He was alive this morning. The thought came sluggish, slow, as if dragged up through sticky mud. She felt like a ghost as she drifted beside the shrouded form of her son. I made him breakfast. He ate it all and kissed my cheek before he left for work. This can't be happening. It's not real.
The next time she had seen her son, he was being carried through the door, dead.
A freak accident they said. It hit him in just the right spot—or rather, just the wrong spot, the foreman corrected sheepishly. A beam from the roof they were fixing had slipped and struck him in the temple. He had died instantly.
I should be grateful he didn't suffer. The thought bubbled to the surface of her mind, but it burst into empty emotion. She heard the keening of the wailing women, their undulating cries proclaiming death throughout the town as they made their way to the graveyard. Her own throat burned too hot to cry out. The tears that leaked down her cheeks did little to relieve the pressure that was building in her head, pushing on her eyes with searing pain.
First my husband, Lord, now my son? What have I done to make You treat me like this? As she walked she sifted through her shortcomings. Was God angry because she hadn't been to the temple to participate in the Day of Atonement? Had she been too prideful of her handsome teenage son, growing swiftly into manliness? Yet how could she not be proud? She shook her head. She had been both grateful and proud when he had taken the job as carpenter's apprentice to help her pay the taxes and put food on the table. Someday soon she would have looked for a wife for her son, someone to move in with them and grow their little family once again. There would have been babies and laughter, shared meals and a full life.
Now she was alone. A widow without an heir. Her husband's name would die out. She swallowed hard. She had thought she knew what grief was. She had believed tragedy was a force she understood, pain an emotion she was familiar with. But the loss of her only son plumbed new depths of suffering in her soul.
They turned a corner, and she felt a jolt in her navel, as if she had jerked back in time. The wailing, the plaintive funeral music, the crowds of people. It was all the same. But that time it had been her husband carried through the town while her son sat on her hip. Despite her tear for her husband, she had found solace in comforting their little boy. She had been strong because he needed her. Who needs me now?
At that thought, all her strength escaped her and she stumbled, sprawling on the ground. Her neighbor cried out with pity and the nearby women crowded around her as the procession stopped.
As she sat in the dust, too limp to stand, she finally tipped back her head and let out a wail that ended in wracking sobs. The other women didn't try to shush her but lifted their voices to join her with their warm hands on her shoulders, her head, her back. For today, her grief was their grief. Her loss was theirs.
It was good to let the pain out. Like lancing a boil, her mother had said, years ago. It was important to let the pain flow so it didn't fester for years on end.
After minutes that felt like hours, she allowed herself to be raised to her feet. She stood beside her son's body, being carried by a stretcher on the shoulders of his former co-workers. The smell of the funeral spices burned her nose. She reached up a hand and set it on the linen, and as the procession began walking again, she kept her hand there, determined to be with her son to the last moment.
The city gate loomed up before her, casting cool shadows. She swallowed hard. Her son was leaving his hometown for the last time. She had promised him they would go to Jerusalem this year for Passover. For years she had been carefully saving a fraction of the income she gained from selling her baskets. He had been so excited to go to Jerusalem like his friends, to be able to visit the beautiful temple and see the ancient tomb of David and partake in the freedom festival of his people. She had been eager to share it with him. The last time they went he was too little to understand. Would she go without him? Could she? Her knees wobbled at the thought.
They passed out the gateway, and visitors to Nain drew respectfully back as the funeral procession filled the street and poured out the gate. The dead were unclean, and the crowds were careful to avoid touching any of the mourners, for fear that they might become unclean and require a week's purification.
She tried to ignore the faces of curious onlookers, but as she lifted a hand to pull her mantle forward to shield her face, a set of deep brown eyes caught her attention. It wasn't the color or the shape of them that arrested her, it was the tears that pooled and the compassion she saw in their depths. The man was a stranger. She had never seen him before in her life, and yet as he looked at her she felt like he knew. He knew the pain in her heart. He felt it. He broke away from his traveling companions and came intently forward. As she stopped, so did the funeral procession.
“Do not weep,” he said gently, and in the next breath, he reached up and touched her son, uncaring that he would be now considered unclean. “Young man,” he said boldly. “I say to you, arise!”
She stared at the man. What was he saying? Then she saw the linen-swathed form of her son move. She and the crowd gasped as one, and the men holding the stretcher swiftly set it down and backed several paces away. Stunned, she saw her son sit up and she cried out in fearful hope, drawing her hands over her mouth.
“Ma?” a questioning voice murmured beneath the wrappings at the sound of her voice. She gasped and scrambled forward to remove the linen cloth from his face. She unveiled his eyes, bright and full of life. She began to sob uncontrollably as she hastily unwrapped his upper body, freeing him from his funeral shroud.
He looked around and saw the crowds with surprise. “What's going on?”
“It's time for you to go home with your mother,” Jesus said, smiling at him and then her in turn.
The crowd whispered; it sounded like wind whipping through a grove of trees.
“That man did it!”
“Who is he?
“Why, it looks like that strange rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth!”
“A great prophet has risen among us!”
“God has visited His people!”
Nazareth. She knew that town. But she had never known a man like this. Still kneeling on the ground, she stared up into his happy, sun-darkened face. His pleasure in her son's well being was sunshine on her heart.
“Praise God that you were here,” she breathed. “The Lord is truly merciful.” She reached out and Jesus let her take his hand and kiss it. “Thank you, my lord, for your compassion on me. You have given me my son—no, my very life.”
Read this story for yourself in Luke 7:11-17
The Jewish culture was very concerned with purity. The Pharisees had taken the God-given laws of cleanliness and made them into something more—a rigid art form. This need to be "clean" can be confusing to us today. Their stringing hand-washing had nothing to do with germs, and their careful separation from anyone considered unclean such as:
-lepers (Leviticus 13:45-46)
-the dead (Numbers 19:11)
-menstruating women (Leviticus 15:19)
-foreigners because of their idolatry (Nehemiah 9:2)
-or anyone who had been in contact with someone unclean—had nothing to do with staying healthy. This was about being ritually pure before God. An unclean person could not participate in certain forms of worship, or festivals such as the Passover.
With their careful observances of remaining “clean” and the likely feeling of satisfaction that came with the knowledge of being ritually clean, we can see how Jesus was stepping on all kinds of toes as he performed his miracles by touching and interacting with those who were considered unclean.
The amazing thing was, that when Jesus touched the unclean, they did not transfer their uncleanliness to him, but rather it was like he transferred his own cleanliness to them. The lepers were healed. The hemorrhaging woman was cured. The dead came to life! Jesus reached out and touched the untouchable, making them whole, and bringing them back into the family.
Have you ever felt like you weren't good enough for Jesus? Like you didn't belong in God's family? What do you think Jesus would say to you if you met him on the side of the road today with these feelings in your heart?
Check back later to catch a more in-depth look at what it meant to be unclean in the world of Jesus!