A curious detail of the Elijah story we just heard is that we’re told what the name of the city was where it took place, but we don’t know the names of the widow and her son. The woman showed remarkable hospitality sharing her last morsel of food with the prophet, but we only know her as the widow of Zarephath. And her son we only know as the son of the widow of Zarephath. It appears that to the people who first told the story, the name of the city was a crucial detail because it was outside of Israel. The prophet had left the kingdom. Elijah and King Ahab of Israel made each other’s blood boil because one maintained that a king’s power was a king’s power and the other insisted that even the king had to submit to the justice of God. Now the prophet had left the kingdom and with him God’s power to bless and heal: while a severe drought dried up the land and destroyed the harvest on the fields, miracles of hospitality and of life restored happened not in Israel, but on foreign soil, in Zarephath of Sidon. A widow from north of the border recognized what the king of Israel couldn’t or wouldn’t see. Ahab and Jezebel may have their names written in the royal chronicles of Israel, but it turned out that a nameless widow who didn’t even belong to God’s covenant people knew more about the power of Israel’s God to bring forth life than Israel’s king and queen.
Luke tells us a Jesus story that taps deeply into this prophetic tradition and presents Jesus as one greater than a prophet. Again the widow and her son remain unnamed, but we’re told that the town’s name was Naïn. The town isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the Bible, only in this story. Naïn is about 5 miles south of Nazareth, and that’s all we know about the town. Luke tells us that Jesus, the disciples and a large crowd were coming from Capernaum, that’s about 25 miles. But why tell us the name of the town and not the name of the man who walked home from his own funeral? Don’t you think everybody in Naïn knew who he was?
I have heard or read these yoked stories many times and listened for the word of God in them. This time I was drawn to the curious detail that central characters in both stories remain anonymous. And I thought about how often namelessness is part of the stories we hear day in and day out, stories that are more like statistics: so many boating accidents after a summer weekend; so many missing passengers presumed dead after an airplane crash in the Mediterranean; so many people killed after spring floods and tornadoes; so many girls obducted from schools in Nigeria and still missing. We hear nameless statistics that hide the real stories of lives changed forever, the lives of men, women, and children, the lives of sisters and boyfriends, grandfathers and neighbors, wives and sons and classmates, the real stories in which we’re each part of a web of relationships that have made us uniquely and irreplaceably who we are, relationships that we in turn have made and shaped.
I was thinking about these things when I heard a news story about a city in Syria called Daraya. I knew less about Daraya than about Naïn, but learned that on Wednesday the first Red Cross convoy had entered that town, in the first such delivery since a government-imposed siege began in 2012. People in Daraya have no access to essential services, such as running water and electricity, and systematic bombing by Syrian government forces has destroyed most buildings. Only about 8,000 people remain in Daraya, which had a population of about 80,000 before the war. What little food can be grown amid the ruins is not enough. The convoy on Wednesday carried some medical supplies, vaccines, and baby formula, but no food.
I listened to Ailsa Chang on the radio:
Humanitarian aid has finally reached the battered Syrian city of Daraya, not far from Damascus. It was taken over four years ago by Syrian rebel forces. And after that, Syrian government forces blocked off the city, bombing it regularly. Residents have been waiting four years for help. Yesterday’s convoy made it in after Russia helped broker a two-day window of calm.
Chang interviewed one of the aid workers who made it into Daraya, Pawel Krzysiek with the International Committee of the Red Cross, asking him how people reacted when they first arrived in Daraya.
KRZYSIEK: So contrary to what we expected, coming with a very limited humanitarian aid to Daraya, the people greeted us very positively. They were smiling. You could see on their faces they were happy to see us. I mean, maybe because we were one of the very first humanitarian workers reaching this town, everyone was very positive, but had only one request to us.
CHANG: What was that request?
KRZYSIEK: Please come back with food actually because we didn’t have food on this very convoy.
“Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that,” Chang interjected. “I understood that you were able to bring medicine and baby milk but no food. Why couldn’t you bring food this time?”
KRZYSIEK: The humanitarian aid allowed in was sort of a confidence-building measure. I mean, we are aware that what we brought into Daraya yesterday is definitely not what the people need.
Then Chang asked him if he was struck by any of the stories people told him as they were handing out supplies, stories of how they had been surviving these past four years.
KRZYSIEK: You know, one thing that struck me a lot yesterday was when I was talking to a woman just before we [headed] out, her child, you know, just pulled her hand and asked, did they bring bread? (…) And she said, yeah, bread is definitely something that we are all dreaming about. But, no, habibi – which means honey, basically, in Arabic – no, they didn’t bring bread yet. We hope that they will bring it very, very soon. And, you know, I hope that, too.
The Red Cross worker talked about hope; hope for a mother and her child dreaming about bread in a city besieged by death; hope that a convoy of life would get through to the city very, very soon.
“Can you tell me, Pawel,” Chang asked, “I don’t understand why is it more complicated to bring bread than medicine or baby milk?”
And he responded, “I don’t know,” and again, after a long sigh, “I don’t know.”
“Well, I’m just – I’m trying to understand,” Chang said with great tenderness, and he responded, “I mean, I wish – I’m trying to understand. (…) But I’m looking for answers. And I don’t know.”
I was struck by the tenderness and the helplessness these two gave voice to on the radio. How has death become so dominant in what we have made of life? We are trying to understand. We are looking for answers. And we don’t know.
I couldn’t help but hear the stories together, the story of the nameless mother and her child in Daraya and the story of the nameless widow and her dead son in Naïn. I believe they belong together. They are tied together by the similarities of life in the grip of death, but beyond that, by the compassionate response of Christ.
Jesus approached Naïn just when a funeral procession was making its way through the city gate. A large crowd, probably the whole town, followed the stretcher with the body of a man on it. His mother had already lost her husband, and now her son, her only son. Without a husband or a son to take care of her, her future looked grim. Widows often had to depend on the kindness of their husband’s family to survive, and many ended up sitting by the gate together with the blind and the crippled, begging neighbors and travelers for a little mercy.
The widow’s situation helps us to see that death is more than just a biological reality; it is a social reality, a moral and a spiritual reality. When we are left speechless by the fact that it is easier to drop bombs on a city than to bring bread to its hungry survivors, we have come face to face with death invading life and making it smaller, meaner, and poorer than it is meant to be.
The widow in Naïn is on her way to the cemetery for the funeral of her son, her only son, and we wonder if with him she is also going to bury her own future, her own life. Her heart is heavy with the pain of loss, but she also bears the burden of great uncertainty of what will become of her. And she is not alone. Traveling with her are the many nameless widows who only yesterday gathered sticks for one last fire to prepare one last meal for their children and themselves. Traveling with her are the mothers who tell their little ones, “no, habibi, they didn’t bring bread yet; we hope that they will bring it very, very soon.” Traveling with her are all who are trying to understand how we can be so cruel to each other in our desire for power or whatever it is we desire when we wage war against each other. Traveling with her are all who are finding it more difficult today than yesterday to sustain hope. Traveling with her are all who have seen and felt how death invades life and sucks it dry. The procession passes through the gate, and there, outside of town, coming toward them, is another procession. The two columns meet, and the Lord sees the widow, and moved with deep compassion he says to her and to all in the procession of death, “Do not weep.” And to the body on the stretcher he says, “Rise!”
This is where the procession of death stops, and not just for the time being, this is where the procession of death ends. This is where the Creator of life says “No!” to all that makes life smaller, meaner, and poorer than the fullness of God’s love desires life to be. This is where with great compassion God embraces us in the depth of our hopelessness and teaches our weary hearts to trust and to walk with Christ in the procession of life.
May all who long for fullness of life encounter the living Christ.