Love not fear

2nd Sunday after Pentecost – 2010

Luke 7:11-24

Marian Free

In the name of God who, in Jesus, brings healing, forgiveness and life to all. Amen.

During the week I watched a programme which followed the lives of a number of families who had broken free from a cult. The programme exposed the damage that can occur when controlling, judging and demanding leaders make the members of their congregations dependent on them. It also revealed the difficulty cult members had in letting go of a script in their head which says: “You are bad, if you don’t do what the cult says, you will go to hell.” At a special counselling centre, the cult members faced what had happened to them and tried to start thinking on their own again.

Their stories filled me with sadness. All of them had been made to feel that their only hope of heaven was to be obedient to the Pastor who was the only one who knew the word of God. At the same time, this obedience seemed always just out of their grasp. One woman says: “I always felt that I couldn’t do anything right.” The consequences for not conforming meant punishment in the present life as well as for eternity. Worse still was the punishment that was meted out to the children who were often beaten black and blue and who had their hands placed on a hot stove so that they would know what hell was like. The members of the cult had been drawn in by the authority of the pastor. They were no longer able to think for themselves – not even able to distinguish right from wrong. They lost confidence in their own powers of reason, in fact they had lost all confidence in themselves, and because, of the violence they had inflicted on their own children, they no longer felt fit to be parents.

At the centre, counsellors gently encouraged them to critique their situation and over time helped them to see that their experience had been one of abuse not of the practice of faith. A telling moment in the healing process came when a counsellor asked one woman: “According to your Christian viewpoint, what is faith supposed to produce?” The woman responded by listing the fruits of the spirit: “love, joy, peace, long suffering.” The counsellor asked: “Is that what your experience has produced?” “No”, she said. “It kills, it destroys. It doesn’t give life. It doesn’t produce fruit.” At that moment it became clear to her, that what the Pastor had been teaching was a distortion of the Christian faith, not the Christian faith at all. The Pastor’s power over her had been destroyed and she was set free to judge what faith was and what it was not.

In today’s gospel, Jesus encounters a funeral procession for the only child of a widow. Filled with compassion, Jesus raises the boy to life and restores him to his mother. He turns death to life, sorrow to joy and despair to hope.

On the surface, this is a simple miracle story demonstrating Jesus’ power to raise the dead and placing him in the line of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha (both of whom brought back to life the sons of widows). Luke’s intention in telling this story is much more complex. His goal here is to demonstrate just what sort of Saviour Jesus is and who it is who can be saved. Luke wants to demonstrate that, contrary to expectation, Jesus is not a king, not a leader of armies, not even a judge, but a healer and reconciler. He does not come only to save those who have achieved a certain standard of behaviour, or those who blindly follow sets of rules, or who think that they understand God’s word. Through his accounts of healing and raising from the dead, Luke reveals that Jesus’ ministry is extended to all and especially to those who least expect it, and those who on first impression seem to least deserve it.

In its broader context, the account of the widow’s son falls between the Sermon on the Plain and John the Baptist’s question: “Are you the one who is to come?” Earlier in the gospel, Luke has described a number of incidents in which Jesus demonstrates God’s saving love and compassion – lepers are healed, the paralysed man is forgiven. Immediately before the story of the raising of the widow’s son, Luke recounts Jesus’ healing of the slave of a Roman centurion. Together, these two accounts reveal that Jesus has a special concern with the poor and the marginalized and that God’s plan of salvation is going to be extended beyond the boundaries of Israel.

Jesus’ behaviour leaves John the Baptist bewildered. John had proclaimed the advent of someone more powerful than he, who will separate the wheat from the chaff which he will burn with unquenchable fire. In Jesus’ life, however, he is confronted with someone who announces God’s forgiveness and who, instead of condemnation, brings healing and hope. Jesus’ response to John’s question about who he is, shows that Jesus is the fulfillment of a different type of expectation. He says, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”

The story of the raising of the widow’s son is part of Luke’s programme to reveal what sort of Christ Jesus is. Jesus knows nothing of the widow or her son. He doesn’t know how the son died, or whether the mother or the son were deserving of a miracle, he doesn’t ask that they have faith, or that they promise to amend their lives. Jesus sees someone in need and responds with love and compassion and in so doing brings the boy from death to life.

Jesus brings a message of liberation and hope to the poor, the marginalized and the vulnerable. He demonstrates God’s salvific love through the healing of the sick, the raising of the dead and the forgiveness of sins. His love and good will are not dependent on the previous good behaviour of the recipient, nor are they withdrawn when someone lets him down. He sets no preconditions for his love but extends it to all in need. Jesus’ healing, forgiveness, compassion and acceptance set people free to live. The message of the gospel is life-giving not life-denying. It doesn’t bind with guilt, or constrain with the threat of judgement. It doesn’t use force to restrict or confine, but gently liberates and expands our horizons. It doesn’t create self-doubt, but builds self-esteem. It relies on love, not fear, to draw out the best in everyone. As he raised he widow’s son, so Jesus will raise us to newness of life – often when we least expect it.

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