Translation of the Epistle for the 15th Sunday After Pentecost

The Seed Sower, Carlo Pollonera, 1881

Brethren, if we live in the spirit, let us also walk in the spirit. Let us not be made desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another. Brethren, and if a man be overtaken in any fault, you, who are spiritual, instruct such a one in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye another’s burdens, and so you shall fulfill the law of Christ. For if any man think himself to be something, whereas he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let everyone prove his own work, and so he shall have glory in himself only, and not in another. For everyone shall bear his own burden. And let him that is instructed in the word, communicate to him that instructs him, in all good things. Be not deceived, God is not mocked; for what things a man shall sow, those also will he reap. For he that sows in his flesh, of the flesh also shall reap corruption: but he that sows in the spirit, of the spirit shall reap life everlasting. And in doing good, let us not fail; for in due time we shall reap, not failing. Therefore, whilst we have time, let us work good to all men, but especially to those who are of the household of the faith.

Continuation of the Holy Gospel According to Luke

At that time, Jesus went into a city called Naim: and there went with Him His disciples, and a great multitude. And when He came nigh to the gate of the city, behold a dead man was carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a great multitude of the city were with her. And when the Lord had seen her, He had compassion on her, and said to her: Weep not. And He came near and touched the bier. And they that carried it stood still. And He said: Young man, I say to thee, Arise. And he that was dead, sat up, and began to speak. And He delivered him to his mother. And there came a fear on them all: and they glorified God, saying: A great prophet is risen up among us, and God has visited His people.

Transcription of Homily

The Saving Words of the Gospel

And He delivered him to his mother.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There’s a word here, which is a false friend, bier, which in German is bier, which means beer, but it’s actually pronounced the /bir/. So, I mispronounced that. Our Lord didn’t touch the beer, it was the bier, was the cot which this dead man was being carried. There are lots of elements in this sermon for our consideration. If you read Augustine’s Sermon No. 48, he has a rather broad commentary on this.

This takes place in the town called Naim. From that, we’ve got the name Naomi, which means pleasant one or pleasant place, if it’s a town. If you remember in the Book of Ruth, her mother-in-law was named Naomi. And at one point, she says, Don’t call me Naomi (pleasant) anymore, call me Mara; (which means bitter one) because of whatever had befallen her.

So, this woman, this widow is carrying her μονογενὴς (monogenēs), her only child. So, it’s not only son, it is her only child. And so, this widow is completely destitute. There was no network, there was no family, there was nobody to assist her in her old age. And here she lost her only son. This woman who had suffered loss of husband, is now losing her only son. And she must have been a woman of great repute because it said a multitude followed her. And so, there was probably going to be a lot of people at the funeral. A lot of promises of, “If you ever need anything…” and nonetheless, she’s still alone… for the moment. And so, they’re bringing this dead man, this young man, on his bier through the city gates.

Now, city gates is an interesting place to be in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern town 2000 years ago, because the cities were surrounded by walls, and there would be a main entrance of the city, which was approached by a circuitous road. And the idea was that if the enemy were to make a rush on the city, they wouldn’t be able to gain momentum because they’d have to make a sharp turn before entering the gates of the city. And at the gates of the city was either the local governor or his delegate, who acted as an inspector. And so, in a certain sense, the gate of the city is a place of judgment, because they had to protect their city and they didn’t want ne’er-do-wells coming into their city. And so, every city, walled city, would have this place of judgment. You’d have to pass inspection. What are you doing here? What is your business? You’re here to sell something, what are you selling? et cetera. So, it was really kind of a place of judgment.

And the bodies were taken out of the city.

In the ancient world, only Sparta buried their own in the city, everyone else buried their dead outside of the city. And so, that’s what we see is that this young man who’s died, most likely at home, is now being brought out of the city, through the gates, to the cemetery outside of the city precincts. And the Spartans buried their own close by in the confines of the city for national reasons, and it’s a healthy thing.

If you go to Europe, and you see these multitude of parish churches, right next to the church is a little cemetery. And it’s beautiful to see these faithful going to Mass and, before Mass, stopping at the graves of their forefathers, praying for them. Going into Mass, praying for them. Coming out, praying for them. And at the tomb… at each grave site is a small receptacle for holy water with the branch in it. The family members would visit the tomb, bless it with holy water, and then continue their Sunday. A very healthy thing. Very healthy to have mortality in front of us at all times, but it’s also a virtuous thing to pray for the dead. And we have a duty, especially, to pray for our forefathers, our ancestors, our parents.

And so, that’s the context.

This man is being brought out, dead, with a grieving mother, this crowd, and Our Lord does the unthinkable: He touches the bier. He touches the bier. Something that would make Him unclean. Now for the Jews, to be unclean was not a moral problem, it was a legal liturgical problem. Nobody considered this uncleanness as a fault. It was simply an obstacle to worship. And there were different things that would make somebody unclean. For example, if a woman had given birth, she would be unclean and unable to go to any Temple services for 40 days. Not a moral problem. If you had leprosy, we saw that in the Gospel not long ago, you would have to show yourself to the priest and you’d say unclean, you’d have to go live in the house built for the lepers. And that’s why, when they’re healed, the Lord says, Go and show yourself to the priest. In other words, you can now enter into the life of worship again.

Well, Our Lord does the unthinkable: He intentionally touches this funeral bier. To touch a cadaver would make you unclean.

If you remember Book Two of Virgil’s Aeneid when Troy is falling, Virgil grabs his father, he grabs his son, and takes some of the servants that he trusted most. His father’s crippled and he tells his father, I’m unworthy to touch our penates. Penates were the household idols. And the household idols in a Roman family were commemorations, little figurines, of ancestors, but they were they were considered gods. They were the household gods. The gods of hearth, the gods of kinship. And so, our ancestors then, for them, were these people who had gone before us… our observance of piety towards them would ensure blessings. But Aeneas tells his father, who’s crippled, something interesting. He says, I can’t touch them. It would be a sacrilege. So, he has to carry his father over to grab the household idols. So, there’s also this pagan notion of being unclean.

What is this? It’s the universal situation. After original sin, we are estranged from God even the pagans recognize this estrangement. And nonetheless, when God reveals Himself, truly, not this pagan notion of gods with a small g, but when God reveals Himself, little by little to the Jews, He starts to show them the path to worship, and how to be prepared for worship, how this unclean can be made clean for worship. And so, this is the radical choice that Our Lord is making. He’s touching what would make Him unclean, and nonetheless, He makes the man clean, because unclean has the notion of death. And Our Lord is the Life Principle. He is the Life He calls Himself life; the way, the truth, and the life. And so, He can’t be made unclean. In fact, He makes what’s unclean, he makes what’s dead, to live. And He comes to this man and gives Him life through something that is most likely shocking in its first expression, by touching him. But then, a great shock of seeing this man restored to life.

Augustine in his Sermon 48, mentions that Our Lord raises the dead in three places, in the house, on the street, in this Gospel, and in the tomb. And, he says, that this refers to the different spiritual states of sin. He says, at first before we even sin, there is the inclination, the temptation, so to say, and then the thought. So, Augustine, who likes to see a symbol in everything, says that the girl who was in the house away from the purview of everybody else, this was the person who’s dead through sin of thought, in a secret way. Nobody else sees those sins. This man represents those who are dead through sin but through sin of action. And then, Lazarus who was buried already in the grave, left to rot, is the man who is who was dead to through sin of habit. So, thought, action, habit.

What happens when we, who are made right with God, when we have been restored to a relationship with Him through baptism, sin, we are estranged anew we take the place of this dead man, of the little girl in the house, of Lazarus in the tomb, and we’re dead to Our Lord through sin. We are walking dead, basically.

But unlike the zombies, this man sits up in talks. So, he’s not a zombie. He’s restored to life. He has his life principle restored. He has the use of his faculties. Everything is different. I can imagine that after the resurrection of this man, who was going to die again, things must have been different for him. His understanding of how to use time worthily, his understanding of what really matters must have had undergone a radical conversion.

Christ has risen us also from the dead in forgiving us, and He has also given us over to our mother, our mother the Church. He’s given us over to His mother. No doubt He saw His own mother reflected in this widow whose morning her only son. He saw something of a premonition of His own mother’s passion, His own mother’s sorrow. And Christ restores us to our mother, to his mother.

When we sin, we don’t break rules. We break hearts. We break Our Lord’s Heart. We break our mother’s heart. Even the worst thug, the most hardened criminal, doesn’t want to make his mother cry. And so, we’re given this opportunity when we’re tempted, whether it’s in thought, it starts in thought or an impulse, we’re given a choice: Do I want to make my mother cry, who I’ve been restored to, or bring her joy through being faithful to Christ? This is the story of each one of us. We’ve been raised from the dead and the question is: Will we live out our debt? Paying our debt as no doubt this young man raised life again did after his own temporary resurrection. 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen

— Fr. Ermatinger