Widow of Nain: A Heart that Mourns (Part 2)


This is the video of my talk at our church. Below you will find the text and pictures from the lesson. Enjoy!

widow's son and jesus


The widow of Nain.

She mattered to Jesus.

This nameless woman in an obscure, tiny town in Israel caught His attention. Out of all the people Jesus could have spoken to or healed or served, He chose this poor widow. And I mean, “poor” in the most literal sense.

This chance meeting would have taken place in about the middle of Jesus’ ministry.

When reading in any of the gospels, it is helpful to know a few things about the writer in order to gain a fuller picture of the particular text you’re reading. For instance, Matthew often wrote about how Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures, showing that Jesus is the Messiah for whom the Jewish people were awaiting.

Because the story of this widow is only found in Luke, it is even more exciting to dig into the peculiarities of his gospel. Luke was a doctor and wrote his account in a very thorough way, researching facts and laying out a systematic view of Jesus. God uses the human individual, with all of the intricacies of his personality and life’s trade, to present His word to us.

The first thing I want you to know about Luke is that he likes to write about the downtrodden of society – the outcast, the unclean, etc.- and how Jesus reached out to them to relieve their distress. Think about who prophesied over Mary in the temple in Luke’s gospel. A widow named Anna, the poor of society. Think about who Luke writes are the first to see the baby Jesus. Shepherds, the outcasts and unclean of society. Think about who inherits the kingdom of heaven in the Sermon on the Plain. It’s the Poor (not the “poor in spirit” as Matthew writes).

Over and over, you’ll find Luke writing from a slightly different perspective concerning those who gain the attention of the Messiah. It goes completely against the grain of their culture, and this is exactly what happens for this nameless widow of Nain.

Luke includes her story in his gospel, one which didn’t get any mention in the other 3 gospels. And by the way, the city of Nain doesn’t get mentioned anywhere else either! The important story for the city of Nain involved a widow. Their one moment of fame is found in a simple widow.

Now, the city of Nain was very tiny. Some resources I read disagree on exactly where it is located. But most of them believe it was about 20 miles from Capernaum and looked out over the Plain of Jezreel. Here is a picture of a Franciscan church that is supposedly the site of the healing.


To get a better idea of the profound oddity if would have been for Jesus’s followers to watch Him spend time on a woman, much less one who was a widow, let me take you into a bit of history regarding the widow in ancient Israel, and leading up to Jesus’ time on earth. If you do a study in the Old Testament using the word “widow”, you’ll find words like “weeping”, “mourning”, “desolation”, and “poverty”.

A woman held minimal rights to an inheritance because most often the inheritance passed from father to son, rarely passing from man to wife. And if the woman’s husband died, that bond was severed which meant there would be no connection for her to his family or his inheritance. In addition, she had already left her father’s home to marry this man, so she would have to live in a state of poverty or else depend on people’s charity.*

So to be a widow in ancient Israel meant social and economic tragedy as you learned in your personal study this week. No inheritance means no land which means no money and no food! But then at least you’d have sons who could work the land if your husband died. And at least they’d provide for your needs as a woman in a patriarchal society. But oops, our widow of Nain just lost her only son. The future is bleak and hopeless, 50 times worse than simply being a widow! You may recall Ruth and Naomi, who were both in the same predicament this widow of Nain found herself. No husbands, no children, seemingly no hope.

Remember also that Jesus, when dying on the cross, charged John the Apostle to care for His own mother, a widow.

Weeping. Mourning. Desolation. Poverty.

That is the widow’s reality now.

Then enter Jesus.

Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. 12 As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. Luke 7:11-12

In Bible times it was customary for the widow to express her grief very outwardly and publically.

mourning clothes

Then she arose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood. Genesis 38:19

And Joab sent to Tekoa and brought from there a wise woman and said to her, “Pretend to be a mourner and put on mourning garments. Do not anoint yourself with oil, but behave like a woman who has been mourning many days for the dead. 2 Samuel 14:2

Extra-biblical texts also include information regarding the widow in ancient times:

Judith 8:5-6 4 As a widow, Judith stayed inside her home for three years and four months. 5 She had had an upper room built for herself on the roof. She wore sackcloth next to the skin and dressed in widow’s weeds. 6 She fasted every day of her widowhood except for the Sabbath eve, the Sabbath itself, the eve of New Moon, the feast of New Moon and the joyful festivals of the House of Israel.

Now, that is an extreme view (and far-fetched if you ask me) of what happened for the widow. The grieving process was typically 7 days long and though it starts publicly with the funeral procession, it finishes in the person’s home. You will notice in the verses from Luke that a considerable crowd from town was with her. When reading in the Jewish documents*, you will find that the community of people were expected to stop everything and join in the funeral procession. The family of the deceased would often have professional wailers, eulogizers, and flute players. (Can you imagine what their resume read? Professional Mourner. Will not do rainy days.) It appears that the town just kind of stops for the mourning procession and joins in.

Now let’s look back at Jesus. He has His disciples and a “great crowd” with Him. As they come to the city gates, they see the dead man on the plank being carried out (this was because the dead were considered unclean and would need to be buried outside of the city walls).

And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.”

And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Luke 7:13

We naturally think of this scene and go “aww, He’s so sweet.” The Scripture says He SAW her.

Anyone would have known who it was that was most impacted by the deceased person’s passing because they would be closest in proximity to the wooden plank on which he was being carried.

Anyone could have guessed that this widow was devastated by her loss based on her outward expression of mourning. Anyone could have patted her arm in a comforting way as if to say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

But Jesus didn’t need to see the procession to know this woman of Nain had just lost her son. He IS the God Who Sees. He knew about it before they approached the city walls. He knew what was happening before the wailing cut through His ears. And He was the only One who could do anything about it.

Jesus saw her. Don’t pass over that statement. Jesus is the God who SEES. He is El Roi in the flesh. He saw with His divine eyes and perceived with His supernatural mind all that this poor widow was. And He KNEW her situation because He’s God. Jesus never has an accidental meeting. Do you really think that He ended up in Nain by chance? No way! Nain was so tiny that no one else even writes about it much less visits such a small, insignificant place! No, He knew that He would encounter this widow on the darkest moment of her life. And He knew He would have COMPASSION on her.

We typically speak of our emotions in terms of our heart. It was different for the 1st century folks.

The word compassion in the Greek is Splagchnizomai which has its root in Splagchnon. {I know what you’re thinking. You hoped for a prettier word for “compassion”. Well it gets even more interesting!} This word splagchnon referred to bowels, intestines, (also the heart, lungs, liver, etc.). The bowels were regarded by the Greeks as the seat of the more violent passions, such as anger and love; but by the Hebrews as the seat of the tenderer affections, esp. kindness, benevolence, compassion; hence our heart (tender mercies, affections, etc.).****

It also meant a heart in which mercy resides. This word probably came from the word “splen” or spleen {it makes sense why it sounds like a gutsy word, eh?}

I want to key in on the definition which mentioned mercy. Many times we think of mercy as God not giving us what we actually deserve (which is definitely true!). But there’s another side to mercy that is absolutely beautiful and displayed perfectly in this story of the widow of Nain.

Mercy is kindness or good will towards the miserable and the afflicted, joined with a desire to help them. It is not just passive, it is also active!

Jesus SEES the widow and moved with compassion (moved by His guts!), He extends mercy or kindness because of His desire to help her out of her misery and affliction. So His reply “do not weep” sounds, well, sweet. Like He was going to reach out and wipe her tear away with a look of genuine concern and care. That’s how I always pictured it anyway.

There was something very interesting though that the community of mourners would say to comfort those who mourned over their deceased relative. This is from Jewish rituals:

The gathered community lines the path, ideally from the grave to the [home], and as the mourners pass between these lines, they are greeted by each individual with the formulaic wish, “May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.“… But the wording of this prayer carries significance too. Its assurance of future comfort simultaneously acknowledges and validates the mourner’s present personal grief. On the other hand, its communally oriented content (among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem) both indicates that the comforters do indeed know what grief is and points out that the divine promises of the messianic healing of communal grief establish God as a comforter also concerned with healing the immediate personal grief. (**Ruth Langer)

Did you catch what happened? People were supposed to say “May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” What did Jesus say? “Don’t weep.”

Weeping was precisely what the widow was SUPPOSED to do as was proper in the Jewish custom of mourning. (And those people took their mourning seriously! I mean, if you are hiring professional mourners, you’re invested.)

In addition, Jesus was SUPPOSED to say “May God comfort you…” but they weren’t greeted by just another man. The nameless widow of Nain was staring right into the face of the Messiah who had come to bring healing from all of their grief. There was no longer a future promise that God would be her comforter, He was the present reality of the comfort she needed. He wasn’t simply going to validate her grief. He was going to remove it! That’s why He told her “Don’t weep.”!

Cambell writes:

The words were actually a prophecy of the miracle soon to occur. Indeed, Jesus had done something so bold as to necessitate either an explanation of His words or a removal of the cause of the tears.***

Don’t you just love Him? 🙂

14 Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” 15 And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.  Luke 7:14-15

There are three occasions recorded in which Jesus raised a person from the dead. Here in Luke 7, and also in Mark 5 with Jairus’ daughter, and in John 11 with Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus. Two accounts involve Jesus’s touch and all three involve His command to arise or get up or come forth!

Remember when I said that the dead were considered unclean? Numbers 19:11 says that anyone who touches a dead body would be unclean for 7 days. But Jesus reaches out His hand and tells the man to rise up.

It’s fun to imagine what the look on the faces of the pall bearers might have been. “First He tells her not to weep and now He’s going to touch the dead guy!” Maybe this is why they stood still. 😉 Remember, they don’t know that Jesus is the Messiah! But we know differently.

John records Jesus’ teaching just before He raised Lazarus:

25 Jesus said to [Martha], “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.  John 11:25-26

Here in the city of Nain, a seemingly insignificant widow, received her once dead, now very much alive son back into her arms. Death, where is your sting?

I sometimes am disappointed that it was men who wrote the gospel narratives. Women give so much more detail! But alas, we get no response from the widow in this passage. Not once does she speak. Nor do we see if she got to have further conversations with Jesus. What we do get, however, is the response from all of the people standing there having just witnessed the miracle.

16 Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” 17 And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country. Luke 7:16-17

As we come to a close on this passage, we can glean some clues as to the reason behind the crowd’s response if we look in the Old Testament.You may recall that God raised a widow’s son in 1 Kings 17:17-24 at the request of Elijah, who is moved by the mother’s tears (much like Jesus was moved with compassion for this widow of Nain). God also raised the son of the Shunammite woman when Elisha interceded for them in 2 Kings 4:18-37. It is not too far to assume that this Jewish community would have connected the dots between the accounts with Elijah and Elisha and Jesus raising the widow’s son from the dead.

In fact, the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) in 1 Kings 17:23 “and he gave him to his mother” is the same wording in Luke 7:15. This may be why they believed Jesus to be a “great prophet”, just as Elijah and Elisha had been great prophets, performing miraculous resurrections.

Jesus certainly made a big splash in this little town, and it was all for one woman. Time and again we see Jesus elevate women to a higher status than their culture gave them. He took notice of the widow from Nain. He saw her. He relieved her misery. And the day she thought she would be burying her son turned into a day where God literally showed up and did the miraculous!

But what about you? How can you relate to this widow? She woke up that morning, fully knowing her son was dead, with no hope that he would ever be with her again. There are times of waiting, times of struggle, times of pain for all of us, where it seems that there is no hope for us. A situation that seems impossible and unlikely to be changed. But with God, there is no impossible. There is no such thing as hopeless. We know that He can, but we also know that He might not. And if He doesn’t, He is still good. Thanks be to God that He knows our need. He sees us. And His mercies are new every morning.

May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. And may you know that the Messiah has indeed come and has taken away your grief. Amen.


[*This information came from Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology.

**From Jewish Funerals: A Ritual Description by Ruth Langer.

***From The Prince of Life at Nain by Donald Campbell.

****From http://www.biblestudytools.com Interlinear Bible (click on the word “compassion” in Luke 7:13).]



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