The widows of Nain and Zarephath teach us how God sees us, how God listens for us, and how God reaches out to us in our unique experiences of loss and grief.
Vicar Anna Helgen
The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 10 C
Texts: Luke 7:11-17; 1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 30
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we meet two unnamed women—two widows, in fact—one of Nain and one of Zarephath. We hear two stories of death and pain, as these widows mourn the unexpected loss of their sons. We witness how two different communities support and care for these women amidst their grief. And we see how God enters their experiences, how God reaches out and offers healing and wholeness.
As widows, these women already live on the fringes of society. With no male relative to support them, they likely have worked hard to put food on the table and to survive. And now they are faced with the devastating reality of the death of a child. On top of an already challenging existence as widows, they now carry with them a particularly difficult form of grief, grief of a parent who loses and buries a child. This is deep grief. Grief that can be steeped in anger, guilt, and depression. It is grief that isolates.
Perhaps you or someone you know has experienced this kind of loss before and know what it’s like to feel this pain. Or maybe not. But loss and grief are universal experiences of our life together—as universal as stubbing your toe or getting a paper cut. Together we can learn something from these stories, how these women respond to their unique experience of loss, and how God enters their pain.
Let’s start with the widow of Nain. It’s the day of her son’s funeral and she is crying, as is to be expected. Her son is dead and there is nothing that can be done about it, or so she thinks. A large crowd from the community is with her, and I imagine that they surround her with their presence. Perhaps they don’t say much—what could you say anyway?—but their presence speaks more than words.
Lo and behold, Jesus and his disciples show up, and upon seeing this woman, Jesus has compassion for her. He sees her and instantly knows the pain she feels. He acknowledges her despair and says, “Do not weep.” In a miraculous effort, Jesus commands the dead man to rise up, and he does. And then Jesus returns him to his mother. The crowd cheers, the mother and son are reunited, and news about Jesus begins to travel all throughout the country.
And then we have one of my favorite Bible characters, the widow of Zarephath. Poverty-stricken and with death right around the corner, she meets Elijah, a man of God, who provides food for her. And now, with one crisis behind her, she confronts another: the illness and death of her son. And she is angry! Angry at God. Angry at Elijah. She blames Elijah and wonders what he must have against her to cause the death of her son.
The widow’s lament is mirrored by Elijah, who takes the son upstairs to be alone so he can vent his anger and frustration to God. It’s not often that we get to witness such an honest response to death. Elijah pleads with God on behalf of the widow, and God listens to him. God doesn’t just hear, but God listens. God actively participates in this prayer. And through another miraculous act, the life of the boy returns, and Elijah returns him to his mother.
We know what it’s like to be these widows. To be filled to the brim with grief, to stand silently in our tears, to shout at God in anger. Taken together, these stories explore the full spectrum of our human response to grief. Loss triggers a complex set of emotions that can leave us feeling like a wrung-out washcloth or like an elephant is pressing up against our chest. It can be hard to trust ourselves as we grieve, because one day we might be feeling just fine, and the next day we’re in a puddle of tears as something triggers the memory of a loved one who died years ago.
The challenge of these stories is that we don’t often get the kind of miraculous healing that these women and their sons receive. It’s not everyday that a dead person is brought back to life. But these specific stories are included in our Bible because they show us how far God is willing to go to meet us in our painful experience. The grief of a parent who loses a child is deep, and even there, God is with us, bringing healing, hope, and new life.
And that leads us to the gift of these stories. They remind us that through it all, God is with us. God sees us, listens for us, and reaches out to touch us in our deepest pain. God is not afraid of our mess—not our tears, not our rage, not our depression, not our silence, not our guilt or shame, not any of it. God has seen it all and knows it all. And God is ready to embrace us, to stand with us, to listen for our cries. God is intentional about relationships and will continue to search us out even when we have given up, even when we have lost hope.
God doesn’t act alone, however, because the community plays an important role in this healing process, too. The crowd surrounds the widow of Nain as she grieves, and their unwavering presence is a sign of God’s presence, of God’s constant and unconditional love. Like God, this community is not afraid to show their emotions. Their willingness to stand with this widow in her grief and mourn together as a community teaches us what God’s love looks like in the world.
And then there is Elijah, a much smaller community than this crowd, but a community nonetheless. Loss can be so isolating, and it can make us feel alone, like no one understands us. But Elijah gets this, and he echoes the lament and anger of the widow of Zarephath. He validates her feelings by naming her truth. Like God, he willingly shares her anger so she knows she’s not alone.
I often wonder what life was like for these widows after their sons were returned to them. Certainly there was much rejoicing! But I imagine that the experience changed them. Because loss always changes us and we are never the same. But through whatever we face in this life, God’s promise for us is true: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning!”
We live in that time between dusk and dawn, in that “space between sorrow that feels [like] it will last a lifetime and God’s promise of joy in the morning.”[i] And, in time, we too, like the widows, will find new life. It might not look like we’d expect and it might take longer than we’d prefer, but God will take us somewhere new. The sun will rise. The morning will come.
May you find hope in God’s promise of healing, joy, and peace. When the sorrow is too much to bear, may you trust that this community will stand by your side. And through it all, may you know deeply that God sees you, that God listens for you, and that God reaches out for you.
[i] Verlee A. Copeland, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 97.