“Soon afterwards, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out – the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, ‘Don’t cry.’
Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, ‘Young man, I say to you, get up!’ The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
They were all filled with awe and praised God. ‘A great prophet has appeared among us,’ they said. ‘God has come to help his people.’ This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.” (Luke 7: 11-17)
There are some aspects of Luke’s account that parallel Elijah’s raising of the son of the widow of Zarephath,( in 1 Kings 17), and the raising of the son of the woman of Shunem (in 2 Kings 4) by Elisha. Is that what gives rise to the widespread tale that ‘A great prophet has appeared among us,’? Did the similarity prompt the association in Luke 9:19, when Jesus asked, “Who do people think I am?”The reply came back: “They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.” Jesus was reenacting the ancient stories!
And perhaps this connects with the comparison between Jesus and John that we see in the next section (vv18-35).
In any case, it was as if the old stories were coming back to life again, just as surely as the young men themselves! Their deduction was that ‘God has come to help his people.’ Sinclair Ferguson notes the parallel, conlcuding that the pattern repetition
“comes to its fullness in the person of Jesus Christ, the great prophet who heals not merely through delegated authority from God, but on his own authority, without rituals or prayers, but with a simple word of power. Here is the great God and Saviour of Israel in the flesh”…
This is what happens when God is on the move! The mandate of Isaiah 61 (quoted back in Luke 4) is endorsed once again.
But there’s something else too. These are not just stories of Power and the recommencement of some supposedly golden Prophetic Age. There’s also a connection with the song of Mary (in Luke 1) of God moving in on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised:
“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty…” (Luke 1:51-53)
The woman in the story had lost both her husband and her only son, so that there was no one left to support her. As she could not have inherited the land, the loss of her only son would have left her dependent on the charity of more distant relatives and neighbours. But now everything has changed…
And the change is the point of the story. In fact, history has been flipped on its head. It’s not that this new miracle parallels something done by the great Elijah or Elisha way back when, but that those old accounts were the mere shadows of which the coming of the Messiah is the substance. Elijah provided the echo, so to speak, but Jesus is the voice itself.
The people of Nain had encountered something solid and powerful and they realised that ‘God had come to help his people.’ As Eugene Peterson put it (in The Message version):“They all realized they were in a place of holy mystery, that God was at work among them.”
And this is what miracles accomplish: they create a place of holy mystery, for those that have eyes to see.
There are those that would marginalise the miraculous, saying that such things no longer happen, but how can that be, since God is the same “Yesterday, today and forever”?
There are others who would regularise the miraculous, saying that such things always happen, and that when they don’t, it’s a sign of the weakness of our own faith.
And there are those that would trivialise the miraculous, over-emphasising the power and “performance” aspect and understating the place of compassion and the context of human need.
Somehow the Bible draws a different picture, with subtler shades. It reminds us that the Lord is in the midst, in a place of holy mystery, where the power and compassion of God intertwine with our faith and readiness to receive and understand.
And His hand is upon us, like that of Jesus on the widow’s son, speaking life into every impossible situation.