Luke 7:1-17 recounts two stories: Jesus’ healing of the centurion’s slave (verses 1-10) and his raising of the widow’s only son at Nain (verses 11-17).
The Narrative Lectionary keeps them together, and in doing so, it provides a very instructive contrast.
They are similar in that both recount remarkable miracles performed by Jesus, but note the differences and contrasts that make these stories so interesting together.
There is a sense in which Jesus ‘one ups’ himself in the second story by going beyond healing someone “close to death” from a distance and proceeding actually to raise the dead. Yet the Nain story is also a significant step down.
As you look at the comparisons above, the first story, set in Capernaum, deals with people enjoying power and status both from the Roman realm and the Jewish hierarchy. We are fully engaged in the sphere of first century patronage with an authority figure dispatching representatives who broker the exchange of benefactions. How much is the life of a precious slave worth? About the cost of a synagogue and other demonstrations of love for the Jewish nation.
The scene in Nain is decidedly more rustic and lower class. There is a “large crowd,” but there are no dignitaries, no intermediaries, no prepared speeches. The contrast is clear, and, depending on your own social location, it is either surprising that Jesus is willing to help a Roman centurion or a nondescript Jewish widow. Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t bother with such distinctions.
We should not let ourselves be distracted by the social status of the characters in the story, however. No one is named. We never even ‘see’ the centurion or his slave in the narrative. The widow never says a word, and we never actually hear what the young man says. The focus really needs to stay on Jesus. The centurion has it right. He understands how to use the system to get things done. If he needs a providential healing, he solicits the help of the one who has the divine authority to make miracles happen. The crowds who witness the raising of the young man understand, though not fully, that Jesus is a “great prophet.” (Think of Elijah and Elisha who also restored children to life in 1 Kings 17:17-24 and 2 Kings 4:18-37.)
They do rightly recognize that God’s presence is being experienced in Jesus. The Greek verb episkeptomai translated as “looked favorably” is regularly used to indicate God’s saving presence. If we readers have not yet figured out who Jesus is, the matter is explicitly clarified in the following passage (7:17-23) where John the Baptist inquires if Jesus is “the one who is to come.” Among the indicators confirming Jesus’ identity is that he raises the dead.
In my list of comparisons above, however, I omitted one of the most critical contrasts. The centurion story really is told in such a way that Jesus’ final statement is the intended climax: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” I suspect that this saying is what most people remember from the story. I also suspect that it implicitly serves as an incentive for people to think that all they need to do for miracles to happen is just have a little more faith. That conclusion would be wrong. First, Jesus talks about the centurion’s faith, not his slave’s faith. More significantly, the widow of Nain and her son story certainly makes clear that faith is not the key issue, since the faith of neither is mentioned at all.
So what is the critical factor here? Again, it is Jesus’ identity, but the key is verse 13: “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.” Characterizing both God and Jesus as compassionate (splanchnizomai) is a repeated theme in the Gospels. (Mat 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22; Luke 7:13; 10:33; 15:20).
In Luke 7:1-17, the focus is not really on us and our faith. Nor is it a matter of us getting the titles right for Jesus. Rather, I think it’s important for us to experience again the love of God that is made known in Jesus. The most important word, then, that we hear Jesus speak is to the widow: “Do not weep.”
I am writing these reflections on the text on December 14, 2012, the day of the horrific killings at the elementary school in Newton, CT. I am painfully aware that saying, “Do not weep,” may sound woefully inadequate in all those times of sickness, loss, and death. What gives these words their authority, however, is that they are spoken by Jesus. He is the compassionate presence of God in our lives. He is the one who does actually heal the sick and raise the dead. He is the one who himself is killed for our sake but is raised from death to assure us that God’s love does indeed endure. That is the hope in which we live and die.