The Orphan and the Widow

Robert S. Turner
Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 5, 2016
Luke 7:11-17


I was there, you understand. I really was. Nobody believes me now. To say you
were there when something like that happens is like saying you were at Shea
Stadium when the Beatles played there, or were standing on the grassy knoll
when JFK was shot, or were ringside for the Thrilla in Manila. If all the people
who claim they were there for those things had actually been there, you’d need
like ten Shea Stadiums to hold them all.
And that many people would never have fit in my hometown of Nain. It was a little
burp of a town in the hills of Lower Galilee, about six miles south-southeast of
Nazareth and about a thousand miles from anywhere. I could say the same
about Nazareth, really, and most of the little villages and hamlets in that part of
the Galilee. I only mentioned Nazareth because you’ve probably heard of it. But
you’ve only heard of it because he was from there.
If it hadn’t been for him, Nazareth and Nain—even Capernaum, probably—would
have gone on in our sleepy way as we had for centuries. Just trying to scrape by
and make the best of our lives under whatever empire or regime happened to be
in charge that week. Persia, Greece, Syria, Rome, the Ottomans—they’re really
all the same when you get right down to it. The Man. And when you’re under the
thumb of the Man, you have a couple of choices. You can get along the best you
can or you can fight back.
Like a lot of young Galilean men of my generation, I chose to fight back. We
considered it a point of pride that the Romans equated the name “Galilean” with
“troublemaker.” In the long run, it was futile, and I guess deep down we all knew
that, but we were young and…well, you know how it is.
I left home at fifteen and joined a band of rebels in the hills above town.
“Brigands” and “bandits” and “thugs” were what the people called us—our own
people, can you imagine?—but we knew ourselves to be freedom fighters. We
busied ourselves with military training (such as it was) and occasional raids on
the farms and estates of the aristocracy. But we knew we needed a leader. A
messiah, if you will. When I saw what happened in Nain that day, I was sure I
had found one.
It was only by chance that I was in town that day. I drew the short straw and had
to go in to get supplies. We needed blankets and bread and whatever other food
I could scrounge. I was to get the supplies however I could. Ideally, I would find a
sympathetic soul who would give us what we needed as a gift. But sympathy for
the “bandits” was in short supply in Nain, so I was prepared to go to Plan B. We
had a saying for these occasions: “Steal if you can, buy if you must.” I had only a
few copper coins in my purse, so I was watching for a chance to pick up a few
things with the old five-finger discount.
I went to the marketplace near the city gate and glided along at the edge of the
crowd, keeping an eye peeled for a seller or two to drop their guard for a
moment. As if on cue, I got the diversion I needed. A funeral was on its way
through town, heading to the graveyard outside the gates. The professional
mourners were raising a racket, playing their flutes, beating their tambourines,
pulling their hair and wailing at the top of their lungs. When the proprietor of one
of the stands turned her head to see the procession, I saw my chance. I
snatched a couple of flat breads and a handful of olives just as pretty as you
please. The bread went under my cloak, the olives into my purse, and as
nonchalantly as I could, I turned to move on through the market.
My way was blocked, however, by another crowd coming in through the gate. Not
so much a procession as a mob, made up of a motley mix of peasants, laborers
and fisherfolk. And a lot of women, which struck me as odd. They kept moving
and shifting, maneuvering for a better vantage point on some figure of interest in
the middle of the group. They moved slowly, kicking up a ton of dust, and they
would talk excitedly among themselves in little bursts, then quiet down quickly
whenever the guy they were all so interested in would say something.
As they moved past me, I craned my neck to get a look at the man in the eye of
this odd storm. It wasn't easy; the crowd kept pressing in on him and blocking my
view. But a couple of rough-looking characters with red hair and the wispy beards
of teenagers—brothers, obviously—started acting as the guy's bodyguards,
shoving people out of the way whenever they got too close, and I was able to
catch a glimpse of the young rabbi who was the center of all this attention.
I wasn't impressed. He looked to be about thirty or so, but the circles under his
eyes and the stoop-shouldered way he had of walking made him look much
older. He wore a dirty, patched tunic and his hair and beard were matted and
uncombed, as if he had been sleeping outdoors for a while. He was barefoot,
shorter than average and skinny as a reed. At first glance, there was little about
him to commend him—certainly nothing to explain the intense interest he had
generated in this mob that followed him about like lapdogs and hung on his every
word.
But then, just for a moment, his eyes settled on me, and I froze. Almost literally—
I went all cold inside the second our eyes met. In contrast to the apparent
weariness with which he carried himself, his eyes were alive, glittering, dancing
almost. With just a look, he seemed to peer directly into my soul. It felt almost like
he had divined my whole history in that one look, and I was terrified. My hand
went, almost of its own volition, inside my cloak where I had stashed the stolen
bread.
He looked away, and the moment passed. But I was shaken by this brief
encounter. How had this stranger been able to affect me like that with just a look?
Was he some sort of magician? We had our share of spellcasters and wonderworkers
in the Galilee back in the day. I had even heard rumors about a new
healer and exorcist from around these parts. Nazareth, maybe?
As I stood leaning against one of the stalls, trying to control my trembling, the two
groups drew near each other. When the burial party arrived at the gate, chaos
erupted as they tried to make their way through the crowd surrounding the rabbi.
Out of curiosity, and trying to take my mind off my unsettling experience of a
moment ago, I looked over at the corpse and got another shock. I knew him! It
was Eleazar! I had known him since we were boys. I hadn't seen him in a while,
but I never expected him to be dead. I wondered what had happened to him.
I picked Eleazar's mother out of the crowd of mourners. She was a widow, and
Eleazar had been her only child. Now she was alone in the world. Without the
protection of a husband or son, she was in a precarious position. Now that
Eleazar was dead, whatever property he had would go to his father's nearest
kinsman. Ideally, the extended family would take her in and care for her needs,
but times were hard, and another mouth to feed would not be welcome. I had
seen it too many times: widows turned out by their husband's families and left to
fend for themselves. Too often, it came down to a stark choice: prostitution or
starvation.
Looking at Eleazar's mother now, I could tell she saw all this. Jostled by the
crowd, her veil fell away and I could see her eyes. Mingled with her grief was
naked fear. Her bereavement was complete; with her son gone, she was utterly
alone in the world. It was a grave injustice, but what could you do? It was the way
of the world.
But then the rabbi stepped forward, and both groups fell silent. He looked first at
the widow. He didn't say anything, but the tenderness in his expression and the
way she slowly raised her eyes to his and began weeping, the tears streaming
down her cheeks in silence, made me think he must have been looking at her the
same way he had looked at me. Looking into her soul.
He went then to the bier where her son was laid out. The mourners had been
very careful to give the corpse a wide berth, so they would not touch it by
accident and become ceremonially unclean. But the young rabbi walked straight
up to the corpse and stretched out his hand. The stretcher-bearers automatically
started to move away, but something in his manner made them stop and stand
still.
When the rabbi placed his hand on the bier, a collective gasp went through the
crowd. You could almost hear people thinking, “What does he think he's doing?
What kind of rabbi defiles himself like that?” One of the flute players let out a
mocking sort of laugh, but quickly stifled it when the rabbi spoke.
He stared at the dead man's pale face and said, softly but with unmistakeable
confidence and authority, “Young man, get up!” That was all. No trance, no
foaming at the mouth, no gibberish. Just, “Get up.”
And you know what? He did. Eleazar stirred, as if waking from sleep, and sat up
on the stretcher. Another gasp, this one much louder, went up. Somebody
screamed. One of the women in the funeral party fainted. I don't know how the
stretcher-bearers managed to keep from dropping Eleazar in the dirt. In the midst
of all this, the rabbi calmly took Eleazar by the hand, helped him down and led
him to his mother, whose sobs were coming uncontrollably now.
The mob that had been pressing in on the rabbi before practically jumped out of
his way every step he took now. Everyone was terrified, and confusion reigned.
Dozens of animated voices started at once. Everyone was trying to make sense
of what had just happened. Above the cacophony, one voice shouted, “A prophet!
A great prophet has risen among us! The prophet Yeshua!” Soon others joined in
and it became a sort of chant.
But the rabbi ignored it all. Waving away the shouts, he continued on his way.
Past me. Past Eleazar, who stood staring in bewilderment at his hands, his
mother clinging to him, weeping and laughing at the same time.
* * * * *
So, yeah, I was there. I saw it all. I saw the rabbi Yeshua—Jesus—bring a dead
man back to life. Just like Elijah. Just like the crowd said, a great prophet.
But not a messiah. At least, not the messiah my little band was waiting for. When
crunch time came for Jesus a few months later in Jerusalem; when he had the
opportunity to confront the aristocrats and the Romans both, and display a little of
the power we had all seen that day, he dropped the ball. Missed his chance.
Failed. They arrested him—one of his own students turned him in, I heard—and
crucified him outside the gates like a common brigand. Thug. Freedom fighter.
I followed on the fringes of his group for a while after that day in Nain. He used to
teach about the reign of God coming like a weed in a garden, or about God as a
woman mixing yeast into dough. Crazy stuff like that. I saw him eat with leading
citizens and Pharisees one night, and with tax gatherers and whores the next. I
heard him say that anyone who draws the sword will be killed by the sword. That
violence only begets more violence. That only love can overcome hate. I stopped
following.
But to this day, I am haunted by what I saw in him. That day in Nain and
afterward. He truly was a prophet; I don't know how anyone could deny that. And
he held in his hands the power of life over death. He restored two lives that day—
the orphan and the widow—because Eleazar's mother would have been as good
as dead herself with him in the grave. It was almost as if God were touching that
bier through his hands. As if God was bringing the justice and mercy of heaven
down to earth through the act of this scruffy rabbi from Nazareth. Crazy, huh?
Then why is it that sometimes, when the congregation is singing that one psalm,
and we get to the part that says, “The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow,” I
find myself thinking of Jesus?

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