The story of Jesus raising the widow’s son at Nain is unique to Luke among the gospels. I will comment further on why I think Luke may have placed this particular story here in a future reflection, but for the moment let’s just notice a few things that link it with the healing of the Centurion’s servant. In reflecting on that passage in my previous post, I drew attention to that healing as, unusually, a healing at a distance. The raising of the widow’s son does not occur at a distance, but it does occur, as it were, against the odds.
We are told that Jesus arrived at Nain with a large crowd, and that another large crowd was with the widow and the funeral group. These two large crowds converged at the gate of the town, going in opposite directions. We can imagine a fair amount of pushing, shoving and noise. In spite of this, Jesus notices the widow and has compassion on her. The Greek word used here for seeing, where we read that the Lord “saw” her, has a connotation of mentally understanding what he saw; discernment rather than simple visual perception. This is in keeping, of course, with Luke’s emphasis on Jesus’ concern for the poor and vulnerable: Jesus understands the plight of a widow who has lost her only son.
Jesus then says to the dead man, “rise”, and the man sits up and speaks. Note here that Jesus “says” rise: in other words, the healing occurs as a response to God’s word. And notice also that what the man does immediately on being raised is that he “speaks.” Again, then, as with the healing at a distance in the story of the Centurion’s servant, to coin a phrase from a beer advert, the Word reaches the parts that other words cannot reach!
The story of the widow at Nain is followed by an enquiry sent by John the Baptist via two of his own disciples. On behalf of John, they ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”. Jesus’ reply is well known:
Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.
When John’s messengers have gone, Jesus speaks to the crowds and asks them, when they went out into the wilderness to see John, what did they go to see? The answer is that he who prepared the way for the gospel message (v. 27; see reflection on Luke 3.1 onwards) was not one dressed in fine robes but, rather, a prophet.
Jesus then says, “I tell you, among those born of women no-one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he”. On hearing this the people, who had been baptised by John, praised God, in contrast to the Pharisees and the lawyers who, Luke comments, had rejected God’s purposes by refusing to be baptised by John.
I am struck by the circularity of the reasoning that is implicit in this passage about John’s enquiry and Jesus’ response. In reply to the question, are you the one who is to come?, Jesus does not simply answer “yes”. Rather, he points to the practical results of what he has been doing – curing the blind, restoring the lame, etc. One must assume that John is expected to take this indirect response as a “yes,” and therefore that what Jesus has been doing in the way of healings, etc., must have fitted with what John expected from the one whose way he was preparing.
So Jesus’ claim to be the one who was to come is authenticated by the fact that the nature and effects of his mission cohere with what John the Baptist’s prophetic life and words prepared the way for. But then how do we know that John’s preparation was an authentic anticipation of the one who was to come? Because, Luke says, it is those whom John baptised who affirm the fulfilment of John’s prophesies in Jesus: “On hearing this the people, who had been baptised by John, praised God.”
In short, Jesus’ mission is confirmed by its coherence with John’s anticipation and preparation for it; and John’s anticipation and preparation is affirmed by its coherence with the fruits of Jesus’ mission.
The key word here is coherence. In the previous reflection I contrasted foundationalist views of knowledge, which depend on building upwards from an allegedly secure foundation, with non-foundationalist views, which see knowledge more in terms of an integrated network or system. On the non-foundationalist view, knowledge (scientific, religious or otherwise) holds together by its own coherence. One might say that this coherence needs to be both internal, in the way the elements of a particular knowledge-set relate to one another, and external, in the way the structure is able to incorporate new elements from ‘outside’.
Foundationalist knowledge has to accumulate new insights by adding another brick to the top of the tower, or another card to the house of cards (inevitably with eventual catastrophic consequences). Non-foundationalist knowledge, in contrast, grows by increasing in scope and coherence. We know something is true because it ‘makes sense’, it ‘resonates’ with what we already know. And of course, sometimes that coherence, that resonance, can only be maintained in the face of new knowledge by making adjustments to the existing structure. That is the point of the analogy of rebuilding a ship, plank by plank, while it is still afloat (see previous reflection).
I have been suggesting in these reflections that Luke has a particular interest in the importance of listening. If we are listening carefully to someone and want to be sure that we are not misunderstanding what they are saying, then we sometimes have to check back with them whether we heard right: “I think what I heard you say was …”; “Can I just check, what you mean is …”. When John sends his messengers to ask whether Jesus is the one who is to come, he is, in effect, asking the Word, “Did I hear this right?”. And the Word answers: indeed, that is what you heard.
But there is something else about this kind of hearing that Luke alludes to. Just now I described the nature of true knowledge in terms of coherence, or ‘resonance’. Now, there is a kind of resonance that can be ‘catastrophic’, where the harmonies behind the coherence resonate to such an extent that the system itself can be endangered. The classic example is the film of the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge collapse in 1940 (check out YouTube!). Initially a small resonance caused by the wind makes the bridge oscillate a bit. But because the timing of these oscillations fit exactly with the ‘resonant frequency’ of the bridge, the roadway begins to undulate and alarmingly, then wildly, and in the end to the point of destruction.
Just such a ‘resonating coherence’ is implied, I think, in Jesus’ remark, in the context of John’s “checking out” of what he heard, that, “I tell you, among those born of women no-one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
John spoke and caused a small disturbance; the power of this disturbance lay not in its volume or intrinsic force, but in that it resonated with God’s purposes (v. 30). Jesus followed through on John’s preparation, and thereby followed through on God’s purposes as they had resonated through the Hebrew prophets before John.
In speaking (and being) the Word, Jesus set the world resonating at God’s ‘frequency’, on God’s ‘wavelength’. Nothing can be ‘greater’ than the initial little disturbance that set this coherent resonance going, in the sense that nothing resonates more strongly with God’s purposes than John’s proclamation of, and Jesus’ embodiment of, God’s kingdom. But God’s kingdom, once it gets going, is self-sustaining and self-reinforcing, such that it is true to say that, “The least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
This does not mean that God’s kingdom runs under its own steam: it is God’s kingdom, so it always and everywhere depends on God’s grace. But it does mean that if we were truly to ‘tune in’ to the resonant frequency of God’s Word, the resulting kingdom would give the appearance of being propelled by a momentum of its own.