Tickling the Feet of the Dead

For Americans, Inauguration Day is not too far away. In the late fall, Americans elect a new President. The new President will spend the time between Election Day and Inauguration Day selecting a cabinet. She or he prepares to tell us what the government will be like for the next four years, and then address us with her or his new ideas from the inaugural platform at the Capital.

Sermon on the Mount-Carl Bloch

Semon on the Mount by Carl Bloch

In the Lucan Gospel accounts, Jesus did the same thing. After his baptism, he selects his twelve disciples. He then begins to teach them about the kingdom of God, and in his discourse, (sometimes called the “Sermon on the Plain”[1], or the “Sermon on the Mount”[2]), and he lays out the principles of God’s reign—his inaugural address. As we read through the stories of Luke, we will know of the kingdom of God being inaugurated by compassion. Further, as he continues his work in treating compassionately with both the powerful and the powerless, he demonstrates the nature of the reign of God; the compassion as revealed in the story of the Widow at Nain[3] exposes the depth of Jesus; compassion.

Recently a report has surfaced of a graves registration specialist in Vietnam who had the habit of opening every body bag to assure that the person in the bag was, in fact, dead.[4] In this story, there was a reunion between the graves registration man and one of the people he rescued from the grave. The story made me think of the miracle of the resurrection of the widow’s son at Nain.

The graves registration man, unlike Jesus, did one remarkable thing. He ran a light nylon wire along the bottom of the bodies in the bag. He knew if there was any life at all in the hapless soldiers lying dead in the bags, sensation in the feet would set off a reaction. As the boy is going to his grave Jesus, however, needs only to stand by the widow’s son and touch the bier.

Happily, Jesus came along at the right time. Had he not been there, just minutes later the widow’s son would have been laid in the grave. The widow’s life devastated by the loss of her son would be worse with no one to care for her. As the widow looks forward to her life, she is devastated; she has no husband; she has no son—no one—to care for her. Often, I suppose, we think of these stories of miracles are placed in the Gospels to assure us that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah, the Son of God. More likely, I believe, the stories, especially this one, are tales passed down to us to demonstrate Jesus’ compassion for all humanity.

As he approached the scene, he became aware of the widow and the plight she faced. In the spirit of compassion, he went to be with her and to assure the widow, despite the reality of the moment, that she had a life to live. Jesus touches the bier, not the widow’s son, and the boy comes to life. Indeed, this story can be told like the story of the graves registration specialist in Vietnam. But think about that story. It too is a story of a miracle. Had the graves registration man not been compassionate and carrying for the dead brought to him, the soldier he rescued from the grave would not have lived—more than likely he would have buried alive.

It is worthwhile to recall; to get a clearer view of what Jesus is doing in this selection from the Gospel according to Luke, what Luke has reported about Jesus to this point and how he will reinforce the nature of Jesus ministry as the stories progress.

Previously, Jesus is accredited to healing the Roman Centurion’s valued and beloved slave.[5] But, even before that, Jesus, in a sermon in Nazareth[6] deals with the complaint that he does not do great works in his hometown. Jesus reminds his family and friends that through compassion, Elijah and Elisha invoking God healed the widow at Zarephath[7] and the Syrian general Naaman[8]; both foreigners, one even an enemy of Israel. Compassion is the nature of these stories. Compassion is taken out of the tribe, out of the nationality, out of the religious community and expressed as being for those who otherwise would not experience compassion.

Resurrection of the Widow's Son at Nain

The resurrection of the Widow’s Son From Nain – Altar Panel by Luca Cranach the Younger – c.1569 – Stadtkirche, Wittenberg.

Let me take you back to our story. First, it is worth noting that Jesus goes to Nain in the company of his disciples (not referring only to the twelve) and a great crowd. Luke provides many witnesses, including a large number of persons who have seen the miracle at Capernaum and will see the miracle in Nain. Next, we see that a rather large crowd also follows the son’s bier from the city, local people, who will witness this event. We know that this woman has no means of economic support: both her husband and her only son are dead. The woman is bereft not only of a son but of any ways to sustain her life.[9] The widow of Nain is the Gospel’s widow at Zarephath. The disciples and the crowd following the widow’s son to his grave are in the story to provide the credibility of witnesses.

However, the credibility of witnesses is not the story. When the two groups meet at the city gate, we read, “The Lord” moved with compassion approaches the funeral procession. For the first time, Luke has used the word “Lord” about Jesus. He is at his most “lordly” as one who shows mercy–a very powerful message indeed.[10] Compassion and kindness are the first life qualities of the followers of Jesus. Compassion and mercy are ultimate qualities of God the father.

In reading the Gospel according to Luke, we find that the underlying message is that God is “among his people” in Jesus. He demonstrates compassion to the powerful and the powerless. Later he shows compassion to the invisible—the destitute, fearful, the discriminated, and the lonely.

What will be the messages we hear in the next five months. Will we hear words of compassion, messages of mercy? Will there be a graves registration man ready to tickle the feet of a country that has turned against itself unto death?

In the long run, it does not truly matter if we hear a compassionate or merciful speech from candidates for office. Truly, all that matters is this: will the world hear a compassionate and merciful speech from us? More importantly, will the world witness from us, disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, compassionate and merciful behavior. Will we be the ones who raise the hopes and spirits of the destitute, the fearful, the discriminated, and the lonely?


[1] Luke 6:17-49.

[2] Matthew, chapters 5, 6, and 7.

[3] Luke 7:11-17.

[4] I regret I cannot remember the source of this story, nor can I attest to its validity. However, it is the point of the story that matters to me.

[5] Luke 7:1-10.

[6] Luke 4:24-26.

[7] I Kings 17:17-24.

[8] 2 Kings 5:1-19.

[9] Sarah Henrich, http://www.workingpreacher.org.

[10] Ibid.

Art provided by Wikipedia in the public domain.

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