Unexpected Hope - Luke 7:11-17

We don’t really know what to do with hope. We live by hope. It enables us to dream. It crushes us when it is not realized. It casts us into despair and allows us to climb out of that same pitIt sends us through life as on an emotional roller-coaster, at times with thrills of excitement and at times with rushes of despair. It can be a cruel master giving life with one hand and taking it with the other. Without hope, however, it can seem there is simply no point behind the living of our days.
We have a lot to say about hope. “Hope is the last to die.” “There is always hope.” “Hope springs eternal.” “While there is life, there is hope.” “Hope cheers our way.” “Work hard and never give up hope.” “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” “Hope is the only bee that makes honey without flowers.” “A leader is a dealer in hope.” “Without hope, we are lost.”
We cling to hope. We look for hope. We hope for those things we cannot believe to be true. We allow failed hope to torment us. We strive to regain hope. We lose hope and all our zest for life. We cling to hope amid despair. All in all, we do not really know what to do with hope. It strengthens us and in despair, it dashes us against the crags of life. Then hope springs to life again in the midst of what is otherwise only death, darkness, pain, and loss.
Often as not, hope takes us by surprise. It can grab our attention and refocus our energy levels with wonder over opportunities and experiences we considered impossible. It acts like a spark in a dark cave, grasping us with a renewed focus, excitement, and a sense of renewal. That is where we find Jesus in Luke 7, ushering in hope in the midst of despair.
A widowed mother had lost her only son. Given the cultural and historical context, this was much more than is likely to meet a Twenty-First Century eye. The loss of her husband compounded by the loss of her grown son was more than the emotional tragedy we would experience and process. Sure, she had to work through the grief and loss of her emotional attachments to husband and only son. Sure, she had to struggle with the loss of meaning and structure they gave to her life. Sure, she had to wrestle with the pain of losing her dreams and her unrealized plans for the future. There was much more to it than those very deep and lasting scars upon her emotional and psychological health.
This was a society devoid of Social Security, life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and even the very opportunities for a woman to make it on her own. The death of her husband placed her in jeopardy. Following on the heels of widowhood, her son’s death was pretty much her death sentence. It cast her at the mercy of a society that deemed God was punishing her for some infraction, even though the Mosaic legal code required her needs to be taken care of by the tithes and offerings brought into the temple, as well as through the generosity of individuals in the community. The righteous were compelled to care for her, but there is often a chasm between our ideals and the practice of our living.
For the most part, those ethical requirements in the law did not play out in the realities of the real world. While God’s law stipulated generosity, there were still beggars on the streets, roving bands of lepers, and many unable to work or care for themselves due to blindness, crippling injury, or loss of a limb. Widowhood without a son or brother to care for her meant this woman would be cut off from access to the basic economic building blocks to meet her own needs. There were few options available to her, barring selling herself as a slave.
For all we know, she may have had daughters, but daughters were very much an economic burden within society, as they were not allowed to fend for themselves any more than a widowed mother. Life was very difficult indeed for an unattached woman in First Century Israel as in the rest of the Roman Empire. Much like what we hear on the news of Saudi Arabia today, men held too much controlling power and with very few exceptions did not allow women to survive long without the protection and care of a man.
For this widowed woman, the loss of her only son was a terribly cruel blow. It relegated her to the dustbin of humanity, a life of increased suffering, and struggling for survival against the odds of systemic injustice stacked against her. If life is tough for an unwed mother in today’s world, it was unimaginably harder in First Century Palestine. With the death of her son, there was no hope left to light her way. Hope is lost when we cannot see a way forward. It is often limited by our imagination.
Then Jesus stepped into the story. Better yet, he intervened in her story, unbidden. He spoke to her, telling her not to weep. Then he stopped the funeral procession and touched the bier on which lay the man who had died, her only son. Those who carried the bier stood still.
Jesus gave no insensitive speech ignoring the grief and impact of this son’s death on this widow’s life and future. Jesus did not point her to hope in eternity. Jesus did not ignore the real-time issues she faced in a society whose compassion would never go far enough to grant her even the opportunity to care for her own needs. Jesus gave no speech. He did not wax eloquent on the realities of life, grief, or pain. He offered no words of consolation.
He did not tell her what he had in mind. With a mere two words, he simply asked her to recognize that he was about to intervene in life as she knew it. He then spoke to her son, “Arise.” He brought the young man back to life, returning him to his mother along with a renewal of hope amid the dark night of despair that had engulfed her and threatened her very survival.
In the midst of death, life rekindled. In the midst of grief, a spark ignited and became a flame. In the midst of sorrow and anguish, hope sprang anew with wonder unimagined. The God who created order in the midst of chaos and life where no life had yet existed was seen by all acting once again in their midst to grant hope where all had been lost.
Hope here was unexpected. It had been dashed to the ground, crushed beneath the weight of death. Its light had been extinguished, touching the lives of an entire community who had come out to grieve with this widow they knew would face compounded grief far beyond the emotional impact of losing both husband and only son. This scene of desperate anguish was a fitting place for hope to be reborn. It was here they recognized God’s creative power to rekindle life when it seemed to have been extinguished.
In three words, hope was reborn. Two words to this grieving mother, “Weep not,” and one to her son on the funeral bier, “Arise,” changed her reality and all her expectations for her future and her very survival. Hope was forged in three words, a touch, an intervention in the prolonged death that had lain before her. Jesus brought hope where only despair ruled the day.
Jesus is still in the business of dealing in hope today. The Bible is a series of stories speaking hope into the darkness of human despair. God is the ultimate hope-giver. It is not all about hoping in an eternal reality. Jesus calls us to live in hope on this side of eternity, as well. Jesus breathes new life in the midst of our hopelessness. Jesus comes to intervene in our perception of reality, offering more than we imagine. When he calls us to hope, will we be willing to stop the funeral procession?

©Copyright 2018, Christopher B. Harbin
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