Tradition of ‘WidowCare’

The readings for Sunday, June 5, 2016, Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C,
are 1 Kings 17:17-24; Galatians 1:11-19; and Luke 7:11-17.

Jesus restores life to the only son of a widow. The context: Jesus has just completed Luke’s version of teachings similar to those found in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mountain. Luke’s version is called the Sermon on the Plain. Why? Because Jesus just came down from a night of prayer on a mountain “and stood on a great level place.” When the sermon was finished, Jesus and his disciples turned south, and eventually came to the city of Nain, about 25 miles south of Capernaum,

As Jesus and Co. approached Nain, the body of a man who had just died was being carried out the gate of the city. This was not just any man. He was an only son of a widowed mother, making this case special to Jesus and to Luke. The sad plight, the suffering of widows and the Christian care for widows were themes of Luke’s Gospel and his Acts of Apostles. Matthew mentions a widow once. Mark twice, John not at all, Luke eight times. An only son of a widowed mother would have been her only support. One assumes that there was no other close relative to care for her. Jewish synagogues had developed a system of food distribution to widows, and Christian Communities adopted this system from the synagogues. But this would have furnished only the bare necessities. There was no other social security, no Medicare, no Medicaid, no ObamaCare. Often widows had to resort to begging for survival.
Jesus was a faithful Jew. He inherited from Jewish tradition the importance of WidowCare, small as it was, probably no more than a loaf of bread, perhaps a bagel or two, each day. Luke writes, “When the Lord saw her, he was moved with compassion, and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’”  Luke wants to describe on the part of Jesus a deep emotion for this deprived and bereaved widow. In this he follows a pattern found in the Old Testament, where God shows special concern for widows. In this story the Son shows the same concern for widows as his Father in the Old Testament. It’s all in the family, like Father like Son. Psalm 68:5 calls God, “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows.”

An interesting aspect of this encounter between Jesus and the bereaved is the fact that no one implores Jesus to help. He acts on his own, without appeal — a good example of the unmerited love of God for the afflicted. Next Jesus came up to the coffin, touched it, and the bearers stood still. According to Numbers 19:11-22, there are serious consequences for anyone who touches a dead body or anything close to or connected with a dead body. The offender contracted ritual uncleanness whereby he was disqualified for any religious activity. Jesus ignores the laws of uncleanness, and will eventually abolish them.

Jesus spoke to the dead man, “Young man, I say to you. Arise. And the dead man sat up and began to speak.” When we recall that Luke (and other gospel authors) were composing their Gospels forty to sixty years after the events of which they speak, we can understand how important Old Testament stories were in the composition of stories about Jesus. The first reading for this Sunday’s liturgy is also a story about a widow whose dead son is restored to life. The story involves not Jesus, but another prophet. He is Elijah, ninth century B.C. prophet in northern Palestine, in the Kingdom of Israel. Elijah was staying at the widow’s house. The widow’s son became ill. He stopped breathing. In her grief the widow blamed Elijah. She also wondered if perhaps God was punishing her for her sins. Like Jesus addressed the young man of Nain by a command, so Elijah addresses this heathen widow with a command, “Give me your son.”

The widow blamed Elijah for killing her son. Elijah blames God, “Will you afflict even the widow with whom I am staying by killing her son?” Next the prophet seems to have gone through an unusual ritual of contact with the dead boy’s body. “He stretched himself out upon the boy three times.” Then a plea to the Lord, “Lord God, let the breath of life return to the body of this child.” The “life breath returned to the child’s body and he revived.” Elijah, who had been staying in a small cubicle on the roof, carried the child down and gave him to his mother. The connection between the gospel story and the Elijah story became more obvious at the end of the story. In both stories we read, “and he gave him to his mother.”