Rise!

When you hear this story about Jesus, where does your attention go?  What do you see?  For there is more here than meets the eye.

Full Text: 

Rise!

June 5, 2016 – Luke 7:11-17

 

            I went to my first NFL game during my last year in seminary.  Sylvia and I were getting ready for church on a Sunday morning.  The phone rang.  It was Don and Nancy Evenson, a couple from my internship church in Silver Bay.

            “What are you doing?” Don asked.

            “We’re getting ready for church,” I replied.

            “How would you like to go to the Vikings-Bears game?”

            “Well, we’d have to miss church, but I guess we could do that!”

            The Vikings were still playing in Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, where the Twins also played.  Our tickets were at one end of the playing field, along the third base line if it had been a Twins game. 

            At first, it was difficult to adjust to this perspective. I was accustomed to the close-up, side view, which we all get on television.  This gives us, of course, a clear picture of the quarterback over the center, with the center line of the offense and defense, as well as running backs and linebackers. 

What I was seeing, instead, appeared at first to be a single black line across the field.  It was hard to distinguish the offense from the defense.  And unless they were down near our end of the field, I could hardly see the back field at all.

Slowly, I realized, however, that there were other things I could see.  I could see the broad spread of the offense and defense, which a television picture never portrayed.  I could watch the interplay between the wide receivers and defensive backs, something that is only shown on television on replay.  And especially when a pass was thrown, I had better appreciation of the full dimension of the play.

The biggest thrill for the crowd and for me came at the end of the game, when the Vikings drove all the way down the field toward us. And Tommy Kramer through a touchdown pass with 19 seconds left to play to win the game.

But the biggest impact on me came in seeing the game from a different perspective.  Because, ever since then, I have always felt a bit cheated by the narrow – albeit close-up – view I get from television.  I have a better idea now of how much I am missing.

 

            Luke is an exceptional storyteller.  He provides us interesting details that give us a close-up perspective.  Luke also gives a more wide-angle view.  Using both of these together, Luke invites us to see a scene from various viewpoints.

            Jesus has just been in Capernaum.  There he has healed – from a distance by only a word – the slave of a Roman soldier.  Now he comes to the town of Nain, a small little-known town, some 25 miles from Capernaum.

            As he approaches the front gate, with his disciples and a crowd of people.  A crowd is also coming out of the gate.  There are carrying a man who has just died.  His mother, who is a widow, is also there, at the center of the crowd of mourners.

            Let me ask – who do you see?  Where does your attention go?

            My attention goes to the young man who has died.  Perhaps because he is a man and perhaps because he is young (because until just recently I was young), I identify more with him.  But, to be honest, it is also that he is dead.  And, I know that one day, I too will die.

            The dead man draws my attention.  Interestingly, it is not so for Jesus. Yes, Jesus sees the young man.  He sees that he is dead.  He sees him being carried in funeral procession.

            But that is not where Jesus’ attention goes.  It goes instead to the woman – his mother – who is grieving there in the crowd, who has lost not only her son but also her only means of financial support. 

            Jesus sees her and has compassion for her.  Luke doesn’t tell us that Jesus has compassion for the young man, for the one who died.  There are, it seems, worse things than dying.  There is being alone in one’s grief even in the middle of a crowd of people.  There is losing one’s sole means of support.  There is, perhaps above all, losing a child.  There are worse things than death and so Jesus’ attention goes to the woman.  

He tells her not to cry, which is the first thing seminarians are told not to tell people a funerals.  But this is Jesus, after all.  He already knows what he is going to do.  He goes to the stretcher on which the dead man is being carried – making him immediately unclean. 

Then he says, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”

The dead man sat up and began to speak.  Jesus does not engage him in conversation.  He does not deliver a teaching to the disciples.  He does not turn to the crowd to gauge their reaction.  No.  He gives the young man to his mother.

Which seems the right thing to do.  His compassion was for her.  His eyes were for her.  Now out of compassion, he gives her the one she longs for and presents her the one who relieves her suffering.

 

When I come upon this scene, I focus on the young man.  When Jesus comes upon this scene, he focuses on the woman.  Where does the crowd focus?  Where is their attention?

Some of it, I’m sure, is on the young man, as he is being carried out of the town to be buried.  Some of it, as well, is on the woman, who has not only lost her only child, but also her only means of support.

At the end, however, their focus is on Jesus.  “A great prophet has arisen among us,” they shout. “God has looked favorably on his people!”

These words recall the song of praise that Mary sings in chapter 1 – “He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”  It is a song that ends with the words – “He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever.”

These words also recall the work of the great prophets – Elijah and Elisha.  The prophet Elijah is sent by God out of Israel into the land of Sidon during a great famine.  There God tells Elijah to stay with a woman and her son.  She meets him at the gate.  Elijah first performs the miracle of feeding them.  Then, after the woman’s son dies anyway, and she accuses Elijah of causing the death of her son, he brings him back to life.  He raises him and gives him to his mother – the same exact words we hear in Luke.

This story is one that Jesus references in his inauguration speech – his sermon in his hometown, Nazareth.  “The truth is,” he tells his friends and neighbors, “that there many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah during the great famine, but the only one he was sent to was the widow in Zarephath of Sidon.”

This is why I think Jesus accomplishes this miracle so early in his ministry, so far from the center of the faith of Israel.  So we link this miracle not only with the beginning of his ministry, but also with the end, when he himself is raised from the dead.

 

Luke is an exceptional storyteller.  He provides wonderful details that draw us into the scene.  He includes allusions and references to other stories and figures so that we can see the greater context – from the song of Mary to his first sermon, from the historical prophets to the hope-filled future.  In this way, Luke provides a variety of perspectives from which we can view the action.

We might choose to focus on the young man and consider our own death and what it might mean.  We might choose to focus on the mother and consider our own grief or even our capacity for compassion. 

But I believe, in the way that he tells the story, that Luke directs us to Jesus – not merely as a great prophet, not only as the embodiment of God’s mercy, but as the one who at our death will say the word – Rise!