Friday, October 13, 2023

Death Takes; Jesus Gives Back

 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.

-Luke 7:11-15 (NIV)

I had to do a funeral this past week. It’s part of the job, and obviously not one of the more enjoyable parts. I had a mentor once tell me that my job at a funeral was to be “the religious person in the room,” meaning that it was my task to remind frightened, grieving, shocked people of the hope that we Christians have in the gospel, the good news that Jesus’ resurrection is a preview of our own, and our loved ones’. I think that’s true enough, and I hope I’ve been more or less faithful in carrying out that responsibility. 

     Still, speaking as just a person and not as a minister, death is frightening. The more people you love the more you fear it, and the longer you live the more losses you have to mourn. That doesn’t negate the hope of the gospel; if anything it should make us cling to it more tightly. But death is no joke, and there’s no anesthetic for  the pain and grief and fear we feel in its presence. One thing you learn trying to be “the religious person in the room” in those moments is that faith doesn’t insulate us from grieving and mourning. Jesus wept at a funeral, and he knew he was about to put an end to that one!

     At the funeral this past week I mentioned a story in Luke 7 that sometimes gets passed over in favor of the account of Lazarus’ resurrection, or Jairus’ daughter’s. It’s the story of a funeral procession Jesus meets while approaching the village of Nain, about 9 miles south of Nazareth. Luke is the only one of the Gospel writers to mention it, and at first glance it’s easy to see why the others don't. It happens near what must have been a pretty small settlement. Luke doesn’t name the woman involved, the mother of the deceased, which strongly suggests that she was no one important and nobody thought to get her name, or even the name of her son, who Jesus raised. 

     This woman is in all other ways lost to history. We don’t know a thing about her, other than that she was a widow who had lost her only son. And that, I think, is exactly why Luke wants to mention her.

     Luke is especially concerned with overlooked people touched by Jesus. He alone tells us the story of a woman with a bad reputation who washes Jesus’ feet at the table of a wealthy Pharisee and anoints him with what was undoubtedly the most expensive thing she owned. Luke alone tells us of women who helped support Jesus’ ministry, and gives us a little of Mary of Magdala’s backstory. Only Luke tells us about Zacchaeus the despised tax collector. Through Luke alone we have the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Rich Man and Lazarus. In Luke, Matthew’s “blessed are the poor in spirit” becomes “blessed are the poor.”  

     So it fits with Luke’s specific take on the gospel story that he gives us this short, bare-bones account of an event that must had much more significance for the people directly involved. 

     Death takes. That’s what it does. It greedily takes from us. That’s why we hate it and that’s why we fear it — we have no way to stop if from taking. We’re justly proud of our medical advances. We can do so much to treat once-untreatable illnesses like polio, influenza, smallpox, tuberculosis, even cancer and heart disease. We can transplant organs, and now even grow new ones. We have dialysis for chronic kidney disease that would have proven fatal in previous generations. Even our recent experience with COVID shows how far we’ve come in treating diseases that could kill millions. 

     But all we can do is push back death a few years or decades. We can’t stop it from taking from us.

     We woke up Saturday to news of a Hamas incursion into Israel in which hundreds of people enjoying a music festival were massacred, even children and babies. Of course, that’s just the latest in a long litany of atrocities that human beings of all races, ethnicities, and religions have committed. Sometimes death doesn’t come against our will — we open the door and usher it in as an ally to ideology and dogma. But it will turn on even those who think it’s an ally. 

    Death takes. Of course it takes from us people who we love, who share our lives, who we talk to and tell about our days and share life with. Who know us best and love us unconditionally. But death also takes our sense of safety. It takes some of the insulation with which we keep out the worst of the world, and keep a sense of its goodness in. It knocks us off-balance. It tends to make us a little smaller, make us draw in on ourselves more. It takes away something of the optimism and hope with which we look at the world and our own lives.

     Death takes in uncountable ways.

     The woman in Luke’s story knew well that death takes. In a place and time in which a woman alone was vulnerable and without much protection, she was a widow who had just lost her only son. Those who could be trusted to look out for her interests were gone. She felt the devastation that any parent who loses a child feels, but she was left alone.

     But Luke tells us, in one short sentence, that Jesus doesn’t let that stand. Jesus does the unthinkable. He disrupts the procession by touching the litter on which the deceased’s body was being carried to its tomb. In doing so, Jesus take the ritual impurity of a dead body on himself. No one outside of family was expected to contract that impurity; corpse impurity required seven days to pass. It’s significant that Jesus touched the litter. He was saying to this widow, “You’re not alone.” He tells her not to cry, which is rude to say at a funeral, but not if you know something the bereaved doesn’t know. 

      He raises the dead man with just a command: “Young man, I say to you, get up!” Luke seems to include a bit of eyewitness testimony when he says that the man “sat up and began to talk.” (I know a few people who I suspect will be talking from the moment of their own resurrections too!)

     But then there’s just a few words that end the account. It would have been fine to end it with the dead man sitting up. Even better, in some ways. But Luke ends it this way: “Jesus gave him back to his mother.”

     That’s the gospel in a few words: Whatever death takes, Jesus gives back. I wish that giving back happened at every funeral I’ve ever been to. But in Christ that day is certain.

     At another funeral, Jesus said “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die….” Paul writes, “as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

     That’s why Paul reminded the church in Thessalonica that we don’t grieve like those who have no hope. We grieve what death takes. But we know that Jesus will give back what its taken. That was a decided when God took him out of death’s hands.

     Death takes. Jesus gives back. One day he’ll tell all of us to get up, too. And we’ll never stop talking about it.