The Gift of Life

(Luke 7:1-17)

Let’s just get this out of the way: Jesus doesn’t understand marketing.

Widows and corpses—these don’t constitute a desirable target demographic. Whoever was in charge of Jesus’ P.R. presumably left after the whole Good Friday fiasco and went to work for the IRS straightaway.

And this isn’t an isolated incident. The story in our Gospel for today just highlights Jesus’ lack of discretion.

Our passage opens with a story of Jesus’ responding to the entreaties of a centurion to come heal a slave who was close to death.

See what I mean? A Roman soldier, a slave, a widow, and a corpse. This is not an auspicious beginning to a road trip.

At least that’s what you’d think. But Luke closes the story by saying that word spread “throughout Judea and all the surrounding country” that a prophet had risen up among them.

Raising someone from the dead, it would seem, gets you pretty good advance publicity—no matter who it is, I suppose.

People, by and large, like a spectacle. In fact, according to Guy DeBord, our world is presently characterized by its preference for spectacle over truth. Spectacle is an affirmation of appearances—which are much more easily digested than reality.

Reality T.V., for instance, is an exercise in delusion. Supposedly “real” people are chosen through a rigorous process of screening, so that they can be put into increasingly unreal situations—tropical islands, a house full of adolescents, a big scavenger hunt—with manufactured conflict . . . and the tension and weirdness and manipulation that result, we are told, is reality.

Reality T.V. remains popular, I think, precisely because of the impulse to believe that life needs this kind of manufactured drama to be interesting. Most of us spend our days doing ordinary things—cooking macaroni and cheese, sorting socks, chasing down answers through a series of “customer service” representatives about why my cable bill is $35 more this month than it was last month.

It’s easy to prefer the idea that it’s our normal lives that are somehow unreal, deficient—while the “real” stuff on T.V. is much more exciting.

Just take a look at what passes for our politics. I rest my case.

But every age loves spectacle, right? And Jesus’ world isn’t so different from ours.

So miraculous healings, dead bodies coming to life are understandably fodder for the Judean gossip mill. The problem, though, is that it’s a better story if the healing happens to Beyonce or Robert Downey Jr., rather than some no name servant of a Roman Centurion.

Things are much more fascinating if the dead body belongs to somebody important—recognizable; if the mother is one of the Kardashians or Lady Gaga.

Instead, Jesus wastes this really good show on a near-dead slave from Capernaum and a no-name widow from Nain. And in doing so, Jesus subverts the spectacle to raise more than just dead bodies.

It is precisely because Jesus deals with what everybody considered nondescript nobodies, however, that Luke finds this story meaningful.

In the ancient Near East, there wasn’t any formal social safety net. People had a much more tenuous sense of their own security.

If you ran up your Visa bill and were unable to make the payments, if you bought a sub-prime mortgage and the bottom fell out of the real estate market, if you got a bad case of gout and couldn’t make it into work, life could get amazingly difficult—quickly.

Bankruptcy protection wasn’t an option. You could go to jail. In the Near East of Jesus’ time, debtors and their families were extremely vulnerable. You, or your children, could be sold into servitude to satisfy your debts. Sort of like student loans—except even worse.

Let’s just take it as read that being owned by somebody else has always been a bad thing. But its very nature carried an especially bad connotation in the Greco-Roman world.

Slaves, it was commonly believed, were slaves because that’s all they were good for—not cut from the same cloth as you and me. Aristotle famously said that slaves were meant to be ruled—because that was their nature.

That is to say, people who were slaves were thought to occupy the shallow end of the gene pool. In the ancient world they were at the absolute bottom of the food chain.

(For what it’s worth, this was also the tack taken by slave-owners in the South, and ultimately by those who fought Reconstruction and who instituted Jim Crow laws.)

Well, not exactly the bottom of the food chain. There was one category of person arguably even lower than the enslaved—childless widows. Slaves, at least, had masters who were duty bound to feed them. Widows without male heirs were at everyone’s mercy.

Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel, stumbles upon the plight of the forgotten ones—a near dead slave, and a widow whose only male child has just died. If you were trying to find poster-children for folks who always had to find a slice of floor in the caboose on the train of life, you’d have a tough time finding two better candidates than the one’s Jesus bumps into here in the seventh chapter.

In our reading this morning, Jesus heals the near dead slave in Capernaum, after which he sees a funeral procession in the distance. The hearse has the little purple flag flying on the left front fender. Everybody’s got their emergency lights flashing, forcing traffic to slow down, trying to get people to show a little respect.

As they’re waiting for the cross-traffic to clear, Jesus sees the mother sobbing uncontrollably into a handkerchief in the back seat, and he taps on the window—bringing the whole motorcade to a halt.

She rolls down her window, and he says something that every seminarian learns not say. He says to her, “Don’t weep.”

The way we were taught, you’re supposed to let her cry—she’s just lost her son, for Pete’s sake! They taught us not to open our big mouths to try to fix somebody else’s pain.

Our attempts to comfort, they taught us, are our ways of exerting control over a situation over which we don’t have any control. Trying to fix somebody else’s pain relieves our own discomfort.

We want to fix it, but we can’t fix it. So, they taught us, just stand there, put an arm around the shoulders, and shut up.

But Jesus apparently flunked that portion of his seminary education. He jumps right into the situation and tells her it’s going to be all right.

See, you can’t tell people who are grieving that it’s going to be all right, because everybody knows it’s not going to be all right—at least in the sense of restoring that which has been lost.

You sound stupid and insensitive if you say that. That’s what they taught us.

But Jesus seems to think everything is going to be all right. In fact, the next thing Jesus says, they didn’t even have to tell us not to say that in seminary, because if you’re stupid enough to say that, you probably would have already been weeded out of the admissions process by the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Minnesota Multi-phasic Personality Inventory. Jesus walks over to the casket and says, “Young man, I say to you, get up!”

Take it from me; the therapeutic community strenuously discourages you from saying that kind of stuff to dead people. That’s normally a no-win situation—even for the most effective fixers among us.

Of course, the reason Jesus can say, “Don’t weep,” is because he can also say, “Get up!” Acting like you can fix everything for those who are grieving is generally considered bad form . . . unless, that is, you can fix everything for the grieving—which, in this case, is exactly what Jesus does. He raises the dead.

And you might be tempted to say, “Yeah, well that’s overwhelmingly obvious. The story says he raises the dead. It’s a miracle story, after all.”

To which I would respond, “True. But Jesus raises more than just one corpse in this story.”

One time, I was sitting in my office late in the afternoon, just about to head off to another meeting, when a woman poked her head through the doorway and said, “The AA people said the pastor might be here. Are you the pastor?”

And I thought, “Oh, man. Here it comes. Is this woman stuck in Louisville on her way back to Schenectady—by way of Minneapolis?”

She’s going to say, “All I need is $40 for bus fare. I’ve got three kids and a grandmother with debilitating lumbago. She just got out of the hospital. Forty dollars. That’s all I need.”

I knew it. I’ve had that conversation so many different times, I can just about substitute the cities and the illnesses. I knew that she was going to say, “All I need is $40 bucks . . . ”

So, when she started in by saying, “All I need is . . . ” I was mentally already filling in the blanks, trying to make a prediction about where she was headed and how much she was going to ask for. (I didn’t say it, of course. I paid attention in Pastoral Care.)

But, instead, she went in a completely different direction. I was caught off guard. She said, “All I need is . . . for somebody to say a prayer with me. I was feeling horrible about my life, being a single mother with no family and a tough job situation. And when I got to the stoplight, God said, ‘Go in there and have somebody pray for you.’ So, here I am. Could you pray for me?”

So, I said—still a little suspicious—“Okay” waiting for the other shoe to drop.

But no other shoe dropped. I said a prayer, mumbling something about God watching over her and her two boys—about whom she was so afraid. I asked God to give her courage, to let her know that she’s not alone, that there really are people in the world who care about her.

In no way eloquent. Not much of a prayer at all really.

After saying “Amen,” I looked up to find her crying—really hard. She finally said, “Thank you, pastor. That was just just what I needed. I knew God told me to come in here for a reason. I feel like a new person.”

Now, I didn’t say anything that memorable. All things being equal, her circumstances hadn’t changed after she stopped in to see me.

But God doesn’t need much, sometimes just a hopeless situation, a little faith, and know-it-all preacher willing to shut up until it’s time to pray.

You see, the dead that Jesus raised wasn’t just a body—as amazing a spectacle as that was. The life he gave back to the widow of Nain wasn’t just the life of her son—as precious as that was.

No. By raising the son, Jesus took a woman from the bottom of the heap, and gave her back her hope, her future. He gave her true life. As a childless widow, that woman had nothing but poverty and abuse to look forward to. Jesus didn’t only raise a dead widow’s son, he raised a dead widow from the unspeakable grave of social and economic death.

Contrary to the prevailing view in our culture, people who live right, work hard, and do the right thing don’t always wind up having everything work out all right. Sometimes, even the most honest and diligent find themselves on the outside looking in.

But Jesus takes a stand on the side of those who’ve lost the battle against being cast aside. The sick, the bereft, the poor, the desperate, the enslaved, the oppressed, the dead—Jesus announces his commitment to those whom everyone else seems content to have forgotten.

Jesus knocks down the walls of death, all right—but the death he conquers is bigger than just human mortality. He defeats the death that exploits the folks most of us don’t ever even have to look at—safe as we are in the illusion of our own security.

And we who follow Jesus, we have a responsibility—if not to raise dead bodies, then to go into the heart of a world filled with the living dead, and bring life and hope, announcing to them that death no longer calls the shots.

Sometimes the best we can do is just shut up and listen until it’s time to pray. And then, after praying, get up and move our feet, bend our backs, and raise our voices.

We followers Jesus are called to follow him into the heart of hell to shake loose the bars of oppression and death, setting loose the captives and freeing the oppressed—not because we’re capable of fixing those things, but because we follow one who’s calling into being a new world where those things no longer lay people low. Like Jesus, we’re called to be prophets of true life—who refuse to acknowledge that death is in charge.

Jesus, in walking among the dead and the dying, takes a stance against a world enamored of the spectacular, and aligns himself with the decidedly unspectacular—the poor, the outcast, the widowed, and the orphaned, with the unemployed and the uninsured, with the people forced to live in the cages we pay for—with all of those who’ve been forgotten.

And we who claim to follow him, how can we do any less?