The Only Son of a Widow
“But as he approached the town’s gate, behold one having died was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a considerable crowd of the town was with her” (Luke 7:12). [All Scripture references are the author’s own translation unless otherwise noted.] To arrive at just the right moment must have entailed foresight, planning, and haste. The Lord was not summoned or approached, as on many other occasions (4:40, 42; 5:12, 15, 18-19; 6:17-19; 7:3-4; 8:41, 44; 9:38; 17:13; 18:38). He took the initiative.
The deceased, like Jesus, was a firstborn son and therefore consecrated to God (Exod. 13:1; Luke 2:23). At his father’s death, he became the head of the household with the solemn duty of caring for his widowed mother. As the only son, the responsibility was his alone. When he died, the widowed mother suffered a double tragedy, both the emotional loss of her closest loved ones and the material loss of her principal means of subsistence. In the first-century Mediterranean world, women who lost their spouses with no other family assistance were deemed “truly” widows (1 Tim. 5:3, 5, 16). In ancient Jewish culture, to lose a husband, especially prior to old age, carried the stigma of God’s presumed displeasure and accompanying shame (Ruth 1:13, 20-21; Isa. 54:4).
This poor widow was truly alone. But she was not totally alone, as “a considerable crowd of the town was with her.” The prospect of professional mourners notwithstanding, there appears to have been a sympathetic and supportive community. The words of Zechariah, later applied at Christ’s death (John 19:37), would be appropriate here: “… and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve for him as one grieves for a firstborn” (Zech. 12:10b; cf. Jer. 6:26; Amos 8:10).
Jesus took special interest in widows (Mark 12:40-44; Luke 18:3-5; cf. Jas. 1:27), as well as misfortunes involving an only child (Luke 8:42; 9:38). Stranded at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, brokenhearted and destitute, the tragic departure of this mother’s only son was met by the gracious arrival of God’s only Son. While the gathering of mourners may have offered a surface level of consolement, there was only one who could provide the deeper comfort of God.
“And having seen her, the Lord was moved with compassion for her, and said to her, ‘Do not mourn’” (Luke 7:13). To have “seen” this grieving parent was more than a casual glance but included mental perception (cf. 5:20; 9:27; 18:24) that provoked an intense emotional response. The same cause-and-effect reaction is portrayed in the Lord’s parables featuring a good Samaritan and a prodigal son’s father (10:33; 15:20). The Greek verb translated “[he] was moved with compassion,” from the noun splágchna (“internal organs” or “inward parts”), describes a deep-seated, gut-wrenching emotion (Matt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 18:27; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 9:22). In a throng of troubled souls, Jesus was especially moved by one in particular.
Saying to the distraught mother, “Do not mourn,” might sound insensitive and inappropriate were it not for the identity of the one speaking. The designation “Lord” occurs throughout the Third Gospel, but here is the first time the inspired author himself, as narrator, uses it in reference to Jesus. It is a title of honor and reverence, indicative of authority and rule. Luke associates the term with divine power (5:17) and applies it as much to the Lord God as he does to the Lord Jesus (note 20:42-44). In fact, the Greek text of Luke’s Gospel begins by using the full definitive title ho kúrios (“the Lord”) to refer to the heavenly Father (1:6, 9, 28, 46, 68; 2:15, 22), then, beginning with our current text, makes application to the Father’s Son (7:13, 19; 10:1, 2, 39, 41; 11:39; 12:42; 13:15; 17:5, 6; 18:6; 19:8a; 22:61; 24:3).
The seemingly callous directive signaled the Lord’s certainty of what was about to happen, reaching beyond the immediate circumstance and offering reassurance and hope (cf. 8:52; Matt. 5:4; Rev. 7:17). Jesus was not voicing empty words in a feeble attempt to console. He himself would weep at the gravesite of someone close to him (John 11:35). He rather backed up his words with his gracious presence and merciful actions. Death had cruelly severed a cherished relationship that he aimed to restore.
As a church community, like the people of Nain, we ought to be known for weeping with those who weep and bearing one another’s burdens (Rom. 12:15; Gal. 6:2; Heb. 12:12). What do we say to someone whose loved one has died? What words are adequate or even appropriate? What is needed more than words?
--Kevin L. Moore
*Originally appearing as “Jesus and Power (Luke 7:11-17)” in the 2022 FHU Lectureship Book.
Related Posts: Miracle at Nain: Part 1
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