Jesus and the widow of Nain
June 5, 2016
TENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
1 Kgs 17:17-24
Elijah and the Widow of Sidon
Ps 30:2, 4-6, 11-13
You have rescued me
Gal 1:11-14a, 15ac, 16a, 17, 19
Paul speaks of his call
Jesus and the Widow of Nain
Now that the special seasons are over, we return to the Ordinary Time of the church year. We are in the year of Luke, and rejoin the gospel in the seventh chapter.
Luke’s account of the widow of Nain, a village in Galilee, is intended to evoke the story of Elijah at the house of the widow of Sidon. Just in case we miss the reference, the liturgy has chosen that story for the first reading. You will recall that Luke begins his story of the ministry of Jesus with the episode in the synagogue of Nazareth. At that time he told the villagers that he would be like Elijah, who went to the widow of Sidon, and also like Elisha, who was sent to Naaman the Syrian. Now we see some of that happening.
Lying behind each of these stories in I Kings and Luke is the biblical theme of the Cry of the Poor. It is written into the “constitution” of Israel—the law code of Exodus. In Exodus 22:20-26 (New American Bible translation), it is set out in two parallel passages. “Do not molest,” it says, “the stranger in the land, the widow and the orphan. If they cry out to me I will hear them.” And then, it says your own children will be orphans, for I am a God of wrath (Ex 22:20-23).
This harsh edict is followed by another. If you lend money to your poor neighbor, do not charge exorbitant interest. Do not take advantage of their vulnerability, in other words. “If he cries out to me, I will hear him, for I am compassionate” (Ex 22:24-26). Now we hear about compassion rather than wrath. For the compassion is for the vulnerable, and the wrath for those who would take advantage of it.
This basic law is repeated throughout the bible, with the widow and the orphan presented as the poster children of the theme. The prophets repeatedly sound the warning, with the implication that failing in this directive, Israel would be failing in their commitment to the covenant with God (Isa 1:17, 23; Jer 7:5-7; etc.).
One of the finest expressions of the theme is found in the book of Ruth. Ruth and Naomi are both widows, both strangers in the land, and both are very poor. Boaz shows up, the very model of the upright and true Israelite, exhibiting all the traits that the law proposes. With his help, the women, supporting each other, win the day. Naomi retrieves her lost heritage; Ruth, the Moabite, becomes a great-grandparent of King David.
These elements give meaning to the readings for today, as well. Elijah goes beyond the borders of Israel, to Sidon. She is an alien to the Israelites. She is also desperately poor, and the mother of a son who is dying. So with the gospel story: a widow with a dead son, and few resources. When Jesus raises the son to life, we are to see here in brief the meaning of his mission. The vulnerable are given a new lease on life, because God favors them, and has instructed his people to care for them.
Insofar as this attention to the vulnerable is the message of Scripture, we can make our own applications. We can begin to understand why Pope Francis is concerned about today’s many refugees, clearly strangers in the land. We can begin to understand his attention to the poor, and their special place in the gospel. All of this is frequently listed in the Bible under the simple heading of “the widow and the orphan.”
For reflection: God is compassionate in the Old Testament as in the New. Why should we think otherwise?
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.