In those days, great was the misery all over Israel. Hunger spread, like an oilspill, to all the cities by the lakeshore and throughout the farms. There was starvation in poor people’s houses, and it became their constant companion day and night.
Naomi: Here, son, take it… Just make do with this piece of bread and…
Abel: I can’t stand this!… Damn!… I work like a beast under the heat of the sun, and this is what I get: a piece of hard bread!
Naomi: Oh my son, what can I do if there’s nothing more than this?… We’re indebted to everyone, and nobody wants to lend us a single cent anymore…
Abel: It’s not you, Mamma… Until when will we put up with this?… Tomorrow it’s gonna be the same thing… filling up the barns of this fortunate Eleazar and then back here to chew a crust of hard bread for supper. This isn’t life, dammit!
Naomi: Abel, my son, don’t curse, for God might punish us…
Abel: That’s it! Here we are living in misery, and worse, God comes to punish us! Well, let Him do what He pleases, for all I care!… To hell with God and with Eleazar, and with everyone!… Oh…! Oh… this pain…!
Naomi: Son, what’s the matter?
Abel: Nothing… it’s nothing, Mamma… I’m going to lie down… Leave me alone, Ma.
Naomi: Are you feeling bad, my son?
Abel: I’m tired, I feel like they beat me several times… and I feel cold all over my body…
Naomi: Oh, Lord God! When will you ever remember us, when?
Woman Neighbor: Let me look at him, neighbor… Oh, yes, this boy is burning with fever… he looks sick…
Naomi: Holy God! What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?
Woman Neighbor: Don’t worry. Let me prepare some bitter lemon for him and you’ll see how soon he will get well…
Naomi: Do you think so, neighbor…?
Woman Neighbor: He’ll get well, you’ll see… If he doesn’t, then what can we do? Don’t be sad Naomi; if this is really meant for him, then let’s just accept it.
The doctor came that night…
Doctor: Your son is serious, lady. The high fever has consumed his whole body.
Naomi: He hasn’t uttered a word for two days, Doctor. He doesn’t even know who I am… Oh, my son, my son!
Doctor: I can’t do anything.
Naomi: Is he… going to die?
Doctor: This question of death is God’s concern and not ours.
Naomi: If he dies, what will I do?… He’s the only one I have, the only one.
That young man was the only one Naomi had. Her husband passed away several years before. Since then, Naomi worked on the farm in order to raise her son. Her hands became calloused and her youthful face developed wrinkles. That year, hunger struck Naomi’s house, as it did the rest of the houses of Israel. This was followed by sickness. That day at dawn, death came to that house.
Naomi: Abel, my son! Abel!… Abel!
Woman Neighbor: Don’t call him anymore, Naomi. He’s gone.
Naomi: It can’t be!… It can’t be!
Woman Neighbor: Learn to accept it, woman. God gave him to you, God took him away from you.
Naomi: But I needed him!… He was the only one I had!… I live because of him!… Now, what’s the use of life?
Woman Neighbor: Better resign yourself, Naomi, and have patience….
Naomi shut the eyes of her son Abel and, assisted by her neighbors, washed his body and wrapped it in a clean white sheet. Soon the mourners came, those women who wept for our dead and informed everyone of death through their songs. Their plaintive cries were heard through all the houses of the small town of Naim. Naomi’s friends came to console her and to prepare her son’s burial…
Woman Neighbor: Oh Naomi, your son was seen working with you in the field up until last week. The mourners gathered beside the dead body. Some men played vigil music with their flutes, while the others prepared the little bed on which to place the dead boy during interment.
Another Woman: It’s destiny, Naomi, which is written in the book of heaven. No amount of tears can erase it. So, accept your fate.
Naomi: I’m all alone! I’m all by myself! I have no husband to give me other children, nor children who can give me grandchildren… Of what use are my breasts, my womb and my hands!… I’m useless!
Woman Neighbor: Be resigned to your fate, woman.
Naomi: Why? Why me?… He’s the only one I have!
Woman Neighbor: It was a case of bad fever.
Naomi: But he was very young. He didn’t have to die! He didn’t have to die!
Woman Neighbor: Accept your fate, woman, accept your fate…
During those days of hunger, Peter and I went with Jesus to Nazareth. Jesus wanted to send Mary, his mother, some money and to see how she was. Before returning to Capernaum, we passed by Naim… where a cousin of his lived. Naim was a small town attached to the outskirts of Mount Gabial and very closely guarded by the heights of Mount Tabor. As we were approaching Naim, we heard from afar the mournful music of the flutes and the plaintive cries of the women…
Peter: What a curse! This is the third death that we’ve seen on the road… Since we left Capernaum, we’ve done nothing but come across funerals.
John: It must be another case of black fever again. There must be an epidemic here.
Jesus: What epidemic are you talking about? It’s hunger, John. We poor are dying of hunger. There was no harvest, prices have gone up, and so have taxes. People will naturally die of hunger.
Through the road leading outside the town, we saw the funeral heading toward us. Everyone witnessed how the mourners, dressed in sackcloth, beat their bare chests, and pulled their hair while crying in anguish. Behind them was the dead man being carried by four men on an improvised bed. He was wrapped in a white sheet. Then we saw him… He was a young man. There was no trace of beard on his face. Beside him must have been his mother, anguish written all over her face. She was crying and tearing her dress off while lifting her arms to heaven. Many men and women from the town accompanied her… We followed the cortege when it passed in front of us…
Woman Neighbor: Oh my God! Oh my God!…. Poor Naomi! Poor woman!
John: Who died, madam?
Another Neighbor: Abel, Naomi’s son. His mother was widowed six years ago. He was her only child…. What a misfortune! He died so young!
Jesus: This guy didn’t have to die.
Woman Neighbor: But he died. He had this black fever which is deadly. Oh my God! Oh my Lord!
The funeral cortege passed through the narrow and dusty road bordering the hill of Naim and at the far end, was the small cemetery…
Woman Neighbor: He died this morning at sunrise…!
Jesus: He didn’t die, woman… Don’t say that. Better say: They killed him… Yes, yes… he was killed by those who overpriced the little wheat that the rains have left us! He was killed by those who continue to enrich themselves while the children of Israel are dying of hunger!
The people behind the cortege turned to Jesus who raised his voice while uttering those words, amid lamentations and flute sounds. The comotion that ensued spread fast enough and the men carrying the dead stopped walking. Everyone was looking at us…
Neighbor: Hey, what are these strangers shouting about at the back? Respect the dead, dammit!
Woman Neighbor: This man is saying that Abel was killed not by black fever nor any other fever, but that he died of starvation.
Another Neighbor: It doesn’t matter anymore. He’s dead, and he’s dead.
Naomi: My son! My son! Oh my son!
Neighbor: Keep on moving! Stop this silly talk! Come on! Continue playing the flutes!
Naomi: My God, why did you take him away from me? Why?…
Without uttering a word, Jesus moved his way through the flute players and the farmers from Naim. Peter and I followed him. Jesus stopped by the boy’s mother and in a low voice began to say the prayer for the dead of Israel. Beside him, the mourners continued weeping, in keeping with their job…
Naomi: My son! My son’s dead! He was the only one I’ve got!
Neighbor: Hey you, what’s your business disturbing the funeral?
Jesus went near the boy’s mother…
Jesus: Now, now, stop weeping, woman…
Naomi, her eyes full of tears, turned to Jesus…
Naomi: I’ve lost everything I had!… Everything’s gone!… Everything!
Neighbor: Come on Naomi. You must accept your fate.
Naomi: No! I don’t want him to die! No, no!
Jesus: Neither does God want your son to die. Neither does He accept it.
John: Hey Jesus, let’s get away from here. There’s nothing we can do.
Jesus: Stay, John. I want to see him….
Then Jesus went near the small bed carrying the dead boy and looked at him; he also had tears in his eyes. The mourners were gathered around the corpse, their hair disheveled. They were crying in deep sorrow. They never stopped…
Jesus: What was your son’s name?
Naomi: Abel, his name was Abel…
Jesus: Of course, Abel… History keeps on repeating itself… Abel… Where are the Cains who killed you?…. Until when, Oh God of Israel? Until when will you turn a deaf ear to your many children dying of hunger?… Until when shall our mothers mourn the early death of their sons? The blood of this Abel is clamoring to God from this earth. This boy didn’t have to die, he can’t die… Abel, stand up, Abel…!
Jesus bent over the dead boy, took him by the arm and helped him to sit. Abel opened his eyes. His eyes were big and scared, as if he woke up from a long nightmare….
Naomi: My son, my son…!
Seeing this, the men dropped the small bed on the ground and ran like hell. They were followed by the mourners and the flute players, as well as by the other neighbors from Naim. They were running and screaming, horrified… Peter was as white as chalk, while my legs were trembling. Only the mother was left with us, who was looking at her son with tears still in her eyes, but she did not dare touch him.
Naomi: Abel, Abel, my son…!
Jesus looked tired, like one who had just fought a hard battle. Soon, what happened in Naim spread through the whole Galilee. And the people were saying: “We have a prophet in our midst. God has come to help His people.”
Hunger is a powerful medium for the majority of diseases. In the days of drought or loss of harvests, real epidemics come about (plague, fevers) and no one even knows their origin, much less how to fight them.
Naim is a small city, around 15 kilometers from Nazareth. Its name means “beautiful.” It is situated by the mountainside and closely sheltered by the height of Mount Tabor. At present, a small Franciscan church serves as a reminder of Jesus’ passage through this village.
The Israelites had many ways of showing their sorrow for the dead: They ripped off their clothes, loosened their hair, beat their breast, and poured ashes on their heads… They mourned their dead with ritualistic weeping from the time the news of a death became known up to interment. At times, this was a scandalous ritual. Not only the relatives and neighbors but the professional mourners as well, came to weep for the dead. Generally, a group of flute players were present during the wake, and would even play during the funeral. They wept, screamed or sang “lamentations,” which almost always commenced with an “ay.” These lamentations continued even after the burial for a period of seven days, which was the duration of mourning in Israel.
When Jesus replied to John the Baptist’s question about what he was doing in Galilee, he enumerated five signs for the coming of the Kingdom of God: That the blind would see, the crippled would walk, the lepers would be cleansed, the deaf would hear and the dead would be brought back to life (Mt 11:1-6). All these are signs of the Messianic time. Luke included this episode in his Gospel. The Good News that Jesus brings us is this: God rebels against the death of His children. He does not want death to be considered as a final destiny. He is the God of the living and therefore, fights against death.
In the episode, the widow’s son is called Abel. It is a way of telling us of a “type” of death. Abel, the second son of Adam and Eve, slain by his brother Cain, will forever be the type of the just person killed unjustly. To die of hunger is to die unjustly; it is murder. God does not want any of His children to perish in this manner. The act of Jesus, bringing Abel back to life, is therefore, not a gesture of pure compassion, but God’s firm manifestation of His rebellion against this unjust death. As in Genesis, in the face of hunger, we are always confronted with this question: “What have you done to your brother?” (Gen 4:9).
In the face of millions of people dying of hunger, no one can say: I am not responsible; this problem does not concern me; I cannot do anything. Hunger is actually the number one problem in the world. Two out of three persons living on this planet suffer from hunger or malnutrition of some kind. This is followed not only by death but by a long string of diseases – some hereditary – and countless family problems. Many entire countries suffer from hunger. In a society where hunger is a chain that binds the majority of people, the Kingdom of God will begin when this situation disappears and a new life begins by way of good nutrition. If being a widow and witnessing the death of her only son is truly an extreme situation of sorrow, there is nothing more unjust than dying due to hunger in a world where a few countries squander food each day, as people become blind to the misery of their brothers and sisters.
Death is the natural end of life. It is always much more painful when it comes prematurely and unexpectedly: When one is young, when one has hardly had a chance to live like a human being… There are Latin-American countries – Haiti, for example – where life’s expectation does not exceed forty years. (In developed countries, it reaches seventy-five years.) In many third-world countries, it is a fact that millions of men and women die “before their time.” Those who die of hunger, even if they die in their beds, die because they are killed. Their blood, like that of Abel’s, cries out to God from earth.