11 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” 17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
The story of Jesus raising the only son of a widow in Nain, found in Luke 17:11-17, could begin this way: “Two large crowds get together over a bier.”
Thanks. I’ll be here all night!
But, it’s true. As Luke tells the story, “a large crowd” is following Jesus as he approached the gate of the town and “a large crowd” accompanied the widow as her only son is being carried out of the town to be buried. In fact, while the NRSV translation above omits it, the Greek text even has a particle, “Look!”—the word the King James Version often translates as “Lo!” or “Behold!”—when one crowd encounters the other.
If the city gate was a narrow one, this would have been chaotic. The story invites the mind to imagine the commotion as one large crowd encounters the other at the city gate.
And yet, Luke’s injunction to “Look!” is more than just an invitation for the reader to behold. It indicates the way that Jesus himself is approaching this moment.
In spite of the clashing crowds, Jesus notices the widow. His attention is not on the crowds or even on the bier bearing the dead boy, but the widow.
Surely this death has left her in distress, not only from the tremendous grief of a parent burying a child, but also the prolonged grief of a woman facing the future without a spouse or children. She’s done for. And Jesus notices her.
One is tempted to say, “Look!” Look how verse 13 draws our attention to the widow three times: “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’”
While attention will always be showered on a dead body that is raised up to life, while attention will be likewise showered on Jesus as the crowd declares him a prophet that has been raised among them, Jesus’ attention is on the widow. It is she whom he sees, it is she for whom he has compassion, and it is she to whom he speaks.
The act of noticing is, in itself, one of the most powerful acts of human community. Even Immanuel Kant’s great treatise on knowing, The Critique of Pure Reason, relies on the importance of noticing as a primary step toward synthesizing one’s perceptions with one’s concepts.
While it’s not always noted, Kant’s famous “Transcendental Deduction” (the B version) begins with the phrase, “In every act of attention,” or aufmerkung (“marking out”) in German. Before perceptions can synthesize with concepts, one must notice. One must choose which perception—of the myriad of perceptions that one has at any given moment—is the one that gets attention.
For Jesus, it was not the dead boy, the city gate, the intersecting crowds, or any other focal point. His act of attention was given to the widow. In the midst of the chaos, he sees her.
Surely the act of attention is key to political discourse. When reams of attention are given to the clashing crowds, who notices the grieving widow? Who notices those whose lives are irrevocably altered for the worse? Who notices the marginalized, the destitute, those who live on the thin margin between security and disaster? Who pays attention to the voiceless, the repressed, or the underrepresented?
When the large crowd of admirers meets the large crowd of mourners, Jesus notices the widow, a political act of directing attention to one whose life is most imperiled. Followers of Christ would do well to do the same.
D. Mark Davis is pastor and head of staff for St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California. Ordained in 1996, he holds a PhD. in theology, ethics and culture from the University of Iowa and a D.Min. from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia. He is the author of two books: Talking About Evangelism (May 2006) and Left Behind and Loving It (Fall 2011), and he blogs intensive Bible studies regularly at http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com.