From the Margins: A Sad Mother
Last week we began a conversation about the lectionary Gospel passages these next few weeks, which are stories about Jesus and his ministry that give us front row seats at interactions he has with people on the margins of society.
As we heard last week in the story of the Roman centurion whose slave Jesus healed, marginalized are not necessarily people without position or even resources; they are, however, people who do not find themselves in the popular crowd…people who are excluded, apart, outside.
Jesus saw these people differently than the crowd saw them; rather than different or separate, individuals like these were included by Jesus as a matter of course. Last week a wealthy and powerful Roman soldier…this week a grief-stricken, destitute woman, both worthy in Jesus’ judgment, to be conversation partners with him, as he reaches across the margins, making the circle wider, pulling in people who never even expected to be welcomed.
Of course, this tendency of Jesus’ tells us something about him, doesn’t it? It begins to paint a tangible picture of the words Jesus was saying, filling in colors and textures as his radical message becomes more and more clear to those of us who are reading about it so many years after the fact.
But these stories of Jesus’ engagement with people on the margins also give us their perspectives. Rich or poor, powerful or insignificant, each of these whom Jesus engages is an outsider. And while it hurts to be outside, that kind of positioning gives a special perspective, a longer, larger view that’s not often possible from the inside of the crowd.
Jesus has a message for us when he reaches across margins and engages people on the outside. But those who are excluded have a perspective we want to be sure not to miss…because we can see more about the unfolding realm of God in the world when we can see Jesus from the margins. And so we find ourselves looking again, here in Luke, chapter 7.
I recently heard a compilation of interviews of celebrities talking about the first time they knew they were famous. Several spoke about getting a table at a packed-full restaurant with no reservation; some talked about a moment when they were walking down the street, same as they did every day, and suddenly noticed people staring and pointing at them. Billy Crystal said the moment he knew he was famous was once when he was traveling for work and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger happened to sit next to him on an airplane. Trying to contain his own awe upon recognizing Mr. Kissinger, Billy Crystal was floored when the secretary leaned over to him and said, “Mr. Crystal, you look mahhhhvelous!!”
I don’t know when exactly Jesus knew he was famous, but I imagine that it was sometime around the time of our Gospel passage for today. He’d grown up in Nazareth, learned to be a carpenter, then collected a strange group of disciples with whom he taught and ministered in the region. In the Gospel of Luke just before today’s passage Jesus had delivered the Sermon on the Mount, a sort of manifesto of everything he hoped to communicate.
And whether it was his compelling message or his striking blue eyes and flowing blond hair (as the paintings tell us), by the time he came into the town this passage calls Nain, he was quite a celebrity. Because if his message or his good looks weren’t drawing the crowds, news of the miraculous healing of the Centurion’s slave certainly was. We know this because the passage begins with Jesus setting off toward the town of Nain, a town not far from his hometown of Nazareth, followed by his disciples and a large crowd. (This is what happens when one becomes famous, I’m told.)
So try to imagine this: Jesus and his big crowd of disciples and groupies move en masse toward the town of Nain. Everyone is following along, largely (let’s be honest) because they are waiting to see what kind of miraculous magic trick Jesus was going to do next. As the crowd approached the town, it was met in a beautiful literary convergence, by ANOTHER crowd walking in the opposite direction—out of the town of Nain.
As was the custom back then, when someone died the town all showed up to participate in a public mourning as the body was prepared then carried for burial outside the city gates. Including family and friends, there were always professional mourners who wailed and cried, beat their chests and let anyone passing by know that this crowd was about the business of death—of leading a family to the final resting place of a member.
So here we have it, thanks to Luke, an intersection of realities outside the city of Nain. One crowd excited with possibility, craning their necks to get a glimpse of this young prophet whom everyone was talking about. He healed people; he fed them…he had some strange message about the Kingdom of God, it’s true…but he was the most exciting thing around. And, another crowd, whose reality was sorrow and death, the end of hope and possibility, grief. Here they converge, and it’s here that Jesus reaches across the margins to grasp the hand of one for whom nobody else gave any thought at all.
She was a widow, the text tells us, which means she lived a precarious existence anyway. With no husband to protect or provide for her, she was far more vulnerable than even the average woman. But the good thing was that this woman had a son, a son who was obligated to protect her and provide for her. As long as she had her son, she would be able to live. When we meet the funeral procession, though, we learn that it’s the son who has died.
So, grief of losing a child aside, there was a woman in this funeral crowd whose life was, essentially, over. She had no means of support; she had no protector. As her son had died, so, in a way had she. The crowd would cry now, but once the burial was over, she would just disappear…fade away.
It wasn’t fair, of course, but it was what it was, and while perhaps she seemed to be a nice lady, it was clear to everyone in both crowds that she belonged on the margins, excluded, irrelevant. Nobody had such terrible things happen in their life without having done something to deserve them, right?
But, to their shock and amazement, Jesus stops everything. Both crowds ground to a halt in the middle of the road when Jesus assessed the situation and came right up to the woman.
(As an aside here, I think this passage makes it very clear that Jesus never took a pastoral care class. If you do, you will learn early in the semester that there are some things you just shouldn’t say in a crisis situation, including but not limited to: “everything happens for a reason, at least he’s in a better place, God must need another angel, I know how you feel, etc. Included on this short list is exactly what Jesus said first: “Don’t cry!”)
But after Jesus tells her not to weep, he then gets to the business of raising her son from the dead. And he does—a dead, cold body, raised to life anew. But that’s not really the point, is it? The point is, rather, illustrated by a grieving, devastated woman, whose child was dead and whose life was essentially over, also raised to new life, possibility, hope, inclusion, invited IN from the outside.
Jesus reached out here, across the margins, to usher in hope where hope was absent. Here, right here, Jesus put his words about the Kingdom of God unfolding into real, dramatic expression. And he did it not for Las Vegas purposes of keeping the show fresh and his acclaim growing…no, he did it to show the people who were mesmerized by his miracles that God was up to something far bigger than the next great show.
Who knew? They couldn’t see it from where they stood…nobody could, except for maybe those who were looking on, from the margins.
This all makes me think of a story I learned growing up in the Hawaiian Islands.
This happened on April 1, 1946 on the Big Island of Hawaii. That morning in the little town of Lapahoehoe, four teachers at a small boarding school near the beach at Lapahoehoe Point noticed that the water on the beach had receded far more than usual during morning low tide.
Because of this unusual turn of events, they noticed a vast expanse of sand covered with all sorts of sea creatures their students often did not get to see up close—fish and crabs, unusual kinds of seaweed and coral—so they herded the children out of their classrooms that morning for a hands-on biology experience. The class, led by teachers who had come to the islands to help educate the local children, spent the morning wandering farther out on the beach than they’d ever gone before, wondering at all the sea life washing up and comparing what they were finding to what they’d read about in books.
The teachers could not believe their luck, that for whatever reason the ocean had receded and they could provide such an unusual educational experience for their students, and the whole class ran around the beach all morning finding all sorts of curious discoveries.
What those teachers did not know and could not see from where they stood, was that a few hours before in the very early morning, an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale had struck the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. Because of that earthquake, a huge tsunami—tidal wave—was making its way across the Pacific Ocean, toward the Lapahoehoe coast of the Big Island of Hawaii.
1946 was before an islands-wide tsunami warning system was put into place, so nobody knew there was a tidal wave coming until folks up higher, up in the mountains in the town of Hilo, saw something strange out in the ocean and knew the devastating wave was on its way. One resident of Hilo, up in the mountains and far off the beach, remembers: “When I looked up, I couldn’t believe my eyes because here was this huge, huge wave, like nothing that I’ve ever seen in my life. It was like a wall of water that was rising in the bay and it was just rolling in toward the [shore]…”.
Soon after, over just a 15 minute period of time, huge, huge waves—some over 50 feet high—rushed into shore killing 159 people, including 23 students and four teachers, all of whom were busy looking closely at the fascinating sea life on the beach.
And what about all of those with front row seats to the unfolding of God’s Kingdom in the world? Could they see it? The crowd was universally glad they’d followed the new celebrity over to Nain that day; now they could say that they had been there when Jesus raised that man from the dead. And they were really excited now, anxious to see what he’d do next.
With just a cursory read of this story, we might be too,. If we follow Jesus, lots of miracles will happen in our lives, right? That’s what this text (and a lot of preachers) tells us!
Or does it? Faith as an avoidance technique for human suffering is short-sighted and painful. Why? Because we’re buying into celebrity, engaging in magical thinking, missing the point when we read stories like these and interpret them to mean our faith is an easy get out of jail free card. When we read it this way, “we consign Jesus to the world of fantasy and irrelevance.”
No, they couldn’t see it, the larger picture of what God was doing in the world. They couldn’t see the fundamental shifts and world-altering message Jesus came to show us.
But do you think she could see it? From the margins?
Maybe so. Maybe she could. The widow knew as she trudged out of the city that day following her son’s body to burial, that her life was essentially over. She knew that from that point on she would be excluded, marginalized, irrelevant.
But when Jesus reached across the margins, he illustrated a totally new way to live life overall: including, extending welcome, healing, responding, making broken things whole. It was the radical claim of Jesus that God is here, right here, in the middle of God’s people. And if only they could see the full picture, they would know that God’s kingdom coming to be in and around us will break down barriers and scrub away margins and invite you and you and me and you across the lines that divide us and into full relationship with God and with each other.
You and me, we’re all about moving in from the margins, following the crowd, focusing on the next exciting thing. But when we’re standing on the margins we have a wider view, a perspective of God’s work in the world that maybe we couldn’t have seen from anywhere else. Because Jesus knew—and the sad mother in today’s story knew too, that God’s radical kingdom is unfolding all around us…if only we’ll look and see. Amen.