The Common Good

On Scripture: Women, Work, and the Word

Graph courtesy Pew Forum
Graph courtesy Pew Forum

A recent Pew poll revealed a significant shift in American families. Four in 10 of this country’s households now rely primarily on the income of women.

This is both good news and bad. For many women, new opportunities are allowing them to be the primary breadwinners in their families. In some careers, women are chipping away at the very real glass ceiling so many have and continue to face. Our efforts towards equality have made some strides. Some strides.

At the same time, a significant majority of households who rely primarily on women’s incomes are single-mother households living in poverty or near-poverty. Structural barriers lead almost inexorably to more complicated and difficult lives for these families. From health care and food costs to child-care and educational expenses, they face greater challenges because of structural obstacles we so often unwittingly endorse and from which we even benefit.

Some things never change.

In Luke 7:11-17, Jesus confronts the economic systems of his own time and provides an unexpected kind of healing.

Stories of Jesus healing people are common in the Gospel of Luke. The account of the widow of Nain in Luke 7:11-17, however, breaks a number of the patterns we expect to see around these narratives.

This story revolves around Jesus and a widow whose son has died. Jesus sees her accompanying the funeral procession and is so moved by the sight that he brings her son back to life.

In contrast to so many of the healing stories, the person in need of healing never asks for Jesus’ help. This mournful mother does not seek Jesus out. Her faith is never commended. In fact, she never speaks aloud in this narrative. Instead, Luke writes that Jesus sees her and has compassion for her.

Let’s emphasize this: for her. It is not the dead son who draws Jesus’ compassion but his now bereft mother.

Why focus on her plight? Certainly, she grieves the loss of her child. But her grief has an additional dimension. In Luke’s telling and in much of the Bible, widows find themselves in precarious situations. Without a husband — and worse without a son — to provide financial support, a widow found herself at the mercy of the surplus kindness of her neighbors. For Luke, widows are the victims of a cruel economic system that provides them few ways for them merely to survive.

Jesus has compassion for this widow not just because she grieves the loss of her son but also because this funeral dirge marked her death in some significant sense. His death meant a life of uncertainty and financial calamity for her. This is why Jesus is moved by her plight and tells her not to weep. This is why he demonstrates to her that her life as she knows it is not drawing to a close.

Truly, she is the one that is healed in this story; she is the one that is brought back to life.

Jesus reaches out to her in her sorrow. Why then does she not seek out Jesus’ help? As I have argued elsewhere, “Perhaps she has already past the dim hope that her son would be given back to her. Perhaps her future is so dark that she cannot imagine another way out. Perhaps all she can do in this moment of despair is grieve for her son and for herself. Perhaps there is nothing left for her to do but to face death. But Jesus intrudes into this scene of death and hopelessness, sees in the widow’s tears a cry of anguish God has long promised to heed, and boldly brings her from death into life. In other words, for Luke, resurrection is not just the resuscitation of a dead body but the invigoration of people and their communities in God’s righteousness and justice. Who better to receive this gift than a widow on the very brink of death?” (New Proclamation Year C 2013: Easter Through Christ the King, p 81)

What if Jesus were to encounter today not a grieving widow but a single mother courageously leading a family on the edge of poverty? What life-giving message might he share with her? What faith would he see in her?

Recent news reports have brought to light the shifting and frequently impossible economic situations in which women find themselves in the wake of the Great Recession. So also, Luke’s story about a widow on the edge of destitution is deeply concerned with women living on the edge of existence.

Where was God to be found in the days of Jesus? Look to the widow and anywhere else economic unfairness reigns. God stands with the downtrodden. Where is God to be found today? Look to the single mother and anywhere else economic unfairness reigns. God stands with them.

In the video above, we meet Adrielys, a woman living in the midst of profound economic struggles. Adrielys says at one point, “To be honest, I don’t have any hope.” The widow in Luke’s story could have spoken the same words. And yet, despite or perhaps because of her hopelessness, Jesus had compassion on her.

He saw faith in that widow from Nain, a faith honed by impossible barriers but also deep courage. Would Jesus see faith in Adrielys as well? I think so.

He would see the same faith he saw in the grieving widow, a cry to God that things ought not be so and enough faith to say so aloud. And if Jesus saw faith in the widow of Nain, should we not see the same thing in the stories of women like Adrielys? And should we not work together to heal not just her spiritual needs but her most pressing financial needs?

What if we saw such struggling women not as so-called “welfare queens” or criticized their purportedly “poor” decisions? What if we saw them instead as women of great faith? What if we heard in their cries of hopelessness a demand for justice, a yearning for the world to be turned upside down and set aright? What if we saw this ever-growing number of women supporting their families not with dismay but with expectation that God will be in their midst? What if we viewed them not with pity that stops at short-lived sympathy but with a compassion that works toward justice?

Why did Jesus heal in general but this woman in particular? Jesus did not heal so that he might draw a crowd in order then to preach the good news. The healing was the good news. It was an embodied Gospel as powerful as any words he might have spoken. He healed because in the wholeness these healings conveyed we catch a glimpse of the reign of God, a reign with which we can participate even now. So look to the widow, look to the single mother. There you will see faith in all its fullness. There you will see Jesus calling us to embrace God’s reign.

Rev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. He was ordained by Peachtree Baptist Church (CBF) in 2006. After completing a bachelor of arts degree in religion at Oklahoma Baptist University and a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, he earned a doctoral degree in New Testament from Emory University. Barreto's ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.

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