Homily of His Eminence, Archbishop Stephen
for Sunday, October 7/20, 2013, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost
There is nothing more sobering than a funeral. A funeral has a tendency to focus all of our attention on the reality and promises of God’s Word. And if there is one reality that stares us squarely in the face when we attend a funeral, it is this: we live in fallen and broken word.
In this morning’s Gospel reading from St. Luke, Jesus encounters death for the first time. As Jesus was entering the gate of the city of Nain, He came upon a funeral procession exiting the city, through the same gate. It was a funeral procession for a widow’s only son.
A widow carries great significance in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. The reason for this is because the widow represents the poorest, the most destitute, the most dependent and vulnerable classes of people in Israel at that time. To be a widow meant to be totally dependent upon the kindness and generosity of others for daily sustenance and survival.
In Israelite society at the time of Jesus, it was through one’s husband that one received the inheritance of the land. It was through one’s husband that one received financial security. It was through one’s husband that one received physical sustenance. Unlike in today’s society, where the modern woman has the freedom and ability to work and care for herself, even without a husband, a woman in Jesus’s time could not provide for herself in such a way. Women were totally dependent upon their men for their physical well-being. As a result, the worst thing that could happen to a woman in ancient Israel was for her to lose her husband. If a woman did lose her husband, life became very difficult for her very quickly, sometimes virtually overnight.
The Old Covenant law protected the widow and made provisions for her. For example, in Deuteronomy 24, there are regulations that prevent a man from harvesting his fields more than once during the harvest season. The reason for this was because anything that was left after the first pass was to be given over to the poor, which included the widow. Since she was without her husband and the regular support and care he provided, she became completely dependent upon the kindness of landowners and their obedience to the law. Can you imagine what kind of existence this must have been for someone who did not intentionally get herself into such a difficult situation? I wonder how she felt to be dependent upon others who do not know you, who have no vested interest in you, other than the provisions made by God’s commands.
The vulnerable and destitute state the widow found herself in can only be attributed to one thing: the reality of death. Death totally changed her life. Death totally changed the way she looked at things, her financial security, even her identity. No longer was she known as Mr. So-and-so, but as one who lost her husband. If anyone could attest to the reality of the fall, it would be the widow. To her grieving and broken heart, to her collecting the remainder of a landowner’s harvest, her life was a living testimony that this world is fallen.
In today’s Gospel reading, the message of the fallenness of this world is compounded and multiplied beyond measure. The widow we come to know in the Gospel not only lost her husband, but she also lost her only son, whom she was now going to bury. Talk about tragedy and heartbreak! Here is a woman who is surrounded by the darkness of death. It is one thing to have to bury your husband; it is quite another thing to have to bury your only child.
The broken-hearted and grieving widow we meet as she goes to bury her son represents for all of us just how fallen and broken this fleeting life truly is. But we don’t have to put ourselves in her sandals to know this. I am sure all of us can readily testify to the fact that we live in a broken and fallen world. Babies are born addicted to drugs. Spouses abuse each other. Helpless and vulnerable children and elders are abused. Natural disasters destroy homes and thousands of lives. Terrorism and war fill the pages of our newspapers every day. Lives are lost to drunk driving and senseless accidents. Couples grieve over miscarriages and infertility. Husbands and wives work more than one job just to make ends meet.
If the widow represents what it is like to live in this fallen world, then Jesus Christ represents the intrusion of the Kingdom of Heaven into this material world. Jesus represents the arrival of a new world order, of a new and more perfect society, of a more perfect kingdom. So dramatic is this event that it can only be described as the clashing of the ages, of this present age and the age to come.
Jesus comes into this world to deliver His people out of this earthly and material world that is fallen and passing away. He came to lead us and guide us into a country whose builder and foundation is God. He joined us in our human existence so that we may have a better life; that we may have a better world; and that we may know hope and peace and happiness once again.
When Jesus encounters the funeral procession leaving the city and when He sees the grieving widow, He has compassion on her, “His heart went out to her.” He understands her pain and suffering. He comprehends her loss. Jesus restores her hope and her joy by raising her son from the dead. No one had asked Jesus to do anything. No one had recognized Him. But the sights and sounds were too much for Him. Moved to compassion, Jesus says to the woman, “Do not cry.” He then touched the coffin, raised the man to life, and “gave him back to his mother.”
By this miracle, Jesus gives evidence to the unfathomable love of God for His people. God does not wish us to suffer. In raising the widow’s son, Jesus shows us that there is hope beyond this fallen and broken world.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is a man of compassion. As He walked through the villages and towns and saw people afflicted with sickness and disease, “He had compassion on them.” When He saw the hungry, “He had compassion on them.” When He was confronted by those who were lame, blind, crippled, or deaf and dumb, “He had compassion on them.” When He encountered the poor or anyone in any kind of need or distress, “He had compassion on them.” When He left Jericho followed by yet another large crowd and two blind beggars yelled out for help, “Jesus had compassion on them” and healed them.
The two most famous parables on the Bible, of the Good Samaritan and of the Prodigal Son, are about compassion. In contrast to the arrogant and indifferent religious professionals we encounter in the story about the Good Samaritan, the outsider Good Samaritan “had compassion” on the man beaten by thugs. And while the prodigal son “was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him.”
We must understand that Jesus doesn’t raise the widow’s son just for the sake of showing His divine power. He doesn’t do it simply for winning over the crowd. He does it, rather, for the sake of giving us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God…a kingdom of life, love and joy; a kingdom without suffering, disease, heartache and death. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom where compassion and mercy are to be found in abundance.
Surely, in many ways, we are like the widow in today’s Gospel. We have all lost, in one way or another, the very vital means of life support, which is the Word of God. We have become dependent upon the false security and material things of this world. When they disappear, when they are taken from us, we have nowhere to turn except to become dependent upon others. Rather than depending upon God to provide for us, something He does freely in abundance, we turn instead to those whose help more often than not comes with a price tag or strings attached.
Sadly, much human charity and philanthropy today has behind it a hidden agenda or is given with conditions attached to it. God does not put conditions on the generous giving of His love, compassion and mercy. They are ours for the taking, as much as we want and as often as we want. The compassion which Jesus shows to the widow can never be outdone by any human act or gesture. That kind of compassion can only be given by God Himself.
In our times of despair and brokenness, let us seek out God’s compassion earnestly; for the promise of the joys of the Kingdom are within our reach today in the love and person of Jesus Christ.