Luke's gospel is like a treasure chest of passages: one great episode after another, each intrinsically interesting and each a carefully placed part of Luke's greater narrative.
On this second Sunday after Pentecost, the lectionary moves us into the second of a distinct pair of carefully positioned stories. Let me explain.
In the American political system, the time between the election of a president in November and the president's inauguration in January is very busy. There are intensive briefings, the choosing of a cabinet, and finding the right words to convey a vision for the next four years. Staging the delivery of that vision happens on inauguration day with visual powers, music, poetry, prayer, promise, and the inaugural address. By the end of Luke's lengthy chapter six, Jesus has "chosen his cabinet," and staged and delivered his inaugural address. Or better, he has shown and described the inauguration of God's reign.
The end of the Sermon on the Plain marks the beginning of an intensely public ministry in which that reign becomes visible. In Luke 7:1-11 and again in 11-17, Jesus harks back to his hometown sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4:18-27) in which he challenged his initially approving family and friends with a reminder that God works good among those who are not faithful to God, even to those who oppress God's people. He mentions the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian general whose lives were saved by God through the prophets Elijah and Elisha. As Jesus tells the story, both Elijah and Elisha served these non-Jews in part because they were "prophets not accepted in their own land." More importantly, such care for non-Jews is a powerful (and in Nazareth radically unappreciated) illustration of God's love for all God's creatures.
In Luke 7, we return to themes of how God's prophets, those bearing God's active word into the world, reach out to heal and save. (Note that the Greek word sozo is translated into English as either "heal" or "save." There is no distinction made in the Greek.) Jesus goes to Capernaum, a town in which there was some Roman presence. There he heals the slave of a foreign military man (comparable to Naaman). In our passage, he will raise from death the only son of a widowed mother, her sole support (comparable to the widow of Zarephath).
When he accomplishes these two miracles, Jesus establishes his credibility, his continuity, and his identity.
I have gotten ahead of myself with the points listed above. The credibility, continuity, and identity of Jesus are recognized only after the raising of the widow's son. Let us look at the particular story in Luke 7:11-17. The story is unique to Luke.
First, it is worth noting that Jesus goes to Nain in the company of his disciples (not referring only to the twelve) and a great crowd. Luke provides many witnesses, including a large number of persons who have seen the miracle at Capernaum and will see the miracle in Nain.
Next, we see that a rather large crowd also follows the son's bier from the city, so there are local people who will witness this event.
It is made very clear that this woman will now have no means of economic support: both her husband and her only son are dead. The woman is bereft not only of a son, but of any means to sustain her own life. Compare here the words and grief of this widow's prototype in I Kings 17:17-24.
When the two groups meet at the city gate, we hear that "The Lord" is moved with compassion. This is the first time that Luke has used the word "Lord" in relation to Jesus. He is at his most "lordly" as one who shows mercy. This is a very powerful message indeed. Compassion is firmly connected with mercy in the Septuagint version of Proverbs 17:5. Compassion describes the reaction of the Samaritan in Luke 10:33 and the father in 15:20. Both of these parables are unique to Luke, suggesting the high importance of compassion and mercy as qualities of the Lord and of his disciples.
Jesus raises the son from the dead. This event is not seen as a singular occurrence, but is a sign that God is "among his people" in Jesus, highlighted by Jesus in Luke 7:22.
In preparing a sermon on this story, much will depend on the way that the earlier story (Luke 7:1-10) was handled. What connections can the preacher make to show that this is a deliberate pairing of stories that help us to see the truth of the crowd's acclamation: Jesus is indeed a great prophet; he is in continuity with the prophets of old in bringing God's great gifts and mercy to surprising (and surprised!) recipients; the Lord is truly among his people.
Yet, this story deserves its own care, especially as we move into the season in which God's people considers our discipleship. We might, for instance, consider why the Lord is moved to compassion in this story. The reality of widows in the ancient world is life-threatening at worst, miserable most of the time. A concern for assisting widows throughout the Bible stems from their dire need. One might ask questions about dire need and compassion for present disciples.
What actions, what relief, might lead folks to recognize that God is visiting God's people? In this story, unlike the preceding one, the woman is a small-town resident, powerless, and without an advocate. Yet, Jesus "sees" her. Many stories in Luke's gospel, including the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the Good Samaritan, and even Zacchaeus, turn on the ability and willingness of the Lord (and his disciples) to "see" those who are often invisible. "Seeing" people into our own reality and enacting the mercy that stems from such sight is surely part of the call of those who call Jesus Lord (Luke 6:46-49).
Notice that this story does not turn on the presence or absence of faith. Save that theme for another day. Jesus sees, is moved to compassion and acts, not allowing even death to stop him. How does such a Lord lead us, members of the great crowds and/or the group of disciples?