Living and Dying Words
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 7:11-17
Perhaps you have heard about “young blood” transfusions? A company called Ambrosia has been selling plasma from donors ages 16 to 25, promoting its anti-aging benefits. Ambrosia founder, Jesse Karmazin, has touted impressive results from a clinical trial – although he hasn’t released those results. Karmazin claims that “young blood” can help older folks like me improve cholesterol, memory, even skin elasticity. One liter of “young blood” costs $8,000. Just this past week, Ambrosia suspended its practice of “young blood” transfusions after the FDA warned the public that such procedures have not been tested and may, in fact, pose health risks.[i] Nevertheless, even without FDA approval and at $8,000 a pop, it’s amazing how many people purchased the “treatment.”
We all want to live longer and healthier, don’t we? We’re not looking forward to our own demise. Hence that well-known comment that it’s tough getting old, but “it’s better than the alternative.”
My mom died from breast cancer 22 years ago and her illness stretched out over more than a year. During that year, I became keenly aware of the wide variety of opinions Christians hold with regard to sickness, healing and death. People's perspectives come through in the way that they pray for healing and talk about prayer. Some believe that people who are not healed are at fault; that they have been remiss in their faith. Some believe in praying in very detailed, specific ways: naming with precision, step by step, what they would have God do. Others are cautious about being overly detailed least they presume upon the will of the Almighty and impose upon the mystery of God.
In our gospels, we encounter many healing miracles. But it’s important to examine them in their gospel context and also with consideration of the culture in which Jesus’ ministry was carried out.
This morning's story from the gospel of Luke is about healing in the ultimate sense: it is about resurrection, or resuscitation. In this morning's story, Jesus goes beyond restoring sight to the blind; he goes beyond causing the lame to walk; he does the ultimate – he reverses the power of death and restores life. And he does so through his words, through his speech. Jesus’ words cast out death, so to speak. They are, in fact, wonderful words of life.
But, what we may not realize is that this story, in Jesus' culture, has as much if not more to do with the young man's mother than it does with the man himself. Our gospel writer in fact goes to great length to make this clear when he describes the situation. "He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow." In other words, he was all that she had. And by that I do not mean that he was all that she had with regards to emotional support and the kind of closeness and affection we experience with familial bonds. He was, truly, all that she had for she lived within a culture where women were without rights, without any status of their own. Women, without a male relative, were incredibly vulnerable. They needed a man to provide for their material needs – shelter, food, etc. But they also needed a man so that they would have a sense of identity, a sense of place, within their community. Middle Eastern culture was, and still is, based on reputation or honor. And reputation, or honor, comes from the public arena; from the way we interact with others in public. And in ancient Palestine, a woman could not enter the public arena; women couldn’t conduct public business or engage in public social interactions, so people could not form opinions about her. A woman, without a male relative, was really nothing, nothing at all. It was as if she didn't even exist anymore. The vulnerability of widows is so renowned in the ancient world that God, through Moses, emphasizes over and over again the need of the Israelites to care for widows, orphans and immigrants: the great trilogy of vulnerability. The Old Testament prophets, repeatedly, render God's indictment that the people have dealt with widows in dishonorable, exploitative ways, and that God simply cannot – will not – tolerate that kind of behavior.
And so Jesus is moved by compassion to restore this young man's life so that his mother – widowed and childless – will not be left in this terribly desperate, vulnerable situation. In fact, it is the woman that Jesus first addresses when he encourages her not to weep. Jesus cannot pass by and disregard her plight.
Another interesting component of this story is that Jesus intersects this burial party at the city gates. They are headed outside the city for the purpose of burial. But the important symbolism here is that the city gates were also the place where justice was dispensed. At the city gates, elders would gather and hear cases one member of the community would bring against another. Using the ancient Mosaic laws, they would render judgments that – if based upon the commands God had given – would offer protection for the most vulnerable among them: orphans, immigrants, and widows, of course. And so, here at the city gates, in this place associated with the dispensing of justice and the protection of the weak and vulnerable, Jesus intercepts this funeral procession to restore life not only to this man. But, even more importantly, to his mother who is as good as dead, herself, without him.
And so, this miracle from the seventh chapter of Luke, examined within its cultural context, can teach us this about healing: that healing is more than an individual matter. It is a matter for the community. And it is a source of restoration not only for the one healed, but for others, too. For Jesus does more than restore life to this man; he restores life to his mother as well.
Furthermore, this restoration of life that Jesus performs reveals Jesus as one who carries out the will and the work of God: to show compassion and to render justice and protection for the vulnerable. The actions of Jesus demonstrate the compassion and mercy of God.
Now, what follows the story of this man’s resuscitation – its gospel context – is the account of followers of John the Baptist coming to Jesus to inquire on behalf of John, their teacher. They come to ask, on John’s behalf, about who Jesus is. Is Jesus the one they’ve been waiting for; Israel’s long-awaited Messiah and Savior? But Jesus doesn’t answer their question directly. Rather, Jesus gives a summary report of what he’s been doing. He’s been healing people; causing the lame to walk; restoring sight to the blind; proclaiming good news to the poor; and, yes, even raising the dead. The things Jesus is doing provide evidence that he is the one who has come to make manifest the mercy and compassion of God, particularly toward those who are most vulnerable. Jesus’ answer to the inquiry by John’s disciples is, basically, “go tell John what I’ve been up to. Just let him know what I’ve been doing. That’s all you need to say and he’ll figure it out from there.”
As I mentioned last Sunday, the story Luke presents about Jesus comes in two parts. There is the gospel about Jesus and his earthly ministry. Then, part two is the Book of Acts. It is the story of how the ministry of Jesus continues through his disciples, the Church. Acts is the story of how, because of the Holy Spirit, we continue to be and do what Jesus was and did – the incarnated goodness and mercy of God; the “enfleshed” compassion of God offering care and protection for the most vulnerable. What Jesus once did, the Church has now been empowered to do… which includes restoring life.
Friends, we obviously live in a very different culture today. Women do not derive their identity from men and are not dependent on a man’s protection. In our culture, women can take responsibility for themselves. But there are still times when we – any of us – can experience vulnerability due to a variety of factors: illness, financial difficulty, addiction, mental illness, disability or homelessness. And, if we experience those things alone and isolated, we’re going to be in pretty big trouble. That’s where the Church comes in.
Are you aware that the number of single adults in America is growing? In 1960, 72% of adults were married, living with someone else. In 2017, 45% were married.[i] Now, I want to be sure I make clear that there is nothing wrong with being single. Furthermore, not everyone who is single is living alone. Some are living with a partner, a friend or a relative or have a family member living close by. But in our congregation – our close proximity to Purdue, having so many elderly members, and in a downtown urban location – we do have many people who live alone and don’t have a relative living close by. And that creates an inherent vulnerability if we don’t have anyone reaching out to us on a regular basis. So I think this morning’s scripture has enormous significance for our congregation. Just as that widow needed her son for physical, social, and economic support, we need one another. It’s so important for us to function as family to one another, spending time with one another, taking time to inquire how we’re really doing, providing one another with that physical, social, spiritual and even economic “safety net” so to speak. The ministry of Jesus made so clear that God wants us to be in community with God and with one another because community – our authentic relationships with God and one another – they really are the source of life and well-being and healing. We need one another. When we insert ourselves into the lives of one another – not in a bossy or suffocating way, but in a gracious, compassionate way – we insure the well-being of one another. Jesus doesn’t want us to be left alone, especially in times or on occasions of vulnerability.
So, I want to encourage you this week to deepen those connections you have with one another. We don’t want to smother one another. But there is vulnerability if we are isolated and left to fend for ourselves. Conversely, there is life and security and even healing through our experience of Christian community, through our relationships with God and one another. During times of vulnerability, may we be God’s life-restoring mercy and compassion to one another. Amen.
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