Sunday, March 10, 2013

Salvation from death, part 3

...While he was saying these things to them, behold! one of the rulers came in and knelt before him, saying, "My daughter has died just now! Nevertheless, come place your hand upon her, and she will live." And Jesus rose and followed him, with his disciples. And behold! a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came near behind him and caught hold of the tassel of his garment, for she said to herself, "If only I just catch hold of his garment, I will be saved." Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, "Have courage, daughter! Your faith has saved you." And the woman was saved from that very moment. And when Jesus came to the ruler's house and saw the flute players and the crowd causing a disturbance, he said, "Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping." And they ridiculed him. But when the crowd had been cast out, he went in and grabbed hold of her by the hand; and the girl arose, and this news went out into all that district.  (Matthew 9:18-26)

As I mentioned in the previous post, salvation from death is the central focus of this narrative, and it's central character is a "daughter" of Israel (9:22) who had been suffering for twelve years because of a medical condition which made her ceremonially unclean according to Pharisaical standards of law. But before the arrival of this central character, Matthew began this miraculous narrative with a Jewish ruler interrupting table fellowship within his house. This ruler interrupted table-fellowship in order to tell Jesus about his dead daughter and his trust that if Jesus would only travel to his house to "place his hand upon her," her life would surely be restored. And to the amazement of everyone in the house, Jesus actually got up and followed this ruler to his house! It is only after the second interruption by the suffering "daughter" of Israel that Matthew tells us:

Jesus came to the ruler's house and saw the flute players and the crowd causing a disturbance, he said, "Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping." And they ridiculed him. But when the crowd had been cast out, he went in and grabbed hold of her by the hand; and the girl arose, and this news went out into all that district.

There are few things about the ending of Matthew's story which are very peculiar. First of all, Matthew's account of these events is much shorter than the gospels of Mark and Luke. Matthew's ending is merely four verses long, whereas Luke has expanded his ending to total nine verses, and Mark expanded his to ten verses in length. Therefore the endings of Mark and Luke are each more than double the length of Matthew's ending. Surely Matthew must have had a very different focus in mind when writing the details of his narrative. 

Secondarily, the description of people whom Matthew highlights at the ruler's house are very peculiar. In Mark and Luke, Jesus finally arrives at the ruler's house and he sees everyone mourning over the loss of the ruler's daughter. No specific description of people are mentioned as mourning because everyone is mourning. But in Matthew's story, he mentions two groups of people in sight: the "flute players" and "the crowd," and none of them are said to be mourning. In Matthew's account, there are no tears, no sorrow, and no weeping among the crowd. Instead, this
 nondescript "crowd" is described as "causing a disturbance," and nothing more is said about the way in which a disturbance was being caused. This disturbing crowd is simply a general reference to people who were already there at Matthew's house or had rushed ahead of Jesus as he followed the ruler to his house. But notice carefully that before Matthew mentions the very nondescript and general "crowd" of disturbance, he highlights a very descriptive group of people among the crowd, a group whom everyone recognized as flute players. This is interesting because the mention of "flute players" is unique to Matthew's account. There is no mention of flute players at all in Mark or Luke. Therefore it's reasonable to ask why Matthew goes out of his way to distinguish "flute players" among the rest of the crowd who are "causing a disturbance."  What would this have meant to Matthew's Jewish audience?  How would Jesus' audience have identified with these flute players?

I think the reason for this specific mention of flute players by name is because Matthew's Jewish audience would have been familiar with the common customs in Israel pertaining to the death of friends and family. Although this might sound strange to modern American and European customs, by the turn of the first century it was very common among the wealthier class of Jews to hire professional mourners upon the announcement of a deceased loved one; and these professional services included flute players. Commenting on this passage of Matthew's gospel, Craig Keener observes:

Mourning was of great importance, and because bodies decomposed rapidly, mourners gathered quickly. Women mourners (according to the rabbis: Jos. War. 3.437) were hired to display grief as ostentatiously as possible, and flutists normally accompanied them (11:17; Jos. War. 3437), as Matthew adds here.1

As one might imagine, the ostentatious profession of flute-playing could be viewed as a very insincere practice by many Jews, especially Jews who would have mourned out of the genuine sincerity of their own hearts and love toward their brethren. But such genuineness of heart and sympathy for the loss of loved ones is completely omitted from Matthew's account. Instead, Matthew portrays a crowd causing a "disturbance," while at the same time being accompanied by professional flute players that are paid to entertain the weeping friends and family. Instead of finding a scene where the righteous weep compassionately with other loved ones, Matthew gives the impression that the rabbinical traditions are interfering with the true healing that is needed. 

And this is an ironic twist of events because the story has begun with such an overwhelmingly positive account of faith by the Jewish ruler; and since his faith in Jesus was so great and so profound, we should expect to find another positive account of faith with someone at his house. But in fact, when we look carefully, sadly, we don't find any positive account of faith. We don't even find a repeated emphasis upon the ruler's faith as Jesus raises his daughter from death to life again! (And in fact, there really isn't any emphasis upon that miracle either!) This, I contend, is a very intriguing way to end such an emotionally charged and exciting narrative, and Matthew has done this intentionally. Matthew has structured this narrative so that at the point in which we expect to find something extraordinarily positive and faithful, we find the very opposite; we find an expression of piety which is surprisingly negative and faithless. And Jesus seems to have sensed this as well when he arrived at the ruler's house. Instead of telling the ruler or his wife or his disciples that he can raise the girl from death to life, the only thing that Matthew wants us to know is that Jesus was trying to avoid that kind of attention at the ruler's house. Instead of pronouncing his great power, he simply says: 

"Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping."

This statement is short, simple, and easy to believe. But immediately after Jesus speaks this way, any and all hopes we might have had for seeing another great testimony of faith, like the ruler or the suffering woman, get dashed to pieces. Immediately after Jesus tells them this simple, plausible statement -- that she's not actually dead, but instead is sleeping -- Matthew tells us that "they ridiculed him." Wow. Talk about a contrast of faith!  Jesus tells them something that is very easy to believe. He tells them that the girl is alive, not dead; she is sleeping, and all she needs to be is woken up. But the crowds think they know better than Jesus. They know what they're eyes have seen and what they're ears have heard. They understood that when professional flute players start playing some tunes, someone has died. And once someone has died for sure, there's no point in pretending it's only a deep sleep. And so, what we find in this ending of Matthew's narrative is a very clear portrait of faith, but it's not faith in Jesus; it's faith in their own traditions; it's faith in their own wisdom and experience; it's faith in their own ability to see and hear the truth. And interestingly, the following disciples who approach Jesus in faith are blind and deaf/mute (vv. 27, 32)!

Now let's take a few steps back and look at the entire picture of this brief narrative. Let's zoom out and compare the faith of this crowd, along with its flute players, with the faith of others in this story. Matthew begins this story with feasting and "reclining at table" with tax collectors and "sinners" (which was a snobbish Pharisaical label placed upon Jews who don't observe the Torah as strictly as the Pharisees). But Jesus stops feasting because he finally sees a "ruler" of Israel whose faith is tremendous. Jesus stops feasting in order to draw near to an unclean daughter of a faithful Jewish ruler. And as he is leaving the feast he finds another unclean "daughter" of Israel in great need already near to him. This woman draws near in trusting faith and full assurance that Jesus is the only ruler in Israel who can save. This woman, as well as the "ruler" of the synagogue, does not go to other well-known Jewish leaders -- not the Scribes, the Pharisees, or the disciples of John. Instead they both go to Jesus because they know Jesus alone has greater authority than the Scribes and Pharisees. They both believe in salvation from death. But not only do they believe that Jesus is the only one who could save from death, they believe that he could do so with only a touch. They believe Jesus was the only ruler of Israel who could make the unclean "sinner" clean, thereby bringing the ceremonially dead back to life again. Both the ruler and the suffering "daughter" of Israel draw near to Jesus because they see God in their midst first drawing near to "sinners" like themselves -- "sinners" whom the Scribes and Pharisees would refuse to eat with because of their man-made traditions. While the rulers of Israel restrict access into Herod's Temple for reasons of uncleanness, Jesus draws near to Israel by "tabernacling," teaching, and healing among them

And unlike the ruler and the suffering "daughter" whom Jesus gladly welcomed near to him, Jesus casts out (ekballo) the crowds from the ruler's house like the demonic oppressors on the other side of the Sea had been "cast out" (ekballo) by Jesus (8:31-32). And he does so for a very good reason: the crowd does not care about Jesus' authority, nor are they interested in trusting the words of Jesus as truth. And in this sense, even the demons on the other side of the Sea have greater faith in Jesus than they do! At least the demons believed Jesus was the "Son of God" (8:29)! Here in the ending of this narrative, the crowds and their flute players don't even believe that much. They don't care if he claims to be the Son of God, and they certainly don't believe Jesus has authority from God to show mercy by raising the girl to life again. Instead of desiring mercy, they only care about appearing merciful before others. Instead of sacrificing their own time and energy by weeping with those who weep, and comforting those who mourn, they play flutes because that's what they're paid to do. Instead of trusting the simplicity of God's word that the girl is not dead, but sleeping, they ridicule him. This is because their faith is worse than demons. Their faith is like the Scribes and Pharisees who question Jesus' authority to teach and heal Israel. Therefore it comes as no surprise to find out after the girl arises according to the word of Jesus, "this news went out into all that district." The crowds don't know what to think about Jesus and his authority. What kind of man is this? How did he know the girl was not dead, but sleeping? 

In Matthew’s story, the land of Israel is in great need of healing and restoration, and Jesus has come to do just that. But Jesus does not come to save the righteous. He comes to save sinners. Jesus comes to heal and save because his desire is not for adherence to Pharisaical law, but rather for loyal, merciful love. Among Israel, there are many who are outwardly clean, but their faith is really dead on the inside. Those who are clean, like the Scribes and Pharisees, may have access within the Temple granted to them, but the “ruler” of the synagogue and an unclean "daughter" of Israel both know better than the Scribes and Pharisees. They know God is tabernacling among them. And sadly, because the leadership of Israel is so unfaithful, deriding laughter among their disciples still remains. 

 1.  Craig Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; 2009] p. 304

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