If you are a user of the internet, particularly of social media, you might be familiar with the blog called “Humans of New York.” Humans of New York is essentially a collection of interviews of people on the streets of New York City. It began as a photography exhibit – photos of people – faces, full bodies – accompanied by quotes and short stories about their lives. The now blog posts new stories – just a photo and a quote – weekly. Sometimes they’re incredibly brief, a line or two that illuminates some piece of that person’s life, and sometimes they’re lengthier & in a serial form…the quotations from individuals are posted as paragraphs one at a time throughout the day to highlight the drama of the story unfolding. Occasionally the blog focuses on specific groups rather than just capturing the stories of random people encountered on the street, and most recently that specific group was adults and children in the pediatrics department at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Here are excerpts from two longer stories that were part of that series:
“I used to be a really happy person. I really was. I was the person who would walk outside and say: ‘Isn’t everything beautiful? Isn’t life wonderful? Aren’t we so lucky?’ I don’t have that sense of joy anymore. I remember the Mother’s Day before Max was diagnosed. It was four years ago. We were in this same park. On the lawn over there. It was beautiful. All three of us were there. Irene and I were in love. And Max was lying on my feet and pretending to fly in the air. And he was laughing so hard and I remember feeling so happy and full of life. It was the last moment that I truly felt joy.”
They called me in the office to give me the results. They told Grace to wait outside. I was so nervous. I could barely stand. When I walked in, nobody was saying anything at first. I thought: ‘Oh, God. They don’t want to tell me.’ Suddenly they said: ‘This is amazing. It’s never happened before.’ And they held up her scan and the cancer was gone. It had been everywhere: her pelvis, her skull, her bones, her arms. And now it was gone. All of us started crying.”
Imagine the parents of those two children meeting in the halls of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, pacing late at night, unable to sleep maybe, sharing the stories of their children and their prognoses, knowing that these stories – their stories – will likely end very differently. What does the story of healing say to you about who we are – parents, children, oncologists, nurses, research scientists? What about the story of the loss of a child’s life. Does that say something different about who we are? And what do these stories say about who God is?
Today’s Old Testament & Gospel readings also tell two stories, but in this case both stories end with healing. Last weeks’ Gospel reading – about Jesus healing the centurion’s servant – also ended with healing. And while the writers of the Gospels in particular are telling us something about Jesus when the recount these stories, we know that people were also dying, untouched by Jesus’ healing hand, and so the same questions – about what these stories tell us about who we are and who Jesus is and who God is – can be asked.
Before delving into the work of interpreting a piece of Scripture, I usually try to remind myself of a couple guiding principles for interpreting the Word of God. That in itself – how do we interpret Scripture – is a question for another day, perhaps a question for Father Martin, but today I think there are two concepts that can help us understand our readings.
First, the Bible is full of complication and discord. The overarching narrative – the meta-narrative if you will – is the salvific love of the Triune God. But not every story in the Word of God points toward or furthers that narrative. Some seem to flat-out contradict or even reject that narrative. To steal a phrase from the Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann, when we encounter one of these “little stories” that doesn’t match the “great story,” what do we do? Ignore or discard it? Make it fit? I love how Walter Brueggemann encourages us not to just “make it fit,” saying that doing so dismisses the text and denies us access to the oddity of the text, the oddity of God and the oddity of life in the world. Despite the fact that today’s readings seem to fall into line with the great narrative of Scripture – the narrative of life – there are some oddities for us to notice and consider.
Last week’s Gospel reading told us the story of Jesus healing the servant of a Centurion and this week’s Gospel reading tells us a similar story, of Jesus bringing back to life the only son of a widow, as does our Old Testament reading of Elijah raising from the dead another son of a woman. Fairly straightforward, similar stories of healing. The odd thing is that the ones asking for healing couldn’t be more different. The centurion played an active role in his story. He sent elders to Jesus on his behalf, elders who appealed earnestly to Jesus for help, who spoke highly of the centurion’s faith. He showed his reverence by saying he wasn’t worthy to have Jesus enter his house. He showed an understanding of Jesus’ authority, saying that Jesus would only have to speak and his servant would be healed. The widow? She’s practically a bystander in her own story. Jesus simply looked at her and, knowing her misery, had compassion and acted. She doesn’t say anything, doesn’t ask for anything, does nothing to “prove” her worthiness of Jesus’ healing, and yet she receives that grace. And then we have the woman in Elijah’s story, who is outright hostile toward Elijah for what she sees as his bringing illness into her house and onto her son. Not only doesn’t she ask Elijah to heal her son, not only doesn’t she demonstrate belief that he can, she accuses him of being the reason her son is ill. She says to him, “You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”
The story of the widow shares another oddity both with the story of the centurion and with our Old Testament reading today about another healing – Elijah’s bringing to life the son of a woman. In all three stories, the one healing brings upon himself what the Jews & Israelites of the day would have considered defilement…by physical contact with something unclean. Jesus touches the bier, the plank basically, that the widow’s son is lying on. And in 1 Kings, Elijah takes in his arms the body of the dead son, carries him to his own room and lays on the body. Even in last week’s story of the centurion, Jesus is on his way and intending to enter the house of a Gentile, a breach of Jewish purity law.
A final oddity. The healing of the widow’s son in Luke is followed by these words – “Fear seized all of them.” Those are words we hear regularly in Scripture and I think we conceive of that fear as something like awe. We imagine the shepherds on the hill being greeted by an angel at Jesus’ birth and we envision a light, something starling in its brightness and power and majesty. But put yourself for a moment in that scene. The son has been dead, for some amount of time we don’t know, but the widow and villagers are sure enough of his death that they have begun the procession of mourning and burial. His body has been on a plank and covered with a shroud. His life is gone. And here approaches a man, a man unknown to them, who within minutes, seconds maybe, has upended death. I think – before it turned to awe and glorification – they were legitimately terrified. As the passage says, “seized by fear” which implies a tenseness, an inability to move, being struck, without words.
Once they recovered – at least momentarily – from their fear at what they’d just witnessed, Luke tells us that the villagers of Nain said, “A great prophet has risen among us!” It’s an interesting way to make sense of what they’d just seen, and it wasn’t an uncommon way. Matthew & Mark also both describe in their gospels how Jesus was thought by some to be the risen project Elijah. I doubt quite seriously we would verbalize our awe in the same way now – the word “prophet” doesn’t hold a lot of tangible meaning for us today. We don’t call people prophets in a serious or respectful way. But for the villagers of Nain, there was history they were referring to in calling Jesus, this man otherwise unknown to them, a prophet. In the English translations we hear the exact same phrase in each passage describing what Jesus & Elijah did with the now risen son – he “gave him to his mother.” But the fact that the wording is verbatim isn’t just coincidental or just in our English New Revised Standard Version. When Luke writes the words “gave him to his mother,” he is quoting verbatim the wording used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, of that story in 1 Kings. The Septuagint was the version most often used by the apostles when they cited the Old Testament, and as Greek or Hellenistic culture spread throughout the Middle East, it’s quite likely that many Jews were also familiar with the Septuagint. For those steeped in it, this similarity may very well have occurred to them, hence their exclamation, “A great prophet has risen among us!”
The simple fact of these stories being about healing fits easily into the greater story of the Scriptures, the story of love & salvation. But these oddities point to something a little darker, something captured in all of the stories from the Humans of New York series I referenced, even those that ended with healing – the proximity to death, literally and figuratively, the passing into death & back, the fear, the power and authority unleashed by Jesus, dare I say the capriciousness of God – to attribute healing to faith in one instance (the centurion) and in the others, to have faith play no role. It’s a bit unsettling, especially if we like the idea that because Jesus was human we can understand him a bit better than, say God the Father or God the Holy Spirit. In the wake of Trinity Sunday a couple weeks ago, these stories remind us of Jesus’s divinity, of Jesus’ authority, and of Jesus’ unknowability. Luke has brought his readers to a point in the gospel where is now ready to pull back the veil and demonstrate the authority of Jesus. This is the first time in his gospel where Luke refers to Jesus as Lord. Luke is saying, “things are not as they seem.” And they’re still not as they seem, and there isn’t comfort in that.
An early – 2nd & 3rd century – scholar & Christian theologian, Origen, dedicated much of his thought to interpretation of Scripture, with particular attention to the contradictions in Scripture, the oddities to use a modern word. Origen wrote, “The Scriptures were written by the Spirit of God, and have meanings, not as they appear at the first sight, but also others, which escape the notice of most. For those (words) which are written are the forms of certain mysteries, and the images of divine matters. And so, if at times we do not understand what is said, we shall not lessen our obedience or subside to easier material explanation, but wait for the grace of God to suggest to us an answer to our question, whether by direct enlightenment or through the agency of another.”
If we believe the Word of God is alive, then it must mirror life – the oddities, the mysteries, the unexplainable, the conundrums, the unfairness. There may not be comfort in those mysteries when we encounter them – mysteries like the Trinity, mysteries like why one child lives and another succumbs to cancer – but we are not alone. The mysterious, odd Word of God, is with us.