Life for the Dead

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 9:18-26

What Jesus did one day for a little girl who had died, he will do on a grander, more permanent and glorious scale on the last day for all who belong to him.

During the first century A.D., when the Christian faith was being introduced into the world, a number of different belief systems were vying for people’s allegiance. One of the philosophies that appealed to many people in the ancient world was known as Stoicism. The stoics were a group of philosophers who had developed a way of dealing with all the suffering that humans experience in life. Their philosophy was based upon an attitude called in Greek apatheia, which literally means “not-feeling.” The stoics’ response to the pain and misery of human existence was to cultivate apathy. It was a practical way of responding to the problem of evil.

We all face the question of how to handle disappointment or loss. How can you face suffering and death, especially the suffering of those you care about? Simple, said the stoics; just stop caring. Especially stop caring about other people. After all, if you don’t allow yourself to care about anyone, you can never be hurt by them or feel hurt for them. So the stoic approach was to avoid suffering by eliminating, as far as possible, all feelings for other people and by cultivating an attitude of detached indifference toward life. What was especially important was never to allow yourself to love anyone.

Jesus of Nazareth was no stoic. His life offers a vivid refutation of every element in the stoic’s creed. No one ever cared more and did more to help suffering people than Jesus. The example of Jesus’ life makes one thing very clear. The main ideal in life is not to cultivate an attitude of detachment and indifference toward people. It’s to love them.

This point comes through with special clarity in the stories of Jesus’ healing miracles that we find in the 8th and 9th chapters of the gospel of Matthew. Time and again sufferers come to Jesus for help. Some approach him cautiously, others press importunately for his attention. Some come for help themselves, others on behalf of family members or friends. Some are rewarded for their faith by receiving the health they seek, others are healed in response to the faith of friends who bring them to Jesus, and still others with no mention of faith at all. But all who came to Jesus did so with the confidence that he could, and would, help them.

A Desperate Father

Here is one more example, a story that centers on a little girl who is dying, and her desperate father.

While [Jesus] was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on 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 up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. And when Jesus came to the ruler’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, “Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose. And the report of this went through all that district.

Matthew 9:18-26

Matthew here condenses and compresses the story of a double healing, the restoration to health of a chronically ill woman, and the restoration to life of a dead girl. In Mark’s longer version, we are told the name of the Jewish ruler who approaches Jesus. He is Jairus, the leader of the synagogue in Capernaum, an important and influential leader in the community. Jairus was well respected, probably well-to-do. But his little daughter, an only child, was sick. More than sick; she was at death’s door.

You know, tragedy is completely unbiased. Sickness and death have no prejudices; they strike just as easily at anyone. Suffering enters the homes of the rich as readily as it does those of the poor. The powerful and important are just as vulnerable to pain as the lowliest of people.

Death came knocking on Jairus’s door that day. It cared nothing about his reputation and position, his religion and influence. It did not regard his daughter’s youth or innocence. Death approached, and when death comes, not all the money in the world, not all the skill of all the doctors, not all the medicines and machines can stop it.

So Jairus turned in desperation to Jesus. He undoubtedly knew Jesus, since Jesus had come to live in Capernaum and regularly attended and even taught in the synagogue there. But whether or not Jairus approved of Jesus is a different question. After all, Jairus was a leader of the establishment, and Jesus was turning things upside down, doing things like healing on the Sabbath and breaking other traditions and rules of the religious elders.

But trouble can change your perspective in a hurry. Jairus no longer was concerned about all the criticism of Jesus. He didn’t care much about his own dignity or reputation either. When Jairus caught sight of Jesus surrounded by a crowd, walking there along the lakeshore, he ran up and threw himself at Jesus’ feet and began to plead with him to come to his daughter. The synagogue ruler begging on his knees for the help of the radical prophet – there’s nothing like fear to blow away your religious prejudices and shove theological differences out of the way. When death threatens, everyone believes in prayer – and practices it fervently!

Jairus knew just how serious things were. “My daughter has just died,” he tells Jesus, though in the other gospel accounts he says that the girl was at the point of death. Perhaps when Jairus left home to find Jesus it was difficult to say just whether his daughter still lived or not. But what the ruler says to Jesus next is utterly remarkable: “Come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.”

Jesus immediately set out with the synagogue ruler for his house; in fact, Matthew says that “Jesus rose and followed him.” It’s a rather startling role-reversal. The whole point of Matthew’s gospel is that we are to be following Jesus. That’s what faith means. But here Jesus honors this desperate father’s faith in him by turning around and following Jairus.

There was a delay along the way as Jesus stopped to heal yet another sufferer. A woman with a chronic bleeding problem comes up quietly behind Jesus – she doesn’t even dare to approach him openly – thinking, “If I can just touch him, even the hem of his garment, I will be made well.” She was right. It doesn’t take much contact with Jesus to be made well, and whole, and clean. Just a little faith, even a hesitant touch, is enough. “Take courage,” Jesus tells the woman, “your faith has made you well.”

A Sleeping Girl

But in the meantime, Jairus’s daughter has slipped away. So as Jesus and Jairus come into the house they find musicians playing dirges and a crowd of mourners weeping and wailing. Jesus dismissed them all with the comment that the little girl wasn’t dead, she was just asleep, and immediately the mourners start laughing at him, which rather indicates how heart-felt all their tears had been. Of course the little girl was dead. Her body was lying there cold and still. But Jesus was speaking figuratively. What is death to us is only sleep to him. Jesus is confident that it was just a temporary condition, and he knew that he himself would waken her from it.

Which is exactly what he did. Shooing everyone else away, he went into the girl’s room with his closest disciples and her parents. He approached the bed on which her body lay, took her by the hand and spoke to her, says Mark’s account: “Talitha koum!”; “Little girl, arise!” Jesus spoke in Aramaic, their native language. Greek was the universal language in that part of the world, the language in which the New Testament was eventually written, but Aramaic was people’s heart language. And when Jesus summoned this child back to life, he called out to her heart. His words must have made a great impression upon the disciples who witnessed them because decades later when Peter came to tell Mark the story, he wrote them down verbatim in his gospel account.

But this is more than just a story, even more than a marvelous miracle that is meant to astonish us. This act is a sign pointing to the nature of God’s kingdom, God’s rule, God’s presence. Things like sickness, hunger, evil and death are incompatible with God’s presence and rule. These horrible things come to us in the wake of humanity’s sin, but they cannot remain where God is; he banishes them from his presence. They were not part of God’s original creation; and they won’t be part of his kingdom when it comes in its fullness.

So kingdom miracles offer us a glimpse of the shalom of heaven and the world to come. And most important of all, if we too have faith in Jesus’ love and power, faith that if he only lays his hand upon us we will live, these signs serve us as a preview of coming attractions. For if you know the Lord, one day he will take you by the hand, and say, “Child, get up.” And you will!