When Holy Mercy Touches the Dust of Death – Brad Jersak

Luke 7:11-17 (NRSV)

Jesus Raises the Widow’s Son at Nain

11 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” 17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

What happens when a holy God touches an unclean man?

And what happens to a holy God when he is touched by an unclean man?

How we choose to answer may depend very much what we believe holy means.

And it may depend on what unclean means.

But most of all, how we think about holiness, uncleanness and what happens when they touch must be informed by Jesus’ answer to that question. In the Gospel story of the widow of Nain, we find an answer.

We see holiness in action.

What is holiness?

When our human ancestors first saw lightning fall from heaven and set a tree on fire, their minds were also ignited with ideas of God and holiness and the dangerous, destructive power of holiness.

When our spiritual ancestors, the newly liberated Hebrews, first gathered at Mount Sinai, they thought of holiness as not only powerful, but radioactive and infectious. Holiness had touched the mountain and if an animal touched the mountain, it needed to be killed … from a distance (Exodus 19:12-13). Holiness was deadly. Laws were established to boundary holiness. DO NOT TOUCH!

When the priesthood was given special provisions for handling holiness, keeping these regulations was associated with stewarding the Holy and with being holy.

When the religious establishment meticulously kept these laws, they eventually saw themselves as holy. Holiness was law-keeping. Or conversely, holiness was avoiding law-breaking. Holiness was not sinning (however you defined it).

Holiness focused on sin avoidance inevitably became moralistic and puritanical. Christianity’s holiness movements could measure one’s sanctification by what you didn’t do. Holiness virtually became synonymous with self-righteous practice and rendering moral judgments.

The holiness of Jesus

In Christ, God recalibrates our sense of the Holy. “Be holy as I am holy” is unveiled as “be merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful.” In Luke 6:32-42, the holy mercy of God is marked by indiscriminate grace and hospitality, radical forgiveness, enemy love and refraining from judging others.

If you want to be holy as God is holy, be merciful as your Father is merciful.    

But Christ not only teaches us holy mercy. In the story of the widow of Nain, he shows us holy mercy.

In this story, we see the holy power and holy mercy of God revealed in Christ as life-giving compassion. Holy God sees this poor widow, already grieving the loss of her husband and now, her only beloved son. And holiness reaches out to touch them.

This is the holiness that came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit, and became man.

This is the holiness of God revealed in the humanity of Jesus Christ. This is the holiness that sees our hurt, our misery, our grief. This is holiness rooted in mercies of God, that cause him to come down and be with us.

When we think of the word Holy, we must think of the mercies of God.

What is uncleanness?

In the story, holy God touches the unclean man.

Why unclean? Because he’s dead.

Death is corruption. Death is contamination. Death is cursed.

Do Not Touch!

But he does.

What does the Bible mean when it uses the word “unclean”?

Even under the law, uncleanness was not primarily about moral impurity or sinful behavior.

Uncleanness referred specifically to our contamination by the dust of death. (These thoughts were inspired by a lecture from Dr. Matt Lynch)

And so, we have all these laws that warn people not to touch the dead, or be touched by dead things. If you touched death, you were unclean.

Some of these laws were strange. Even the regulations around human emissions—menstruation, spilling semen, etc.—these are not at all about moral failure or sin. The “uncleanness” is somehow connected to life and death.

Some of these laws were practical. Death could infect you, contaminate you, and even kill you. Ritual cleansing was required before or after touching death. Such laws proved critically important to Jews during eras of plagues like leprosy or the black death.

But all these laws around uncleanness also pointed to the deeper problem.

We’ve all been touched with the dust of death.

We’ve all become unclean.

We all die.

What happens Holy God touches unclean humanity?

And yet what does Jesus Christ do in this story?

Holy God touches the dead boy. The unclean corpse. The dead.

But Christ is not contaminated. His holiness is not spoiled. He doesn’t become unclean.

Instead, his holy touch cleanses the boy—cleanses him of death itself!

Look at the young man. He lays there, dead in his coffin.

But when Christ in his holy mercy touches the unclean dead man?

He comes to life.

He sits up.

He begins to talk.

I wonder what he said.

This story is a microcosm of the Incarnation

This is the Incarnation:

Holy God, in Christ, conjoins himself to humanity.

Humanity, cursed by the dust of death.

What happens to humanity?

When Holy Life touches death, what happens is resurrection.

When the divine nature unites itself to fallen human nature, death is overcome.

When holy God touches unclean man, he cleanses it of the dust of death.

What happens to God?

God the Word becomes flesh and touches this dead man with his bare hand.

Holy God, in the flesh, touches us but is also touched.

He experiences our touch. Directly.

God the Word becomes flesh and experiences human emotions.

He sorrows and bears our sorrows.

He sorrows for, sorrows with, sorrows as any fully human person sorrows.

Holy God, in the flesh of a human soul, is “exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death.”

He weeps real human tears, bloody tears in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:38 KJV).

Not only for himself, but for all who’ve come under the curse of death, just as he will.

God the Word becomes flesh and suffers and dies and is buried.

And this same Christ rises again on the third day, according to the Scriptures.

Back to Nain

But why raise only this man?

Or Jairus daughter? Or Lazarus?

Why only three resurrections?

If he could raise them …

Why not raise everyone?

What if he has? What if he does! What if he will! That’s the plan, glory to God.

This story shows us what happens for us all.

In Christ, God has touched everyone.

And he raises up Adam and Eve, you and me with himself.

Everyone is included

There’s an ancient hymn that proclaims this.

I sang it this Sunday.

When Christ God, the giver of life

Raised all of the dead from the valleys of misery with his mighty hand

He bestowed resurrection on the human race

He is the Savior of all,

The resurrection, the life, the God of all.

Everyone is invited

This salvation from death, the holy cleansing from the dust of death is for everyone.

And so this resurrection comes with a summons for everyone.

Believe it! Enter in—participate—enjoy this grace-gift of new life.

The hymn puts it this way:

The dominion of death can no longer hold men captive

For Christ descended, shattering and destroying its powers

Hades is bound while the prophets rejoice and cry

‘The Savior has come for those in faith

Enter, you faithful, into the resurrection.’

And so we are both included and invited.

TOUCH BY FAITH the holy mercy of God in Christ.



Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More