Commentary on the Readings
10th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
“Honorable age does not depend on length of days, nor is the number of years true measure of life. The upright was pleasing to God, who loved him, and since he was living among sinners, he was taken up. Though his life soon ended, he traveled far. Because his soul was precious to the Lord, he was quickly removed from the wickedness around him” (Wis 4:8-14). This is the page, taken from the Book of Wisdom, which is read at the funeral of a young man. We find similar words even among pagans who felt loved by the gods who died young. They do not comfort or soothe the pain of a mother who lost her son.
In the Bible the stories of resurrection always concern young people. We have two examples in today’s readings. How does God feel in front of a life cut short “in the noontime of his days” (Is 38:10)? Jesus shows his feelings: he is moved. He does not speak words of consolation, nor invites the mother to be resigned; he gives back her son alive.
When God “visits his people” (Lk 7:16) he always marks the triumph of life, because he is “the Lord, lover of life” (Wis 11:26). But his victory would be very fragile if this is reduced to the resuscitation of a corpse. Several years after death would return to recover its prey.
God returns every child to the mother and restores him with a new life, a life no longer subject to death. The son is not carried away to distant shores—as the pagans and the author of the Book of Wisdom thought—but is placed always near. He leaves us no longer, not even for a moment, and the faith in the risen Jesus makes us see him.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“You have changed my mourning into dancing, Lord, I will praise you forever.”
One day the prophet Elijah departs from his country and goes to Zarephath, near Sidon. There he is graciously greeted by a widow who offers him hospitality in his house. A few days pass and now the woman’s son falls seriously ill and dies.
A distressing question haunts the woman, the same question that even today many people ask when they are struck by misfortune: What have I done wrong? Why has God punished me in this way?
She reflects, wonders, questions herself and concludes that the fault lies in the sins she has committed in her youth. Turning to the prophet, she says: It is your presence in my house that caused the death of my son; it is your holiness that made God remember my faults (v. 18).
This very kind and generous widow is afflicted for two reasons: because she lost her son and feels responsible for his death. Elijah does not answer her. He takes the baby from her lap, carries him to the upper room, calls on the Lord and gives him again the warmth of life. Then he brings him down and gives him to his mother. In front of the dead child, Elijah and the woman think and behave in a completely diverse way. The main lesson of the episode is taken from this diversity.
The woman lost all hope, felt defeated, mocked by death and the only thing she can do is to look for a culprit. Her attempt to overcome the anguish does nothing but increases her pain. The prophet instead understands that death—even that dramatic one of a child—is a natural event. Illnesses and misfortunes are things happening in our world. They are due to chance, coincidences, to biological factors, not a punishment from God.
God gives life, not death and Elijah proves it by restoring the child to his mother.
“The religion preached today is too convenient!”—some say. It speaks of a God who does not condemn anyone, and that he saves all. It teaches that we are all brothers, that we have to share the goods, but then it does not insist, as one should, on important practices such as the rosary, novenas, the Way of the Cross, the holy hours, processions, fasting and mortification… To please people, to increase the number of sympathizers an easy Gospel is announced.
These criticisms—that today we hear addressed to some preacher or some catechist—are the same that the humbugs that troubled the communities of Galatia say of Paul. He—they said—speaks of Christ, but puts aside the hard precepts imposed by tradition.
To defend himself against this accusation, the Apostle says that he has not learned from people the gospel he teaches. He received it as a revelation from Christ Jesus (v. 12). One should not think that he has learned in a vision all the teachings and all the facts of Jesus’ life, that no one has ever told them to him. The word “gospel” here means the choice not to impose the norms of the Old Testament to Christians.
Paul declares that it is the Lord himself, not people, who reveals that salvation does not depend on the practice of the ancient Laws’ norms, but by faith in Jesus.
To confirm this statement, he reminded the Galatians the story of his life. He was a religious fanatic, attached more than any other to the ancient traditions and decided to persecute those who violated them. His radical change—explainable only by a revelation from above—happened because he acted with honesty; he was open to the revelation of God and to the impulse of the Spirit. He did not remain stubbornly clinging to his convictions, but he welcomed the novelty of the Gospel.
Reading the story of the resurrection of the widow’s son of Naim it is easy to notice the many details that this episode has in common with the one told in the first reading. Both stories tell of a widow who loses her only son and a man of God brings him back to life and returns him to the mother.
More than the obvious similarities, it is important to note some significant differences. Elijah is only a prophet and, to obtain the miracle, he needs to ask for help from the Lord of life. Jesus is more than a prophet. He is the same Lord of life. He does not resort to anyone; he acts with the prodigious power present in him.
The way Elijah raises the widow’s son is different from that of Jesus. Elijah makes a lot of effort—and Elisha will do the same with the son of the woman of Shunem (2 K 4:29-37). Jesus instead restores life to the youth of Naim with the power of his word.
As we usually do, in explaining the passage, we will not dwell much on the fact itself but on the theological messages that Luke wants to propose.
In a village near Nazareth the only son of a woman dies. She has already lost her husband and is alone, without protection and without one who would be of support in old age.
Naim comes from na’im that, in Hebrew, means delicious. A well chosen name for a village nestling on a fertile slope of a mountain. In ancient times, it was covered with oaks and teribenths, willows and tamarisks. It is—this village—the symbol of all the beautiful and smiling places where life is carefree and happy, until one day the joy ends, the parties turn into grief, smiles into tears, songs into laments.
Unstoppable as a river, the procession of death arrives to take all: with cruel violence ripping loved ones from the houses and dragging them to the last destiny.
Jesus, accompanied by his disciples and a large crowd arrives at the door of this city. At that very moment a large crowd comes out accompanying the dead to the burial site. They are two very large groups that meet, that proceed in opposite directions. One—led by Jesus—arrives; another—preceded by a corpse—comes out. It’s hard to imagine two very contrasting situations. Jesus encountered a river of sadness and of despair.
The darkness of the night is falling on Naim—it’s in the evening that Israel brings the dead to the cemetery. The darkness that envelops the crowd in mourning, is the symbol of the darkness in which all those who have not yet met the Light of Christ are immersed. They feel helpless in front of death; they hug each other; they are united by a common grief and thought that one day that procession will also take them.
At this point the Lord enters the scene (v. 13). Luke calls him so for the first time. In the Old Testament this title was reserved for God. Applying it to Jesus, the evangelist launches a clear theological message to the Christians of his community: Jesus is not one of the many prophets who have spoken and acted in the name of God; he is the God of life present among people who are at the mercy of death.
He continues emphasizing the human reaction of the Lord: seeing the widow he was moved with pity. The greek word used—splagchnizein—indicates a feeling so alive and so intense that the evangelist reserve it to indicate the emotions of God and Jesus. The Lord is no stranger to the dramas and the sorrows of humankind, but no one—Luke seems to say—experiences them so closely and deeply as he does. He understands what a person feels when death breaks the bonds of affection, marks the dramatic separation from loved ones, causes loneliness, confusion and sometimes despair. He understands that when one loses a friend, the person feels a revolt within and would like God to give him back.
This reaction and this desire are dictated by love, but are not enlightened by faith. If God would comply to this request, bringing the dead in this world, they would only force him to repeat the experience of death and would end to have the last word.
The victory that the Lord has brought over death does not consist in delaying for a few years the departure from this world. He has lived the human experience to the end; he went through the tomb, not to return to this life, but to enter definitively into the Father’s.
The gesture he made in favor of the widow’s son is the sign of this immensely greater prodigy that he makes to every person who dies.
Let’s us try to capture the meaning of what happened that night in Naim. The widow is the symbol of all sad, desperate humanity. The “Lord” had pity on her and approaches her saying: “Don’t cry!” He comes up and touches the coffin and says to the dead: “Get up!”, or rather rise again! (vv. 13-14).
His gesture of touching the coffin causes, according to the OT, a major impurity (Nm 19:11,16). Impurity—the rabbis teach—is more contagious than holiness. An object that has come in contact with the edge of the mantle of a priest is not sanctified, although it touched a holy person; but if the same object is touched by a cadaver it becomes unclean (Hag 2:12-13).
At Naim this law is violated. The purity of Jesus has the better of the impurities of death, indeed, for the Lord death has nothing unclean. To wash oneself, to take hygienic measures is certainly wise and proper.
But, if death is a birth, if it marks the entry into the world of God and the beginning of the feast, the wedding feast in the Father’s house, it cannot be a cause of any form of impurity. Therefore there is nothing to fear from the people who died; they live with God and they can only do good to those who are left in this world.
Sometimes Jesus gives in to the insistence of those who pray and performs a miracle. Other times he does a miracle because he is almost forced to do so by the great faith of the people in need who resort to him. At Naim he makes his gesture and pronounces his word of salvation without having received any request. He freely and unconditionally acts, not even presupposing faith. He does so because the resurrection is his pure gift.
His word causes a reversal of the situation: the young man who was lying in the coffin, wrapped in bandages—a symbol of the ties with which death kept him a slave forever—arises to sit. It is the position that characterizes the winner. At Easter, the angel who will roll away the stone from the tomb will assume it and will sit on the stone (Mt 28:2).
Faced with the victory of Christ over death the cry turns into a festal song, the son is given back to the mother, humanity explodes in a shout of joy, all glorify the Lord saying: “A great prophet has appeared among us; God has visited his people!” (v. 16).
The reason why the crowds are amazed is revealing. They do not praise God for the return to life of the young man, but for the fact that the Lord has raised up a prophet whose word defeats death.
Here’s the real miracle that, through Christ, God continues to work for every brother who dies: he returns him risen to the mother, to the community. He does not bring him back in the state of ephemeral, fleeting, short life of this world, a world where one gets sick, suffers, ages, experiences loneliness and abandonment. He returns a risen, free, forever happy son to the mother.
The place in which the community embraces those whom the Lord gives back forever alive is not the cemetery, but the Eucharistic banquet. It is there that the whole community comes together united around the Risen One: some brothers and sisters are already in the definitive life, others are waiting that this life manifests itself in them, but they all sing together: “A great prophet has arisen among us and God has visited his people” (v. 16).
Christian communities are called to make the gesture of Christ and his word that resurrects present again in this world. The community must repeat to every person who weeps beside a coffin what the Master said to the widow of Naim: “Stop crying!”, the Lord has conquered death forever.
Next to this central message, Luke—the evangelist of the poor and needy—also wants to draw the attention of his community to one who is left alone.
In the early church there were many widows who were crying because they were abandoned and no one took care of them (Jas 1:27). Luke tells the Christians: it is necessary to make them stop crying. There is a need to return to them the children they have lost. Every member of the community, should consider them as mothers to love, respect and care. No widow should feel childless.
There is a video available by Fr. Fernando Armellini with commentary for today’s Gospel: http://www.bibleclaret.org/videos