Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

71. The Widow’s Son (Luke 7:11-17)*

The next miracle done by Jesus took place on the very next day. It is perhaps unique in that almost the precise spot where it happened is identifiable. Nain was a small place about ten miles south of Nazareth. The site makes it highly probable that the main exit was on the south side, where at some distance there are a number of limestone caves anciently used as burial places. This track is joined by another along which Jesus and his apostles and the accompanying crowd came from Capernaum. Almost certainly it was at this junction where the Lord encountered a funeral procession.

Grief and Compassion

A widow, evidently greatly esteemed in the town, if one is to judge by the multitude of sympathizing mourners, had been bereaved of her only son. “The mourning of an only son” is perhaps the most poignant expression of grief to be found in the Old Testament (Jer. 6:26; Zech. 12:10; Amos 8:10), “most bitter lamentation”.

The compassion in the soul of Jesus was immediately clamant for action. Without doubt he would have preferred to render aid away from the curious eyes of the crowds, but this was hardly possible. So first he spoke kindly to the distressed woman and bade her cease from weeping. This was no platitudinous conventional sympathy but an implicit promise that soon all would be well. Then, before she could realise what was afoot, he moved to the bier and stopped the bearers by laying a firm hand upon it. This action in itself was unexpected, for who would wish any risk of ceremonial defilement from the pallet on which the corpse lay?

Then came the word of authority complementary to what Jesus had just spoken to the widow: “Young man, unto thee I say, Arise.” Forthwith the dead man came to life. Sitting up on the bier, he looked around in astonishment, unanswered questions tumbling from his lips in quick succession. But without a moment’s delay Jesus helped him to his feet and led him to his awed, incredulous, happy mother.

There in the gate of the city Jesus gave proof that he was the promised Seed of Abraham who will one day “possess the gate of his enemies” and especially “the last enemy that shall be destroyed” (Gen. 22:17; 1 Cor. 15:26).

But, as Jesus symbolically intimated, the leprosy of sin (Mt. 8:3) and the desolation of death are only to be done away through this sharing of the defilement of them both.

And his “weep not!” anticipated the reassurance to John in Patmos when he was weeping many tears because in the hand of God was seen the Book of Life, and yet “no man was found worthy to open the Book, or to look thereon”, until there appeared “a Lamb as it had been slain” (Rev. 5:1-9).

It is because of this that “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes (did Jesus do this for the widow?), and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying” (Rev. 21:4).

This act of compassion was a lovely token of the happy reunions which are yet to take place in the day of resurrection. The widow’s experience proved that the Lord’s beatitude for mourners was, and will be, very truth.

The Widow of Zarephath

There are outstanding resemblances here to Elijah’s restoration of the son of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs. 17). The man of God met her in the gate of the city; there is the reassurance spoken to the stricken mother, and the arresting word: “behold!”; the only son is raised from death, and “he delivered him to his mother” (a verbatim quotation); and the reaction to the miracle is the same: “Now by this I know that thou art a man of God” –“A great prophet is risen up among us” (why did the people choose there a word appropriate to resurrection, the same as in verse 22: “the dead are raised”?).

This Zarephath resurrection leads on to a problem. When Elijah assuaged the widow’s grief, he embraced the child three times; Elisha twice with the Shunamite’s son; Paul once in the restoration of Eutychus; but Jesus merely touched the bier, and spoke the needful word. What is a progression such as this intended to teach?

Women and Resurrection

It is a remarkable fact that in almost every instance of resurrection in the Bible it was “women who had their dead raised to life” (Heb. 11:35). Besides these two widows there are the Shunamite who befriended Elisha (2 Kgs. 4:36), the widows lamenting the beloved Dorcas (Acts 9:41), Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus (Jn. 11:22, 32), and-most important of all-Mary Magdalene on the third day after the crucifixion (Jn.20:15). The raising of Jalrus’ daughter is hardly an exception (Mk. 5:40).

This consistency doubtless has its roots in Eden. The rabbis encouraged the practice of having the funeral procession led by the bereaved mother or widow, because it was through a woman that death came into the world.

In each case the one raised from the sleep of death was restored to whoever had closest affection for them. But in the resurrection that is , coming, a resurrection which leaves all merely human ties behind (because now “they neither marry nor are given in marriage”), those who are raised will be brought to the Lord, for it is he who has the greatest affection for them and with whom they should have the closest bonds.

An Acted Parable

In yet another way this miracle was a remarkable parable. The time is not far off when Israel, reduced to friendless destitution, will be as a widow without solace of any kind. If then she mourns for the Christ who was crucified “as one mourns for an only son, and is in bitterness for him, as one is in bitterness for a Firstborn” (Zech. 12:10), there will come immediate restoration of the Son and a sudden transformation to unspeakable joy, whilst the close disciples of the Lord and two multitudes of spectators look on, speechless with amazement.

Contacts with Job?

Such an approach to this brief record is encouraged by certain rather problematical resemblances to a remarkable passage in Job concerning “him that knoweth not God” (18:21). The name Nain is perhaps derived from a Hebrew word for “pleasant”, but it is also... practically identical with another rare word for “son” occurring in Job. 18:19: “He shall neither have son (nin) nor son’s son among his people, nor any remaining in his dwellings”. “The firstborn of death shall devour his strength” (v. 13). “His roots shall be dried up beneath, and above shall his branch be cut off” (v. 16) - an apt figure of the widow left all alone. “They that come after shall be astonished at his day, as they that went before were affrighted” (v. 20). One is loath to explain these resemblances as mere coincidence. But if the parabolic interpretation regarding Israel be not accepted, it is difficult to see what alternative remains.

It is rather remarkable that Luke chronicles neither the delight of the mother nor the excitement of the two multitudes, but only their fear.

There was fear after the healing of the paralytic let down through the roof, fear after the cure of the Gadarene demoniac, fear after the stilling of the storm on Galilee (Lk. 5:26; 8:37: Mk. 4:41). But why? Is this the kind of human reaction to be expected on witnessing such gracious acts of power?

The Crowd

Lastly, the reaction of the crowd has to be considered: “They glorified God, saying, A great prophet is risen up among us; and, God hath visited his people”. These are not two ways of saying the same thing. The first probably means that, since they had (quite rightly) been in the habit of comparing John the Baptist with Elijah, now they instinctively associated Jesus with Elisha-Shunem (2 Kgs. 4) is at most a mile or two from Nain!

“God hath visited his people” might mean either a visitation of wrath or of deliverance. In this instance it is, fairly obviously, the latter, for the words quote Exodus 4:31, the reaction of the people of Israel when Moses showed his signs that God was about to save them out of Egyptian bondage. And those signs were, first, sharing and curing the sin-disease; then, overcoming the serpent enemy and transforming it into a token of divine authority and redemption.

These oppressed Jews in the time of Jesus iwere not slow to draw their own conclusions , regarding the future work of Jesus. But alas, how mistaken they were, for they evidently chose to believe that he would soon be leading them to freedom from the Romans. It was the beginning of the build-up of a very difficult situation which was to have tremendous repercussions on the work of Jesus before another year was past.

Notes: Lk. 7:11-17

The “and...and...and...” phenomenon is an outstanding feature of this narrative.
He went. Why this sudden move to Nain after a very brief stay in Capernaum? Does the parallel with 1 Kgs. 17 explain?: “Arise, get thee to Zarephath...Behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee” (v. 9).

Nain. The archeologists are confident that Nain was not a city, and had neither city wall nor gate.
Weep not. Contrast the women who were told to weep; Lk. 23:28.
Is the man raised by contact with the bones of Elisha (2 Kgs. 13:21) an exception to the list of “women who had their dead raised”?
A great prophet. Efforts have been made to read Nain as a corruption of the older name Shunem, which was in the immediate vicinity. This would then provide a link with the great prophet Elisha, and his raising of a widow’s son (2 Kgs. 4:21-37).

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