Nargis lives in a poor village in West Bengal. She was married off in her teens to a man already diagnosed with TB. Her parents couldn't afford a decent dowry so they settled for the first marriage offer that came their way for their daughter. Her husband died a couple of years later, leaving her a mother and a widow in her early 20's. Today she supports herself and her young son by working in people's houses. When she gets work, she and her son eat one meal a day. They live with her in-laws who can offer a small room for them, but are too poor themselves to help her with anything more, so Nargis has to feed and clothe herself and her son on her own.
Then there is Malti Mishra who said she had burnt all her hopes on her husband's pyre. Priti Yadha Bhai who 30 years ago was married for only ten days, Anwara Bibi who bore nine children and begs food to survive. They all had their different sorrows but every one of them ended with the same sentence. "I want nothing more now from life. Life is a “living sati,” they say, a reference to the outlawed practice of widow burning at a husband’s death. I'm just waiting for death." They say.
A widow is sometimes called "pram" or creature in India, because it was only her husband's presence that gave her human status. In some Indian languages, a widow is referred to as "it" rather than "she"; in others, the word doubles as an abuse or is barely differentiated from the word for prostitute.
The reality is, however, that of the 258 million widows across the world, more than 115 million live in poverty, 86 million have suffered physical abuse and 1.5 million children whose mothers who have been widowed will die before reaching the age of five. With upwards to 5-6 children to care for, we could be talking close to a billion widows and orphans in vulnerable and challenging circumstances.
We are reminded of this sober reality as we approach International Widow’s Day on June 23. We are even more reminded of this sober reality as we read our texts today from 1 Kings and Luke where widows figure prominently: the widow of Zarephath has next to nothing to live on: both widows lose their sons – their only link to survival and social standing. In many parts of the world, the plight of widows and orphans has not changed much from the world Elijah and Jesus lived in. In a male-dominated world, women were considered property; first of her father then her husband, then her son. There was little to no economic or social protection outside this system. So a widow who had no sons was truly in dire straits. This is why the Hebrew Scriptures make clear the community’s obligations and God’s intent: The law in Deuteronomy states: "He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.” Deut. 10:18 The Psalms remind us that God (68:5) is “A father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows,” (Psalm 146:9) “The LORD …supports the fatherless and the widow.”
No doubt these scriptures were on the mind of Jesus as he entered Nain, followed by his disciples and a large crowd. There at the city gates, the border between life and death, between safety and insecurity, a young man was being carried out to be buried, the only son of a widow. A large crowd accompanied them. Jesus, standing at this border, sizes up the situation and instantly is filled with compassion for her – this woman left bereft of everything in her world.
Jesus speaks twice: first telling the widow not to weep. This is a command of faith if there ever was one, since nothing had of yet changed for her. It is just the promise of something better, greater, a life beyond her imagination. Then Jesus touches the bier, making himself ritually unclean by touching a dead man’s casket – and commands the young man to Rise. The young man sits up and begins to talk and Jesus gives him back to his mother. Fear seizes the crowd; yet they glorify God, proclaiming “a great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” confirming the prophecies of old.
There are two-noteworthy risings in this passage from Luke. The dead young man rises from his casket. Jesus, in restoring him to life, is seen as a great prophet, like Elijah who also restored life to a dead boy, Jesus is rising among the people. So the signs of Jesus’ rising as a great prophet are evident in the acts of rising others up – others for whom it would be impossible to get up on their own. It should not be overlooked that we could acknowledge a third rising in this story – the widow of Nain – who had been brought low from the death of her son now also rises and is restored.
The message to rise is one we all need to hear today. We may not live in a country that treats widows and orphans as outcasts living on the edges of society, but it doesn’t mean that life is easy for them. Furthermore there are more ways to be widowed and orphaned than through the death of a husband or father. There are more ways to die than to lie in a coffin. We can be perfectly alive, but dead in our unconfessed sin. We can be dead through the crushing weight of despair, the weight or cares of the world, of worries or depression; we can be among the living dead through suffering. We can be dead through a lack of compassion for others. We can be orphaned through rejection and grief or loss. We can be widowed as much through divorce, a breakup or a separation as through death.
As much as we need to care actual widows and orphans and the grieving, we need to acknowledge those caught in a spiritual widowhood, spiritual orphans, those who are spiritually dead. Some of us fit this description. The problem is, like most widows and orphans in this world, we can’t get out of it on our own. We need help to live again. From Jesus and from each other.
It is through Jesus, the compassionate one, who meets us at the gates of the city, at that boundary to life and death, the one who himself is Risen, he has the authority to command us to rise. Rise from death. Rise from pain and despair. Rise up from the hopelessness. Rise from whatever binds us – whatever sin or oppression that holds us captive. Rise! Rise! Rise!
That is our task in the world. Life is our legacy, abundant life, Jesus said, not death. So we are to respond to the call to rise up, and then issue the call to rise to the downtrodden. We are to be filled with the same compassion that consumed Jesus.
So we say to Nargis and Malti and Priti, Rise! We must become part of the great movement of Risers who make it possible for others to rise – through our compassion, our advocacy, our resources, our presence – because our ability to rise is connecting in the rising of others. That is one of the great mysteries of faith that Jesus insists of us, the Risen one, who rose as others were commanded to rise by him. Through compassion we will find our way to be risers. So hear the command of the risen one as he touches us where we are dead: Rise! Then go, in compassion, touch someone else entombed – take them by the hand and bid them, Rise! Amen.
https://www.rnw.org/archive/life-ashes-story-indias-widowsune 23, International Widow’s Day