Let the Scriptures Speak
A Prophet, and More Than A Prophet
Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, exclaiming,
“A great prophet has risen in our midst”
and “God has visited his people.” (Luke 7:16)
A man perceived by his peers as a prophet revives the only son of a widow. That summary describes both the first and the third of this Sunday's readings. The Gospel accounts of Jesus' healing (and resuscitation) ministry parallel no part of the Hebrew Bible more than the stories of the signs and wonders wrought by the prophets Elijah and Elisha. When the editors of our Lectionary pair Elijah's restoration of the widow's son with Jesus' resuscitation of the son of the widow of Nain, they are simply reflecting Luke's own awareness of the parallel. Luke provides a hint of this awareness when he explicitly echoes a phrase from 1 Kings 17. The Deuteronomist (the scholars' name for the author of the books of Kings) writes, “Taking the child, Elijah brought him down into the house from the upper room and gave him to his mother.” Compare Luke's phrasing: “The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.” A closer look at the two accounts can help us appreciate both the similarities and the differences.
First, the similarities. Both Elijah and Jesus take the initiative: Elijah says, “Give me your son,” and Jesus tells the widow not to weep and stops the funeral procession by touching the coffin. In both cases a dying or dead son is restored to his mother, and people respond by acknowledging this restoration as an act of God.
But noting these similarities only serves to highlight the differences. Whereas the son in 1 Kings is clearly dying (he has stopped breathing), the son of the widow of Nain is declared dead by Luke as he is being carried to his grave. In each case the involvement of the prophet is notably different: whereas Elijah carries the dying boy to his guestroom bed, lies down on top of him, and prays to God for the return of the life-breath, Jesus simply addresses the corpse, “Young man, I tell you, arise!”
The difference in the nature of the respective prophet's authority is underscored by the use of the name “Lord”: whereas Elijah prays to the Lord God, Luke refers to Jesus himself as “the Lord” (“when the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity for her … ” [Luke 7:13]). And the language of the response to the wonder is more open-ended and suggestive in the case of Jesus: whereas the widow simply sees the restoration as the authentication of Elijah as a prophet (“now indeed I know that you are a man of God”), the stunned members of the funeral procession at Nain say that much and more: “A great prophet has arisen in our midst,” and “God has visited his people.” Although, from the perspective of the speakers these statements are synonymous, in the perspective of Luke that second acclamation at Nain recalls that Jesus the prophet is more than a prophet; he is Son of the Most High and conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:31-35). God has indeed visited his people more intimately than they suspected at that moment in the village of Nain.
And why would Luke want us to reflect on these parallels and differences? His account of the resuscitation at Nain brings home some powerful realities. The healing ministry reveals the same compassionate God experienced by the people of Israel who celebrated the divine action in the prophets Elijah and Elisha. But Jesus is a “visitation of God” even more profoundly and completely than that experienced in those earlier prophets. At the same time, that divine manifestation was fully incarnate in the person and career of a true prophet of Israel. Jesus, a prophet and more than a prophet, now risen Lord of the Church, still shows himself in the healing of minds and bodies when we open ourselves to his presence in faith, prayer, and action.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University