of a mother to prepare the meals, grind the flour for bread and so on.

But this widow had no more children to raise to farming. She and her husband had but a single child -- a son, God be praised. But just a single son. The scripture refers to him as a "young man" (vs. 14), Greek neaniskos, " 'youth, young man' (from about the 24th to the 40th year."[5] He had cared for his mother in her widowhood, done the hard work of farming, but now he was gone. Dead, silent forever. And she was alone.

A widow faced in a bleak future. There were no jobs for widows. Normally, she would live in one of her children's homes, contribute to the household labor, and receive from the support earned for the family. But with no son, and no family, a widow was left to the whims and charitable impulses of the community. There was no Social Security system, no community welfare, no general relief for the poor. Sometimes, like today when her only son was being buried, they surrounded her with support. But in days to come, who would take in another mouth that needed to be fed? Widowhood could be very dismal and very lonely.

Jesus' Heart Went Out to Her (7:13)

The Gospel says simply, "When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, 'Don't cry' " (7:13). The Greek word is splagchnizomai, "have pity, feel sympathy"[6] from the word splagchnon, " 'inward parts, entrails,' figuratively, of the seat of the emotions, in our usage 'heart.' "[7] Perhaps Jesus saw his own mother in that widow, we don't know. Or an aunt or neighbor who had experienced what now faced her. Jesus is close now. His group is near the town gate, and the funeral procession is just leaving the town.

Jesus' first impulse is to comfort her. "Don't cry," he says. How many times have you comforted a child or a spouse with those words? These words mean well, but they don't remove the cause of the hurt, the reason for the weeping.

Touching the Bier and Commanding Life (7:14)

The women are in front, still overflowing with tears, flutes still playing mournfully, as Jesus' party begins to merge with the funeral procession. But now Jesus reaches toward the wicker bier and touches it. Suddenly, I imagine, the sobbing and wailing and flute melody die in midphrase. Jesus is about to do something.

"Young man, I say to you, get up!" Jesus' voice is clear in the stillness, and all those around are wondering what will happen. Suddenly, the dead man sits up on the bier, still held high on the shoulders of the bearers. An involuntary gasp can be heard throughout the crowd. Some recoil in shock. The dead man, now alive, isn't quite sure where he is, and the bearers quickly, if somewhat uncoordinatedly, lower the bier to the ground.

Returning the Man to His Mother (7:15)

Now Jesus presents him to his mother. He gets up off the stretcher and embraces her. Now, instead of silence there is talking and laughing and weeping for joy from both mourners and those accompanying Jesus. They are now one multitude caught up in wonder and joy. And in the midst is Jesus, smiling through his tears.

Awe and Acclamation (7:16-17)

Things were never quite the same afterward. The multitude gathered at the gateway to Nain were in awe (the Greek word is phobos, "fear, awe") and began to praise God. Notice, they didn't praise Jesus personally, but directed their praise to God, well aware that God had granted the miracle.

This is the first person Jesus raises from the dead. After the widow's son of Nain, there is Jairus' daughter in Capernaum (Luke 8:41-56), and finally his friend Lazarus in Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem (John 11:1-46). Only the great prophets such as Elijah and Elisha had ever raised the dead, so it is natural that the crowd proclaims, "A great prophet has appeared among us." They mean no disrespect. Jesus has revealed himself only as Son of Man to this point, not as Son of God. But he is definitely more than just The Teacher by now; he is the Great Prophet.

Notice that in 7:13, that Luke refers to Jesus as "the Lord" for the first time, and more commonly after this event. The title "Lord" conveys more than just "Sir" or "Your Lordship." It connotes divinity, since the Hebrew word Adonai, "Lord," is the word the Jews spoke out loud when they read God's name "Yahweh" in the Hebrew text.

The crowd also begins to say, "God has come to help his people" (NIV) or "God hath visited his people" (KJV, 7:16). The verb is episkeptomai. In secular Greek the word has several senses: "to look upon, consider, have regard to," "to reflect on, examine, investigate something" and "'to visit,' e.g., the sick."[8]. It is used in the Greek Old Testament, to refer to God's gracious visitation in bringing salvation."[9] The word is reminiscent of God's intervention in Egypt at the time of Moses. "And the people believed: and when they heard that the Lord had visited (episkeptomai, LXX) the children of Israel, and that he had looked upon their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped" (Exodus 4:31, KJV). John the Baptist's father Zechariah had prophesied similar words at John's birth: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited (episkeptomai) and redeemed his people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David" (Luke 1:68-69, KJV).

What This Story Tells Us about Prayer and God

The key words in this wonderful cameo of Jesus raising the widow's son are these: "When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, 'Don't cry' " (7:13).

There are two kinds of Christian theologies (to oversimplify). One which believes that everything is predetermined and that nothing can change God's mind. And another which believes that God can be moved from his original plans by the prayers of his children.

The determinists would argue that God still never changes his mind. That he also predetermined that someone should pray. While I believe in predestination because the Bible clearly teaches it (for example, Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 1:5, 11), I don't claim to understand it or be able to wrap my mind around it. You and I have never personally experienced the ability to predestine something; we can only speculate on how it works.

However, the scripture offers many instances where men and women of faith ask for help, and are granted it, even though under normal experiences they might have gone on for the rest of their lives with sin or weakness or sickness or oppression. Does prayer change anything? Again and again the scripture teaches that it does indeed. God can and does intervene in the normal running of his universe.

We see just such an instance in this passage. The young man is dead -- his life cut short by sickness perhaps, but death is a "normal" experience in our fallen world. Then Jesus sees a mother's tears, realizes that this widow -- there is no husband and other children mourning beside her -- has lost her only son, and Jesus moved with compassion, and intervenes.

God doesn't intervene every time we are hurting or have problems, just as loving parents do not or cannot intervene to soften everything for their children. Sometimes we are angry with God for not giving us the answer to prayer that we desire. Sometimes we blame him for not intervening when our loved ones are sick or die.

But it is not because God lacks compassion, for Jesus shows us the Father, and Jesus is full of compassion. The English Bible uses the term "compassion" 94 times, the vast majority referring to God's own compassion. The very earliest revelations about God tell us this:

"The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished...." (Exodus 34:6-7)

Jesus encourages his disciples to call upon the Father in prayer. "In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God." (John 16:26-27) The writer of Hebrews, too, encourages prayer based upon God's compassion:

"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are -- yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Hebrews 4:15-16)

We are left with the bald fact that Jesus indicates that the Father will do things as a result of our prayers, because of his compassion, that he will not otherwise do. Prayer can appeal to the heart of God to bring about change. Amazing but true.

So what are we disciples to learn from all this? If you were to take aside Peter or James or John during a lull in the teaching and ask them, "Does Jesus really help people because he has compassion on them? Or is this all scripted?" he would probably laugh, put his hand on your shoulder, and say. "Oh, he really DOES have compassion -- it's no act. The only reason I'm here is because of his compassion for me. I've seen his heart broken time and time again for the people he ministers to. It's real love all right -- genuine compassion.... But a strange question. Why did you ask that?"

We ask and wonder because compassion in the Creator of the Universe is almost too good to be hoped for, too good to be true. But we find it deep within the heart of Jesus, and that compassion spills out toward you and your needs, too.


Prayer

Father, thank you for the compassion I see displayed so spontaneously in Jesus. I'm so glad that you are full to overflowing with such compassion. Increase my faith in your love and compassion. And help me to be filled with your compassion also. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.


Key Verse

"When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, 'Don't cry.'" (Luke 7:13)


Questions

JesusWalk: Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
All 120 lessons now compiled as a 808-page e-book and paperback. Get your copy for easy reference
  1. Did Jesus heal all the sick people he saw? Did Jesus raise all the dead people he encountered?
  2. How do you explain him raising the widow's son at Nain while passing many graveyards his route?
  3. Does acting out of compassion mean responding a whim? Why or why not?
  4. Compassion is a dangerous virtue to cultivate. Why is that? What is the cost of compassion? What is the reward of compassion?
  5. Can you be a true disciple and be dispassionate toward people in need? Why or why not?
  6. How can a sense of compassion help you to pray effectively?


References

  1. Ralph Earl, "Nain," ISBE 3:480. Nain is identified with the modern Arab village of Nein, about 200 inhabitants, which lies on the northern slope of Jebel ed-Dahi.
  2. Life & Times, vol. 1, chapter 20 is exceptionally rich in information about Gallilean funeral practices.
  3. Ralph Earl, "Nain," ISBE 3:480.
  4. Life & Times, vol. 1, chapter 20.
  5. BAGD534.
  6. BAGD762.
  7. BAGD763.
  8. H.W. Beyer, "episkeptomai, ktl.," TDNT 2:599-622.
  9. BAGD298.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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