THE WIDOW OF NAIN

by Peter Sizer

 

The story of the Widow of Nain is one of the most powerful of the Gospel stories about Jesus. As he is about to enter a city called Nain Jesus meets some men carrying the corpse of a young man who has just died. He is told that he is the only son of a widow. Moved by the widow's grief, Jesus raises the young man from the dead and restores him to his mother. The crowd standing round are terrified, but give glory to God.

There are three points to make about this story. They are not original, but are taken from a sermon preached many years ago by Father Lev Gillet, probably better known by his pseudonym "A Monk of the Eastern Church". The first thing to note is the great compassion that Jesus shows by this and other miracles. Jesus does not need to show by miracles that he is the Messiah and the Son of God (though they do have this effect as well for those who have faith). He performs miracles because he feels sorry for people. The three occasions recorded in the Gospels when Jesus raises someone from the dead certainly show this. Jesus raises the young man at Nain from the dead because of his pity for the widow. He raised Jairus' daughter from the dead because he had compassion on her parents. He raised Lazarus from the dead because he was a very dear friend, and because he felt compassion for his two sisters, Martha and Mary.

It is difficult for us to realise just what effect Jesus' action would have had on the widow of Nain. For a woman to be left with no man to support her in the agricultural communities of the Middle East in New Testament times was catastrophic. The woman in the story had lost both her husband and her only son, so that there was no one left to do the farm work. Her life would have been completely devastated.

Not that the women of that time and place were weaklings. One of their jobs was to fetch water from the well, which often involved carrying huge pitchers of water considerable distances. But the back-breaking farm work, involving long hours in the fields, was definitely a man's job.

In any case, the widow 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. So she was indeed greatly in need of Jesus' compassion.

I turn now to the second point. This story when combined with the two other Gospel stories about Jesus raising people from the dead illustrates Jesus' absolute power over death. When he raised Jairus' daughter she had only just died. She was still on her death bed. The son of the widow of Nain had been dead some time and was being carried to the grave. Lazarus had been in the tomb four days, and no doubt his body had already started to decompose. Yet Jesus raised him too!

So however long a person has been dead Jesus can raise him. That is important for us, because besides physical death there is also spiritual death. In a fallen world we all suffer varying degrees of spiritual death from tine to time. Jesus Christ has granted us eternal life, but none of us, in our sinful state, can experience it consistently. We all suffer periods of spiritual death; some being more spiritually dead than others.

It is well expressed in an Anglican hymn dubbed the “She Bear hymn”. It was called that by a writer in the “Church Times”, in the 1890s when it first became popular. (344 in “Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised.”) The third verse begins:

"Can a woman's tender care cease towards the child she bare?"

The verse continues: -

"Yes, she may forgetful be, Yet will I remember thee."

(I don't really see how anyone can forget they have got children. My experience is that they jolly well won't let you!)

But the hymn writer's point is clear enough. Even when dealing the people dearest to us; even when concerned with the matters we feel most strongly about, we often turn out to be spiritually dead. But, just as our Lord Jesus Christ can raise people to physical life however long they have been dead, so he can restore us to spiritual life however spiritually dead we may be. We have only to want to be restored.

Jesus can save the worst of sinners — anyone who wants to be raised from spiritual death.

Another Western Christian hymn puts it succinctly; one popular in Evangelical circles. I mean the hymn that begins: "To God be the glory! great things he has done!" (No. 313, Methodist Hymn Book).

The second verse ends: —

"The vilest offender who truly believes That moment from Jesus a pardon receives".

We Orthodox Christians can agree with that, especially as "right belief" is part of the definition of Orthodoxy.

We come now to the third point. Have you noticed what an important part women play in all these stories about Jesus raising people from the dead? Jesus raised the young man because he had compassion on the widow, his mother. The wife of Jairus joins her tears to those of her husband. Lazarus is Jesus' very dear friend, but he is especially moved by the grief of the sisters, Martha and Mary.

We find women are also very much involved in stories about God raising people from the dead that are found outside the Gospels. (Jesus raises people from the dead because he is God. It is important to remember that it is always God who raises people from the dead. If there is a saint or a prophet involved, he is only the channel). In the Acts of the Apostles God raises Dorcas from the dead at the request of St Peter, who is moved by the grief of the group of widows. In the Old Testament God raises a widow's son at the request of Elijah, who is moved by the mother's tears. At the request of Elishah, God raised from the dead the son of the Shumamite woman who had asked Elishah to help her.

These facts are important for us too. They remind us that women as well as men have a part to play in God's scheme for salvation. This is obviously true of the Theotokos, but it is true of all women. In one of the prayers at the Sixth Hour we ask the Mother of God to intercede with Jesus for us, "for the prayer of a Mother availeth much to the goodwill of the Lord.’ Indeed, yes. But, in their degree, the prayers of ALL mothers avail much. And how often has it been said of a young man that he has been saved from a dissolute life by the love of a good woman?

In spite of what some people say these days, there are only two forms of the Christian life. Either we are called to celibacy (a small minority are called to that), or we are called to be saved in pairs — a man and a women. If we are not called to the monastic life, then, unless circumstances force us to live celibate lives in the world, it is often God's wish that we should get married and raise families.

Husband and wife, with God's grace, contribute to each other's sanctification. They help each other to grow in holiness. So there is no place for male arrogance. St Paul has a great deal to say about arrogance in today's apostle reading. Rather than boast of his spiritual experiences St Paul attributes the visions and revelations he has had to someone else. (This is an example which many distinguished Orthodox spiritual fathers have followed in their writings ever since.)

Husbands and wives contribute to each other's spiritual growth. That is what is supposed to happen. In practice, in this fallen world, because men have usually enjoyed a more powerful social and economic status than women, there has always been a great deal of male arrogance. Men have sometimes behaved tyrannically and even violently towards women, and still do. But the divine call to men and women to help each other to grow in grace has always been clear and certain.

It extends beyond the home. Each of us has a ministry to spread the Christian message to those around us. Both men and women are called upon to demonstrate the Christian way of life. And besides pursuing our own ministry each is called to support that of others; especially the ministry of the person closest to us.

Peter Sizer
November 1999

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