St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
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Weekly Bible Study
Preparing for Sunday, June 9 | The Third Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 5, Year C)
Please note: This is the last Bible study guide until the Fall Covenant Period begins in September.
Soon after healing the centurion’s slave, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Background and general observations
After healing the centurion’s slave, Jesus travels on and happens to encounter a funeral procession just outside the gates of a town called Nain. Here, Jesus’ encounter with a widow who has just lost her son would recall for many the story of Elijah’s encounter with the widow of Zarephath who had also lost her son. (1 Kings 17)
In the Old Testament story from First Kings, Elijah stretches himself out over the dead boy three times, as he prays to God, and the boy is restored to life. Jesus, on the other hand, only touches the bier and commands the widow of Nain’s son to rise. But it is hard not to notice the virtually identical wording in the two stories: “Elijah took the child…and gave him to his mother” (I Kings 17:23), and “Jesus gave him to his mother.” (7:15) One effect of this parallel is to firmly establish Jesus as “a great prophet who has arisen among us” in the tradition of Elijah.
There is also an interesting contrast between this story about the raising of the widow of Nain’s son and the story just before this about Jesus healing the centurion’s slave. In this case, Jesus just happens upon the funeral procession, and there is no indication that anyone asked him to do anything. He was simply moved by the sight of this bereaved widow and her dead son. In the story of the centurion’s slave, on the other hand, we see a person in need (the centurion) pleading for Jesus to help. Perhaps we are drawn to ponder how God’s compassion might be active in response to our prayers, as well as apart from our prayers.
Finally, in the verses immediately following this passage, John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (7:19) Jesus has been healing all sorts of people and has even raised a person from the dead, and Jesus tells John’s messengers to go and tell John what they have seen and heard. The chapter concludes with the story of the supper party that Simon the Pharisee gave for Jesus – a woman in the city, a sinner, bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. Then, she starts kissing Jesus’ feet and anointing them with oil. There is grumbling about this, and Jesus uses the occasion to point out that those who are forgiven much, love much. And those who are forgiven little, love little. Then he tells this sinful woman that her sins are forgiven and she may go in peace; her faith has saved her. But only God can forgive sins, everybody knows that. What is going on here?
It is interesting to note that Jesus reaches out to social outcasts in a way that risks making himself an outcast in the process. Touching a dead body would have made him ritually unclean. And Simon the Pharisee is clearly dismayed that Jesus would allow such a sinful woman to touch him.
This chapter shows Jesus having compassion on all manner of outsiders – a gentile centurion, a slave, a widow and her deceased son, and a woman of the city whose reputation as a sinner is apparently well known. Jesus is doing amazing things that elicit awe and fear. Something extraordinary is happening among them, everyone knows it, but the fact that it is happening on the margins and among unlikely people, unsavory people, and even people who would “contaminate” or make someone unclean is unsettling. Is this really the way God works?
1. When have you had a sense of God’s healing and compassion seeming to be activated in your life, or in the world around you, in response to earnest prayers and pleading (as in the story of the centurion’s slave)?
And when have you had a sense of God’s healing and compassion at work, or being activated, quite apart from your prayers or pleading, as if God showed up on God’s own (as in the story of the widow of Nain)?
2. This story is a story, first of all, about terrible loss. A widow in Jesus’ day was particularly vulnerable, since her husband would have represented her sense of security and livelihood. In this case, we encounter a widow who has not only lost her husband, but her son, as well. Perhaps she had some hope of being cared for by her son, after her husband’s death, but now even that hope is taken away. And beyond the issue of personal security, there is the even more painful emotional devastation that comes from losing a child. Not only is this widow now dependent on the charity of others in order to live, she is also dealing with the most devastating emotional trauma a mother can experience.
Take a moment to ponder loss in your own life. What do you know about waiting for God’s compassion? What do you know about God tending to you in your grief?
Ponder, also, someone you know who is experiencing great loss. How might God want to use you to tend to this person in his or her grief?
3. “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.”
It seems from this story that Jesus is more concerned about the woman who is grieving than he is about the young man who has died.
How do you demonstrate your compassion for people who are bereaved?
A large crowd was with the grieving widow in this story. How does our society today tend to the elderly, the helpless, and the grieving?
4. “Jesus gave him to his mother.”
A recent news story has been circulating about a soldier in World War II who was killed in the Central Pacific. Before he was deployed, his sweetheart had given him a diary, and he wrote beautifully in this diary about his love for her. In this diary, he requested that, if anything should happen to him, the diary be returned to Laura Mae, the girl he loved. A sniper killed the 22-year-old, and the diary was lost.
Then, just this year (70 years later), Laura Mae, now 90 years old, was stunned to see this very diary open in a display case in the National World War II Museum, where she was able to read her beloved’s words of devotion to her. The whole experience was like a tearful reunion for her.
What is your experience of God “giving us to each other”?
Have you ever had a sense that God was giving someone to you, or giving someone back to you?
5. What do you know about God giving your own life back to you, after it seemed as if your life had slipped away from you?
Along those lines, read the following poem and see if it conjures anything in you:
“Love After Love,” by Derek Walcott
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
6. “Fear seized all of them.”
“…and they glorified God…”
Ponder the crowd’s reaction to Jesus’ miracle, to the sense they have of being in the presence of a great prophet or holy man of God. What do you know about having a sense of awe and wonder that borders on fear?
Some suggest that Christians today are so focused on God as one who gently comforts that we are less attuned to God as one whose power overwhelms.
Do you have a sense that we have perhaps overly domesticated Jesus or God, that we have become overly familiar or comfortable with God as a manageable entity or force?
In this passage, we see Jesus as one who is both tenderly compassionate and all-powerful. Jesus incites both fear and praise among the people in the crowd. Does this depiction open you to new ways of perceiving God among us?
7. How would you describe your sense of hope or expectation about God working miraculously in your life?
When the crowd experiences this miracle, they “glorified God,” and “word about him spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.”
How do you respond to the miraculous in your life?
Study guides for the Spring Covenant Period
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