Paul’s Vindication of His Apostleship
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me.
Jesus Raises the Widow’s Son at Nain
Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favourably on his people!’ This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
When we think about Jesus raising someone from the dead, the instance that often comes to mind is that of the raising of Lazarus, and we perhaps forget that Lazarus was not the only person to receive this grace from God. However, the raising of the widow’s son makes a very different point from the raising of Lazarus. That was a pivotal point in the ministry of Jesus, and was instrumental in his arrest.
In that story the Gospel author, John, makes it clear that Jesus waited after first hearing the news of Lazarus’s illness. He did not set off to heal him, but instead waited until he was dead. Jesus, on that occasion, was operating from his head; deliberating over the best course of action for the needs of the kingdom of God. But in the Gospel story before us today we see Jesus operating from his heart, a gut reaction if you like, giving us a deep insight into the character of God.
It’s also very noteworthy that what takes place is not dependent on anyone’s faith. We sometimes imagine that people who do not get better after we pray for them remain ill because we did not have enough faith. But there is none of that in this story. This is all about Jesus acting unilaterally. What we see is the compassion of God.
The story opens with Jesus approaching a town called Nain which is south east of Nazareth, so we are up in the region of Galilee. He has his disciples with him and a large crowd is following him. We don’t know how many people that might mean but there is clearly a considerable entourage. As Jesus approaches the gates of the town he comes across a funeral party going in the opposite direction.
Naturally they would be leaving the town because burials always took place outside the places of residence, for health reasons. What is particularly emotive, though, is that the man who had died was the only son of a woman who had already lost her husband. In a time before social security that meant that the woman had no means of support. In losing her only son she had now lost everything and was in a very precarious position in terms of her future well-being.
This is key because we might think that this story is about the compassion of Jesus for the dead man, but it’s actually all about Jesus seeing the needs of the widow. Jesus has seen someone for whom life is about to become perhaps impossibly difficult. Not only has she lost her husband but she has also lost her son, and without either of them, how will she eat, or buy clothes?
Jesus sees the situation for what it is and acts to protect her from this. By touching the bier he makes himself ritually unclean, but that is an action which stops the procession, allowing him the space to perform the miracle before giving the young man back to his mother.
The result of this action is twofold. The woman is saved from destitution and restored, with her son, to her community. In response the crowd are rightly afraid, but do not run in fear. Instead they give glory to God and proclaim that a great prophet has arisen amongst them. This latter comment is not surprising since the miracle Jesus has performed bears a strong comparison with the actions of Israel’s great prophet, Elijah.
If we were to read 1 Kings 17 we would find there the story of Elijah raising the son of a widow at Zarephath. The parallels between the two stories are very strong, and the people at Nain would have been well aware of he actions of Elijah. This is why they refer to Jesus as a great prophet for he was doing similar works to Elijah.
For us, though, I think that there is something else that should attract our attention. Jesus could very well have walked on past this funeral procession. It cannot have been the only one that he saw. In the absence of even antibiotics you can imagine that death was far more a part of the weave of life for them than it is in our modern society.
I cannot imagine that Jesus raised up every dead man and woman that he walked past, so what was different about this one? Well clearly he was moved with compassion because of what he saw, and that, I believe, is the key point. Jesus was looking. He ‘saw’. His eyes were open to the environment around him and so he perceived the need of the widow, and in perceiving what she most needed he was moved, and acted to help her.
And that, I think, is the key thing for us. This is the question which is raised. How aware of the needs of those surrounding us are we? In a world dominated by images from the TV, do we suffer from compassion fatigue? Are we still able to see the needs of those around us, or those on distant shores? Or are we too tied up with our own concerns.
We cannot help everyone. But how much effort are putting in to helping those whom we can help? How aware are we of the needs in our own community, let alone the more distant ones?
Ultimately it comes down to our attitude to life. In this community there are a great many of us with far better finances than the average UK citizen. But even the average UK citizen lives a life of plenty compared to the developing world which makes up perhaps two thirds of the world population. What is our attitude to others like? Do we ‘see’ them? Do we perceive their needs?
This, ultimately, is the message for us today. Be like Jesus. Open your eyes and look, really look, at the needs around you. And then do something, however great or small, that in some way improves life for someone in need. In this way, not only do we become like Jesus, but we also minister his love and his grace. You and I become the compassion of God. Surely there can be no higher calling, and it all begins be looking and seeing.