Blogging toward Sunday

June 3, 2007

It’s clear that Luke’s desire is to write an “orderly account”; he has
an agenda, is out to prove something, and his writing occasionally
seems a bit contrived and predictable. If this story were only about
Luke crossing things off his list—one, two, three, four prophesies
fulfilled, or to make some point about Jesus being like Elisha but
greater than Elisha because Jesus merely speaks and the dead rise—then
it would be about as compelling as crossing things off a grocery list.
What’s interesting, however, is that the desire for order and clarity,
the intent to provide the reader with certainty and security (1:4)
sometimes meshes and sometimes doesn’t mesh with the
outrageous liveliness of the Gospel he’s trying to articulate. We learn
Luke’s system and at the same time glimpse things that are
“unsystematizable.”

The text
points to the Elijah and Elisha narratives. I like these strange,
detailed narratives. Elijah carries the widow’s dead son up into his
room and stretches himself out over the boy three times. Elisha puts
his mouth on the mouth of the Shunammite woman’s dead son, his eyes on
the boy’s eyes, his palms on the boy’s palms, and breathes into him.
The oddness and physicality of these resurrections make them feel
intimate and vulnerable. In the official narratives about kings and
governments and power, where things often appear black and white, these
prophets live in the houses of pagan women, heal the enemy, perform
strange little miracles for “unimportant” people. Elijah may mock the
prophets of Baal, but in the narrative immediately preceding his
confrontation with the Baal worshipers, he is fed and housed by
one—then brings her son back to life.

When Jesus brings the
widow’s son back to life, the people are seized with fear. After all,
we expect death— it defines the order of the world. But now
death—something fixed, that we can count on, that we know—is unfixed.
No wonder people are scared! How do you categorize death being undone?
There are no categories for it. James Alison says that with Jesus “the
whole mechanism by which death retains people in its thrall had been
shown to be unnecessary. Whatever death is, it is not something which
has to structure every human life from within (as in fact it does) but
rather it is an empty shell, a bark without a bite” (Raising Abel).
Resurrection forces us to revise our perceptual categories, our
estimations of what is real, and question what normally orders our
world. Resurrection unravels the logic, the structure, the systems
we’ve come to believe in, the ground of our judgment (our systems and our judgment, not just theirs). It’s frightening and unbelievably hopeful.

Jesus
has compassion on the widow. Earlier Zechariah sung about how it was
God’s tender mercy that would save the people and bring peace. It’s not
math that will do it, but something that happens deep “in the bowels”
(from the Greek word splagcna) of God. Jesus doesn’t just
take the widow’s needs seriously, he takes them into the core of his
being and makes her pain his own. It’s not the kind of activity that
makes for a smooth running machine. Compassion is not about boundaries
and rational detachment. Brueggeman calls it a radical threat to the
numbness maintained by the dominant order, and says that it’s not
“triumphant indignation” that will “undermine the world of competence
and competition,” but “passion and compassion” (The Prophetic Imagination).
The stories of Elisha and Elijah and Jesus suggest that radical change
requires passion and compassion for our political and personal and
religious enemies. Compassion isn’t formulaic or predictable or tidy or
even rational—yet it is perhaps the only thing that can save us.