When Grief Turns to Fear
By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
Picture in your mind, if you will, the scene we read about a few moments ago from Luke’s gospel. Moving toward the small Galilean village of Nain, located about five miles southeast of Nazareth, is a rather large crowd of people. Because it is hilly country, we might occasionally lose sight of them as they wander in and out of the hills and wadis that surround the village. But we see that the village of Nain is their obvious destination.
Luke tells us this crowd of people is composed of Jesus and his disciples, as well as people from Capernaum who have chosen to follow the Nazarene.
It would not be surprising that people would want to follow Jesus. He is a popular commodity right now. And, he has just healed the centurion’s servant. No doubt they are talking excitedly about the fact that Jesus didn’t even have to go and touch the man or say words over him or anything. He just spoke – from a distance, no less! – and it happened. The servant was healed.
If you had been there, wouldn’t you have wanted to follow Jesus too?
Just as they are about to approach the village gate, another group is leaving. In the midst of the crowd are six men carrying a funeral bier upon which is the body of a young man who has just died. They are carrying the body to a cemetery outside of town. The cemeteries, because of the beliefs and superstitions of that day, were always outside of town, away from the living.
Focus once again on this dramatic scene. Jesus’ group is relatively quiet as they have been discussing the weighty matters of the kingdom of God. The people are listening to this young, remarkable rabbi tell them things they have never heard before. He pictures for them a God they have never known before. It is like a walking, moving, living seminary, and they are taking in his every word.
But the other crowd, the mourners, are quite noisy. It was the custom of the day, if a sufficient number of mourners were not available, actually to hire professional mourners if need be, to insure that the deceased would be properly grieved over. It may not have been necessary in this case, but we can be assured the procession is loud with their public display of grief.
Will Campbell, in his autobiography Brother to a Dragonfly, depicts a similar scene which took place during his youth in rural Mississippi. A young farm worker has been shot in a dispute over a card game. As the young man’s lifeless body lies in the door of the schoolhouse, where the shooting took place, his mother and her friends come to view the body. Campbell describes it this way…
“As the mother, alone now, took the one step up into the building the silence was ruptured by a vastly different sound. Now it was unmistakable crying. Sobbing, wailing, shouting, screaming, yelling — the broken heart of a mother and her … sisters calling their hurt to the world.”1
There is not much difference between life in the first-century world of Galilee and Mississippi back in the 1930’s. Not when it comes to grief.
These two groups of people in Luke’s story are about to converge on one another, and as they do, I can see (can’t you?) Jesus and his followers slip over to the side of the road out of respect for the dead and the mourners. As the widow and her friends pass by, Jesus stands there taking it all in, quickly sizing up the situation, thinking of the appropriate way to respond. It isn’t enough for him simply to stand over on the side of the road. He wants to do something, to introduce to these grieving folk the kingdom of God, a kingdom which knows no grief.
He sees that the body on the funeral bier is that of a man, quite possibly a young man since no wife is mentioned. Luke tells us the deceased is his mother’s only son, and that she is a widow.
Instinctively, Jesus knows the woman will be left alone, and he knows that when they bury her son they will also bury her only means of support, not to mention the most important person in her life. When they bury her son, they will also bury a large part of her. Again, as Will Campbell depicts that death scene in Mississippi, he portrays the grief-stricken mother “…looking down at a body that was once alive in her own body, had cooed and sucked and slept at her… breast.”2 Surely, that is how the widow of Nain must have felt.
Jesus knew her grief. And because of his understanding, Luke says, he had compassion for her. In all situations of life in which people have been dealt a harsh circumstance, Jesus revealed a compassionate spirit. He knew what life in God’s kingdom was like. He knew what God had in mind when he created this world. He knew that grief and death and sorrow are not in God’s eternal scheme of things. So when he could, Jesus made things right. He made them the way they are in the kingdom.
“Do not weep,” Jesus says to her.
“What?! What did he say?!” Maybe they didn’t hear him – couldn’t hear him – correctly over the noise and loud wailing. “What did you say?”
“I said, ‘Do not weep.’”
What does he mean, “Do not weep”? How can this stranger know her sorrow? The remainder of her life will be filled with nothing but weeping; weeping over the loss of her only son, weeping over that which had so much promise but now would never be. Weeping over the fact that she will be left alone with no resources from which to support herself. Think of her despair and then understand why she and the others might resent the easy intrusion of this complete and total stranger. Do not weep indeed! Easy enough for him to say!
But we all know that Jesus, even though he could heal with just a word, was not just a man of words. In fact, he never spoke a word that stood alone all by itself. His words and deeds were exactly the same and could not be differentiated from one another. And Jesus was never afraid to act decisively upon his great faith.
So having said what he said, he then steps near the body of the woman’s son and lays his hand on the funeral bier. For those of you who have ever touched a casket, or the deceased who has been placed there – and thought nothing of it in regard to its consequences – understand that in Jesus’ day that act itself meant he would be unclean according to Jewish law.
It’s just like Jesus, isn’t it, to disregard the customs or laws of his day if they got in the way of what he felt compelled to do? Notice: “…without drama, ritual, or even prayer”3 he says to the corpse, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the man sits up and begins talking.
We don’t know what the young man said. Evidently, Luke considered it not important enough to tell us. Or, perhaps it was too personal. The scriptures are silent about Lazarus as well, aren’t they? But in light of the testimony given by those who have had what we have come to call “out of body” experiences, perhaps he told her of his short glimpse of life on the other side of the veil. Perhaps he too saw a great light and heard the voice of God.
What we do know is how the crowds reacted, the two groups of people who have now joined together out of their common excitement to become one. Luke says, “Fear seized them all; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited his people!’”
There is much to be learned from this unique story, found only in Luke’s gospel. Let’s consider for a moment the lessons we might glean from it.
One thing we learn from it is the grim reality of death. The first-century Jewish culture, even with its strange customs (at least strange to us), didn’t attempt to hide death or put make-up on it as our society often does. There were, of course, no embalming practices, so once death occurred, whether it was sudden or anticipated, burial had to take place quickly. Nor was death cheapened, as our violent culture seems to do, whether that culture is real or depicted by Hollywood.
There is no denial of death’s reality in Jesus’ day. They knew the agony of death as separation, dropping with the harshness of a heavy metal door between those who are taken from this world and those who remain.
I once attended a funeral in Dickson, Tennessee, a small town about thirty miles west of Nashville. Every town has its different funeral customs and I was struck by what happened that day. Every person who attended the burial stayed until the grave was completely covered and all the flowers had been placed upon it. Family members and friends of the man who died helped fill in the grave.
I watched with a heavy heart as the deceased’s brother, a deacon in my church who had chaired the search committee that brought us there, dipped his shovel into the loose dirt and solemnly dropped it into the abyss of death before him. I couldn’t help but think about how much healthier it seemed to be than when the mourners are whisked away as quickly as possible by the funeral director, as if the quicker you leave the grave site the sooner death’s reality will go away.
For that reason, whenever I conduct a burial, I am never in a hurry to leave. Even when the “official” words have been said and the benediction spoken, there is grief work yet to be done. I do everything I can to acknowledge that with my lingering presence.
We know, do we not, the feelings of hurt and disbelief this poor widow must have felt as she walked that dusty road toward the cemetery, trailing the men who carried not just the dead form of her son but the largest part of her too. Let the grieving mother in Luke’s story teach us about the grim reality of death.
When Christ offers her an unsolicited act of compassion, you would think that joy would instantly replace her grief. But not so. Luke says their grief turned to fear.
Fear. Not joy, fear. Interesting, isn’t it? But put yourself in their place and consider how you would have responded. No doubt we all would have reacted as they did… with fear. Interestingly enough, the Greek word used here for fear is phobos, from which we get the word “phobia.” There is no hidden meaning here. They were purely and simply afraid.
But maybe their fear wasn’t so simple after all. Is it possible that there are different kinds of fear, different levels of fear. And if so, is this a good kind of fear?
The scriptures tell us that this kind of fear is “the beginning of wisdom.” It is the fear of the Lord, the type of fear that caused Moses to take off his shoes when he found himself standing, in the unlikeliest of places, on holy ground. When you are in the presence of God, you find yourself in a place of fear. It is the kind of fear that gripped the shepherds outside Bethlehem the night they were told of the extraordinary birth of an extraordinary child. They too were filled with fear.
Have you ever felt this kind of fear? Surely you have. Haven’t we all at one time or another? It is the fear that comes when there is no doubt we are in the presence of the Lord Almighty. It is fear as excitement, it is fear as opportunity when our faith has found a whole new expression. It is the fear that comes when, at any given moment, true worship takes place. It is fear as praise. It doesn’t occur very often, but when it does it is unmistakable.
Have you ever felt that fear in this place? Has our worship ever caused you to sense the fearful presence of God? Or are you bored with it all because in our search for sophistication, or some form of what we consider to be normalcy, we have lost our sense of fear?
What is it, then, that bridges the gap between ourselves and God’s redeeming presence and brings to us the fear displayed in Luke’s story? The answer, as always, is revealed in Christ. It is the compassion of Jesus. Christ’s compassion bridges all the gaps in our lives — between fear and boredom, between fear and death, between fear and faith.
Jesus didn’t just offer a word of sympathy to the widow, he intervened in what had happened to her and her son. He brought the kingdom of heaven to bear on the lives of these two people, and all those gathered around to witness this amazing miracle. In so doing, Jesus showed them all what God is like.
It is what Jesus is all about.
Always surrounding our experiences of death is the deep and eternal compassion God has for us, a compassion so wonderfully given expression in Jesus Christ his Son. In Christ, God has intervened in the world to show us what God is like. When we begin to understand just something of this, the fear that cancels out all other kinds of fear will cause us to proclaim like the people in our story, “God has visited his people.”
May we respond to Jesus’ presence with this kind of fear, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
Lord, grip us, we pray, with fear… but with the fear that brings us closer to you. Take away our feelings that we know you well enough merely to get by. Forgive us, and bring us to a newer and deeper understanding of who you are and what you want us to become. We pray this in Jesus’ compassionate name, Amen.
1Will D. Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly (New York: The Seabury Press, 1977), p. 61.
3Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), pp. 96-97.
Copyright 2007, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.