One Prophet to Another (Luke 7:11-23)

Continuing our series in Luke chapter 7, the next story is another healing one:

7:11-12 Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her.

A tragic scene. Made more tragic not simply by the loss of her son, but the fact that he was her only son, and her husband had also died. In the absence of a social security system, without a man around this woman had no means of support. Jesus is touched.

7:13-14a When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”
Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on,

Supplies for the wake? No. Bier. Different word. “A movable frame on which a coffin or a corpse is placed before burial or cremation or on which they are carried to the grave.”

7:14b-15 and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.

Pretty impressive, no? And rings some kind of bell, doesn’t it? Well it does if you’re a Jew who knew your Scriptures. Let’s flash back to 1 Kings:

1 Kings 17:17-24 Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing. She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” “Give me your son,” Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. Then he cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived. Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, “Look, your son is alive!” Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.”

Thought it sounded familiar. A prophet with the power to raise the dead. And he doesn’t have to lie on the poor corpse three times (or twice, as in the case of Elisha in 2 Kings 4:32-37).  He just touches the bed he’s on. Impressive. So what’s the appropriate response? In the case of Elijah, the woman says, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.”

Faith. Belief. Trust. Just like the centurion in yesterday’s story. So how do Jesus’ contemporaries respond to his little resurrection miracle?

7:16-17 They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.

Jesus does something almost deliberately like the Old Testament prophets. Luke certainly wants us to get the similarities. And the people have the same reaction. They acknowledge Jesus as a prophet sent from God. More than that, “God has come to help his people.” That is, the long-awaited kingdom of God looks like it’s arriving.

So far so good. Until we get a bit of a dumb question from someone you think should know better.

7:18-20 John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’”

In context, this seems like a pretty dumb question. He’s just performed a remote healing and raised someone to life, following in the footsteps of the great prophets of Israel. Surely, of all people, a fellow prophet would recognise Jesus? And would see that what Jesus is doing is fulfilling the signs of the kingdom promised in Isaiah?

But maybe it’s not quite as dumb as it looks. Because of the Isaiah bit. A little while back in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus claimed to be the fulfilment of this prophecy from Isaiah 61:

Luke 4:16-21 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Since that time, Jesus has started to deliver on that. Particularly by proclaiming good news to the poor, and the odd spot of healing and sight-restoration . We see Luke make this clear in verse 21:

7:21 At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind.

But you’ll notice that it also mentions freedom for the prisoners. Cool, thinks John. Any day now I should be released… And he waits, and he waits… But nothing. What’s gone wrong? If I’m still in prison, is the kingdom really coming? Is Jesus the one?

But Jesus tells him to keep his head on. For now.

7:22-23 So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

Yes, I’m the one, says Jesus. The signs are all there. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. But implicitly: that doesn’t mean that the kingdom is coming in all its fulness right now. You’re still in prison. You may not live to see the kingdom fully arrive. But don’t doubt its arrival just because of your particular circumstances.

To think about

Do we sometimes ask that seemingly dumb question? If, right now, we don’t seem to be experiencing the fullness of the kingdom in our particular situation, we start to doubt. Was Jesus really the one? Did the kingdom really come? Is this all going to work out for me?

To this, I think Jesus would say: trust me. The signs are all there. (Including my own resurrection, something John didn’t have.) But as it was with John, although I brought in the kingdom, it’s not here in all its fullness. That still lies in the future. So while some of the sick are healed and some of the blind can see and some of the oppressed go free… the plan hasn’t yet been completed. Not everyone has been healed and freed. Not by a long shot. Even the dead son I raised in that previous story still eventually died. And so you – and everyone else – are still longing for it to be fulfilled, and I get that.  Keep your head on. Because no matter what happens, remember that I’m the one who also raises the dead. So whether now, or in the age to come, you will experience the kingdom blessings in all their glorious fullness.

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