The prophet Elijah “went to Zarephath of Sidon to the house of a widow.” While Elijah was at the widow’s home, her son died. Already bereft of a husband, which itself often led women into poverty in the ancient world, she has now lost her son, the remaining source of her emotional and economic sustenance. She turns on Elijah, “Why have you done this to me, O man of God? Have you come to me to call attention to my guilt and to kill my son?” Elijah does not defend himself or declare his innocence, but responds directly to the pain and loss underlying her accusation. He responds, that is, with compassion.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Elijah aligns himself with the widow as he cries out to God, “O Lord, my God, will you afflict even the widow with whom I am staying by killing her son?” He continues to pray, “O Lord, my God, let the life breath return to the body of this child.” God hears Elijah’s prayer, and life returns to the boy. When Elijah returned the child alive to his widowed mother, she said to him, “Now indeed I know that you are a man of God. The word of the Lord comes truly from your mouth.”
This act of mercy and compassion, returning a child to his mother, becomes a model for Jesus in his own teaching and healing. Jesus referred to this scene when he spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4). The needs of the suffering outsider were a model for Jesus’ own ministry, and not just in speech and archetype. In today’s Gospel Jesus comes across a situation very similar in character to that which Elijah faced.
In the town of Nain, Jesus wit nessed a funeral procession, with a widow mourning her only son. Jesus is moved with compassion by her suffering, a compassion expressed with the Greek verb splanchnizomai. The verb evokes Jesus’ emotional response by expressing the kind of deep physical experience that often accompanies empathy. He is moved “in his bowels,” thought then to be the location of the emotions of pity and love. He instructs her, “Do not cry!” This command becomes Jesus’ word that he will bring relief to the bereaved widow. Jesus goes directly to the coffin and, touching it, speaks: “Young man, I tell you, arise!” When the young man sat up, “Jesus gave him to his mother.”
Just as the widow at Zarephath recognized God at work through Elijah, the people who witnessed Jesus’ action declare that “God has visited his people.” God’s power at work in Jesus’ action also points beyond itself and foreshadows another mother and only son, who in his death would leave her bereft but in his return would increase the joy not only of her but of all his followers, no longer bearers in a mournful funeral procession but brought to new life. But as with Elijah’s act, what Jesus performs is also concrete help for those who are weak and vulnerable. Jesus’ action at this level is not so much the fulfillment of a Messianic type, but a copy of how God has always acted on behalf of those most in need. God brings unexpected life to the sons of widows because God is for the least among us.
It is certainly the case, though, that unlike Elijah and Jesus, we do not bring to life the dead sons of mourning widows. Still, these stories point us to the type of person Christians are called to be.
Like Jesus, we are all capable of performing acts of mercy and compassion for those in need. Our culture might hold up as ideals power, control and strength, especially for men, but at the heart of Jesus’ strength is compassion for weakness, mercy for the helpless. The person who acts against the victimization of women, the proliferation of pornography, the scourge of human trafficking and slavery is acting like Elijah and Jesus with compassion and mercy. Those women and children released from poverty and sufferings share in some part the resurrection of Jesus in the world. This is a model for us, the type of people Jesus calls us to be for those in need.