The scene that day is pretty chaotic. Two parades collide – a parade of life and a parade of death.[i] The parade of life includes Jesus and his disciples, high off the sermon on the plain and the healing of the Centurion’s slave, Jesus’ followers are full of hope and optimism. People are beginning to talk about who this Jesus might be and the enthusiasm is palpable. Meanwhile, another parade is underway – a widow has lost her only son. Widows were already at risk in that day due to their lack of financial stability and support from a husband. Having a child, especially a male child provided a slight assurance that all hope was not lost. Not only would the son be able to provide for his widowed mother, he is also the legal heir of his father’s inheritance. But when he too dies, not only does she mourn his loss, but her safety net is totally gone. She and the mourners with her wail their way to the cemetery.
Two groups full of noise and energy, but their energy could not be more different. Into this chaotic scene of wails and cheers, people struggling to carry the lifeless body of promise, and people struggling to lay claim on the messenger of hope something tremendous happens. The text says, “…the Lord saw her.” That simple phrase may not sound like much. The Lord saw her. But surrounded by a growing crowd of faithful, Jesus could have been distracted by the hype. On a long journey of travel, Jesus could have seen the coming commotion and steered another way. Or Jesus could have been in deep thought about the next phases of his own journey. But in the middle of the chaos, as if in a movie that screeches into slow motion, we see Jesus’ eyes lock on the grieving widow and mother. The noise of the surroundings disappears and all that is important in this moment is that Jesus sees her.
On Memorial Day, my family and I went out for lunch. We were managing our own little bubble of chaos: multiple orders; hungry, cranky children; and the looming, necessary nap time. As I stepped out of our bubble to throw away a pile of trash, I noticed a veteran sitting by himself at the table beside us. He was silently sitting with his meal, seemingly in moment of deep quiet. Seeing him almost made me stumble into halted motion. I wondered what his story was. I wondered if he was remembering those who had died by his side while he fought for our country. I wondered if he was one of the veterans who managed to have reentered after war relatively unscathed or whether he was struggling to get by. I wondered if Memorial Day meant something more to him than Memorial Day meant to me. But my seeing him and wondering about him was not the same as Jesus. You see, I was looking at him, but I was not seeing him – not with the same eyes as Jesus. I couldn’t even get up the nerve to talk to him that day.
That is what is so profound to me about this story in our gospel lesson today: Jesus’ ability to see the childless widow. We actually get two very similar stories about widows in our readings today. But despite the similarities, the contrasts are more informative about what is powerful about Jesus’ encounter.[ii] In the lesson from first Kings, the widow of Zarephath also loses her only son. Her son is also revived by Elijah, but the encounters with the widows have a lot of differences. First, the encounter between the widow and Elijah is passionate. The widow in that story accuses Elijah of being at fault for her son’s death. She is outraged and Elijah panics, pleading with God to save the boy and the family from whom he has taken so much. But the widow in our gospel lesson and Jesus have no such encounter. The gospel widow does not talk to Jesus and does not plead her case. She does not blame others around her – in fact, she does not speak at all in the story. Were it not for Jesus seeing her and stopping the procession, we can only presume this woman would have slipped into dangerous oblivion.
Next, in the Elijah story, Elijah knows the son who dies. The three have already bonded over the miracle of food. So Elijah is intimately familiar with how precarious the family’s situation is. But Jesus does not encounter the widow in his story until her son is already dead and being processed for burial. Jesus’ saving action then comes not from relationship, but from seeing the grave nature of the widow’s loss. No one introduces Jesus to the widow, no one whispers to Jesus that the grieving woman is a widow in addition to being a grieving mother – Jesus manages to see all of the complexity of this woman’s life in one glance.
The final contrast to the Elijah story is the healing itself. Elijah has to stretch himself over the boy three times and cry out to the Lord for help. His healing requires great effort and exertion. Meanwhile Jesus simply touches the funeral bier and commands the young man to arise. The immediate response of the boy sitting up and speaking demonstrates the extent of Jesus’ power. Healing comes not by a request from God but from Jesus himself. Jesus is not simply a prophet through whom God speaks – he is the long awaited one who is to come – the Messiah.[iii]
The differences between Elijah and Jesus teach us something about God. Jesus’ teaches us that God sees us – sees us when we are most vulnerable, without us ever having to speak or ask for help, and is actively compassionate toward us. Now that reality may leave us wondering today, “Well then why doesn’t Jesus see my suffering and offer me compassion? I wanted things to go differently for me and they did not.” That is why I find those words so powerful today. “Jesus saw her.” I do not think the story of the widow today is about how Jesus rescues us from our deepest pain and suffering. This story is about how Jesus sees us when we are suffering and invites us into a similar vision.
“While we wish for signs and wonders, for the parting of the seas, for the lightning bolt of a Damascus road conversion, we risk missing the miracle of the mundane, says Thomas Lynch. We miss seeing our friends and family who show up when we need them, ‘the ones who have known us all along.’ [Like those friends of the paralytic who lowered their paralyzed friend down to Jesus], or the widow who helped Elijah, these ordinary, obscure, and unsung people…, ‘do their parts to get us where we need to go, within earshot and arm’s reach of our healing, the earthbound, everyday miracle of forbearance and forgiveness, the help in dark times to light the way; the ones who show up when there is trouble to save us from our hobbled, heart-wrecked selves.’”[iv] Today’s lessons about healing are not meant to make us question why we cannot receive similar healing. Today’s lessons encourage us to see God in all the tiny miracles around us every day – the miracles that come in less dazzling forms.[v] To see as Jesus sees.
When we attempt to see with the eyes of Jesus, something shifts dramatically for us. What is so powerful about seeing as Jesus sees is that Jesus does not see without action. When Jesus sees he also acts. Once we have honed our better sense of vision, Jesus’ invitation to us is not just to see with the eyes of compassion, but to use those compassionate eyes for the service of God. I have already begun to see the ways in which Hickory Neck is a place where that kind of active vision is in place. You already see that the homeless man does not simply need food or money – you throw in a pair of socks because you know how hard life is without the decency of clean socks. You already see the indignity of prison and see how a homemade cookie, while seemingly trivial, provides that miraculous glimpse into the tender care of Christ. You already see how unexpected medical costs can push a struggling family over the edge and how free, compassionate, quality healthcare gives more dignity than we can imagine. That is our invitation today: to see the mundane miracles around us every day and to be reinvigorated to see as Jesus sees – with the eyes of compassion and insight that offer tangible, sometimes small acts of compassion to our brothers and sisters who struggle. My guess is that when we offer that compassion to others, we will see more clearly how we receive that same compassion from Christ every day in similarly small, mundane, and yet profound ways. Amen.
[i] Gregory Anderson Love, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 120
[ii] Steven J. Kraftchick, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 117, 119.
[iii] Kraftchick, 121.
[iv] Dan Clendenin, “The Miracle of the Mundane,” May 29, 2016, as found at http://journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay on June 2, 2016.
[v] M. Jan Holton, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 120.