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Modern Western culture is marked by opinion polls. What people think about any topic can be closely examined instantly, with precision and a basketful of statistics. We are a society awash in numbers reflecting opinions.
When Jesus travels to the little village of Nain and raises from the dead the only son of a widow, there is a popular reaction. The confession that emerges keeps the question of Jesus' identity before Luke's audience. And other opinions about Jesus follow shortly (9:7-9, 18-20). If George Gallup, George Barna or Israel Today had taken a poll at this point in Jesus' ministry, the popular response would have been that Jesus was a prophet. What caused this popular assessment of Jesus? Luke traces its development here, though he saves for later his explanation of why it is not the decisive description of Jesus.
Luke narrates here with extreme economy. Jesus enters the little town of Nain; this is the only time it is mentioned in the Bible, and this is one of the few times Luke notes the locale of an event. The town probably lay six miles southeast of Nazareth, at the foot of Little Hebron over the valley of Jezreel (Fitzmyer 1981:658). Near the city gate a funeral procession is in process. Probably this only son of a widow died earlier this same day, since Jewish tradition encouraged a quick burial in order to avoid ceremonial uncleanliness (Strack and Billerbeck 1926:4:578-92; m. Sanhedrin 6:5; m. Mo`ed Qatan 1:6-7, 3:5-9; Semahot 1). According to custom, the bereaved family members would rend their clothes and mourn the death. The process did not begin until it was certain that death had occurred. The body was anointed to prevent deterioration. It was buried quickly and was not kept overnight at home. The corpse would be wrapped in a burial cloth and put on a burial plank for all to see.
During the procession of the funeral entourage, after all these actions have been taken, Jesus encounters the mourning widow and the crowd.
The widow weeps for the loss of her only child. She is now all alone in a hostile world; no family to care for her. Recognizing her intense pain, Jesus approaches the corpse on the plank. He touches the plank—an act that would render him ceremonially unclean, but that pictures his compassion (Num 19:11, 16; Sirach 34:30). He tells the corpse to rise up. If there were no authority behind his words, the action would be blackly humorous or tragically misguided. But Jesus reveals the extent of his authority by confronting death. His words are successful: the dead man sat up. This was no longer a deceased mass of decaying flesh.
This miracle is reminiscent of the Old Testament resuscitations performed by Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:32-37). Those healings took a little more effort: Elisha lay on the boy three times and Elisha touched the boy with the staff and then lay on top of him. When Jesus hands the boy back to his mother, the language recalls 3 Kingdoms 17:23 LXX (1 Kings in English). So even as Luke tells the story, he points to prophetic models. Such historical background explains why the crowds come to see Jesus as a great prophet. The Old Testament precedents help explain the event. Given such precedents, the reader should not jump to conclusions about what such events prove about Jesus' divinity, especially since Peter and Paul will do similar works. The belief that Jesus is divine has other bases.
Jesus' comment on the significance of this event and others like it comes in Luke 7:22-23. These events point to a certain era of expectation and thus suggest who Jesus is, though even in chapter 7 the emphasis falls on messianic fulfillment. When the crowd fears and recognizes Jesus as a great prophet, they are not wrong; their view of Jesus is merely incomplete. With his account of this miracle Luke is steadily building his portrait of the many-faceted nature of Jesus. God is visiting his people. God's visitation is a key theme in Luke (1:68, 78; 19:41-44; Acts 15:14). God is active through Jesus. Public opinion about Jesus is spreading and is taking on various forms. God is at work through him. Yet his activity suggests that no one label or title is sufficient to describe and explain who he is.
But the nature of his work speaks as well. Jesus' ministry is about compassion. It is able to overcome a hurdle as significant as death (1 Cor 15). The scope of his authority knows no limits. Surely someone with such power should be the object of great interest. Surely he should be heeded and allowed to speak for himself, rather than being categorized according to the whims of popular opinion. So Luke turns to an exchange between Jesus and John the Baptist to show how the One who performs such wonders views himself.