The account of Jesus raising from the dead the only son of a mother, a widow, recalls a similar story of the prophet Elijah healing the only son of a mother, a widow, in the First Book of Kings. The fact that the women are widowed is an important piece of information for understanding their situations, especially since they are without any children. A widow in antiquity could suffer terrible economic hardship if she did not have an extended family network or personal resources; for those without economic resources or male family members, a life of poverty could be expected. The mercy of God in these stories includes alleviating dire poverty and social marginalization, but we should not reduce mercy merely to economic suffering; God’s mercy reaches out to heal the ravages of broken hearts and human suffering.
We see this mercy in Jesus’ response to the funeral procession in which the widow’s son is being carried out in the midst of a large crowd from Nain. While both the New American Bible and the New Revised Standard Version describe him as a “man,” that word is not present in the Greek text. Jesus will call him a neaniskos later in the text, which can refer to a teenager or “young man”; that no wife is present indicates his youthfulness, since at this time Jewish males were usually married around age 18. Apart from the loss of her son’s life, the widowed mother faces a future without grandchildren and being cared for by her family. Since the boy who dies in the Elijah narrative is also unmarried, he, too, is most likely a child; and his mother faces the same losses in the present and for the future as the widow of Nain.
This is the real, human loss, for even if these widows were women of means, they have lost their families. It is not money they mourn but the love of their children and all the joys that come with family life. This sorrow is what Jesus sees when he gazes upon this scene, for “when the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” The verb used here refers literally to being moved in one’s bowels, like saying today that one’s heart was moved. Jesus is filled with compassion and pity for her because of her great loss.
Jesus heals her great loss, demonstrating God’s mercy when he speaks the words, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” and the boy is alive. When Elijah’s voice is heard by God, the widow of Zarephath’s son arises. Elijah brings the child down to his mother and says, “See, your son is alive.” Both of these cases indicate that mercy is at the heart of God’s dealings with humanity, especially with those who have the greatest human need. It ought to be at the heart of our dealings with humanity as well.
So what do these stories indicate for us? In both of these accounts God reaches into the lives of these women and their sons to demonstrate that God is the God of the living, not the dead, and to point to life eternal. God’s gift of life to these only sons is a sign of God’s abundant and surpassing mercy to come, of the gift of eternal life that we cannot offer ourselves, no matter how much we wish it.
Yet it is also a sign of what we can do for those who are in emotional, spiritual, psychological and physical need. All of us at one time or another face loss, stress, crisis and distress, even if we are not alone or are not suffering poverty.When we recognize our own need for compassion and how friends, family, neighbors and strangers have cared for us in those times, the actions of Elijah and Jesus point us to do what we can do. We can care and comfort people in distress, offering mercy and helping them find the aid they need. God’s actions in these miraculous events is intended to demonstrate God’s mercy in concrete instances, the same mercy and compassion that God has for each of us. So, too, we are called to show mercy to all in need.