Historical Cultural Context
Women in the Mediterranean World
Which “dead” person in this story has been restored to life? The central character in this healing story is much more likely the widowed mother rather than the deceased son. Insights from Mediterranean culture help place the story in proper focus.
As the biblical books of Proverbs and Sirach amply illustrate, women in the Mediterranean world must always be under the care of a key man in their lives: father, brother, husband, or son. While women have enormous power in the Mediterranean world, they wield it differently and in different spheres than do men.
A wayward single daughter risks bringing shame upon the entire family if she should be taken advantage of. An older unmarried daughter has failed to strengthen the family through marriage (Sir 42:9-10). Marriages in the Mediterranean world united families and always were contracted with a view to family advantage.
A divorced woman brings shame because she must return to her father and family of origin. The family strengthened by the advantageous union is now returned to its former, weaker social position. Moreover, the father must return the bride-price. And no one is likely to marry the divorcee.
The woman in today's story is particularly vulnerable. She is a widow, which means she has already lost the primary male obliged to look after her. Now she has lost her only son, her only source of support and her last connection to her husband's family. We do not know that this was her only child. She may have daughters, but in this world daughters are of little help. If single, they are as vulnerable as the widow. If married, they have already transferred to their husband's family.
Mothers and Sons
In the Mediterranean world of antiquity as well as the present, the closest emotional bond is between mother and oldest son. The weakest emotional bond is between husband and wife. (Recall that the traditional Mediterranean marriage is usually arranged and the partners are customarily cousins, typically first degree.)
Because a woman has no identity in her husband's family until she bears a son, the male child is a source of great joy and security for a mother. Young boys are brought up together with the young girls exclusively by the women in the family until the age of puberty. During this period mothers and the other women pamper the boys, pleasure them, and make them very dependent even into adulthood.
The Widow of Nain
Of course the son is dead. But so too is his mother. Without any significant male in her life to take care of her, this woman is as good as dead in her society. Though she still possesses physical life, it is bereft of meaning. Jesus is moved to compassion by the sight of this widow following her only son's bier. It is a compassion he has earlier enjoined on his followers: “Be compassionate as your heavenly father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36). This compassion leads to action. He raises the boy and presents him to his mother.
If healing was understood in antiquity as the restoration of meaning to life, then today those whose life has had great meaning restored, or who have had a “near-death” experience, frequently recount their disappointment in returning to “this world.” While we cannot validly apply these experiences to antiquity, it would seem that the young man restored to life was restored to a comfortably secure male existence in Mediterranean culture.
The widowed mother, on the other hand, who lost her son, lost everything of value in her world. Even her life lost meaning. To have her son restored by Jesus is to have been given a new lease on meaningful life in that world.
Modern Western believers are heavily influenced by scientific Western perspectives and ponder what it might mean “scientifically” for a young man to be “restored to life”: For all the good that science has bestowed upon us, it has often robbed us of the ability to see dimensions of life such as those presented in this gospel story. Which “dead” person has been restored to life in this story? What do you think?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University