I had a conversation recently with some parishioners about myths and fairy tales. Fairy tales are a type of children’s fictional literature that conveys valuable common-sense truths about daily life. A good example of this is the story “Little Red Riding Hood.” In the story, the little girl embarks on a journey to her grandmother’s house. A wolf takes the place of the grandmother, and tries to convince the little girl to trust him.
Wolves can’t talk. Wolves don’t dress in human clothing, nor do they try to impersonate humans. This story is pure fantasy; the events it depicts could never happen. Nonetheless, the story conveys valuable common-sense truth about exercising critical thinking skills (i.e., avoiding making judgments based solely on the basis of appearances). The fact that the story is fictional and fantastical in no way detracts from the truth conveyed.
If the story is read as literal truth, the common-sense wisdom contained in it would be covered up by preposterous details. I would like to suggest that a somewhat similar perspective is required in order to understand the miracle reported in today’s Gospel reading.
The story of the raising of the widow’s son appears only in Luke’s Gospel, but it is not the only story of Jesus raising someone from the dead. (Matthew 9:24-25, Mark 5:41-42, John 11:43-44) In fact, all of the Gospels contain miraculous resuscitation stories. There is no reason to doubt that these events happened, but there is every reason to refrain from understanding these stories as mere narrative. To read this story of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain as a mere narrative of an event runs the risk of covering up the religious truth of the story with a list of facts.
This story has a moral, a deeper meaning, in a way somewhat similar to the deeper meaning of fairy tales and myths. In this case, the deeper meaning is a statement of faith about Jesus’ identity. This resuscitation story portrays Jesus as the Lord of life, not merely as a wonder worker. If we see only the amazing fact of someone raised from the dead, Jesus becomes at best impressive and at worst a curiosity. The Gospel has no interest in conveying either impression of Jesus. Rather, the Gospel intends for us to see God’s power at work in Jesus and God’s compassion expressed in Jesus’ actions.
Miracles are signs of contradiction today just as much as they were during Jesus’ lifetime. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries were deeply impressed by his miracles, but their amazement never grew into faith. (Mark 6:2-5) Many of our contemporaries see Jesus’ miracles as being something like magic. Some are impressed by the magic, and others are appalled that modern people can believe in such; both groups have missed the point.
The point of the miracle stories in the Gospel is to convey religious truth, not a mere narrative of events. In our culture today, the religious truth conveyed by the miracle stories in the Gospels is the simple, but often overlooked, common-sense wisdom of looking beyond mere appearances.
We live at a time, and in a place, that affords us unprecedented wealth, leisure time and opportunities for personal pursuits. We should be the happiest and most satisfied people in the history of the human race. Sadly, we are many things, but happy and satisfied are not among them. Illustrations of this abound. One has only to look at the state of politics in this country or the looks on peoples’ faces as they drive, shop and pursue the day’s activities.
We live in a society that, on the surface, appears to have every advantage. The reality of our lives is that we are bitter, contentious, selfish and unforgiving. We are a society obsessed with appearances and ignorant of deeper realities. The miracles of Jesus are an opportunity to look beyond the obvious. The raising of the widow’s son offers an insight into the possibility of new life proclaimed by Jesus.
Life in this world does not have to be drudgery or tragic or shallow or empty. Faith in bodily resurrection by virtue of Jesus’ death offers the possibility of valuing human life in the way that God values human life. Faith in Jesus as Lord of life offers freedom from our burdens, and the promise of joy and peace. We can be the ones who claim, “God has visited his people.” (Luke 7:16) We can be the people who live a new life – if we are willing to look beyond the shallowness of our lives, and find the place where God waits to encounter us.