THE AWAKENING TOUCH
While he was saying these things, look you, a ruler came and knelt before him in worship; “My daughter,” he said, “has just died. But come and lay your hand upon her, and she will live:” Jesus rose and went with him, and his disciples came too. … And Jesus came to the house of the ruler, and he saw the flute-players and the tumult of the crowd. “Leave us:” he said, “for the maid is not dead; she is asleep:” And they laughed at him. When the crowd had been put out, he went in and took her hand, and the maid arose. And the report of this went out to the whole country.
Matthew tells this story much more briefly than the other gospel writers do. If we want further details of it we must read it in Mk.5:21-43 and in Lk.8:40-56. There we discover that the ruler’s name was Jairus, and that he was a ruler of the synagogue (Mk.5:22; Lk.8:41).
The ruler of the synagogue was a very important person. He was elected from among the elders. He was not a teaching or a preaching official; he had “the care of the external order in public worship, and the supervision of the concerns of the synagogue in general.” He appointed those who were to read and to pray in the service, and invited those who were to preach. It was his duty to see that nothing unfitting took place within the synagogue: and the care of the synagogue buildings was in his oversight. The whole practical administration of the synagogue was in his hands.
It is clear that such a man would come to Jesus only as a last resort. He would be one of those strictly orthodox Jews who regarded Jesus as a dangerous heretic; and it was only when everything else had failed that he turned in desperation to Jesus. Jesus might well have said to him, “When things were going well with you, you wanted to kill me; now that things are going ill, you are appealing for my help.” And Jesus might well have refused help to a man who came like that. But he bore no grudge; here was a man who needed him, and Jesus’ one desire was to help. Injured pride and the unforgiving spirit had no part in the mind of Jesus.
So Jesus went with the ruler of the synagogue to his house, and there he found a scene like pandemonium. The Jews set very high the obligation of mourning over the dead. “Whoever is remiss,” they said, “in mourning over the death of a wise man deserves to be burned alive.” There were three mourning customs which characterized every Jewish household of grief.
There was the rending of garments. There were no fewer than thirty-nine different rules and regulations which laid down how garments should be rent. The rent was to be made standing. Clothes were to be rent to the heart so that the skin was exposed. For a father or mother the rent was exactly over the heart; for others it was on the right side. The rent must be big enough for a fist to be inserted into it. For seven days the rent must be left gaping open; for the next thirty days it must be loosely stitched so that it could still be seen; only then could it be permanently repaired. It would obviously have been improper for women to rend their garments in such a way that the breast was exposed. So it was laid down that a woman must rend her inner garment in private; she must then reverse the garment so that she wore it back to front; and then in public she must rend her outer garment.
There was wailing for the dead. In a house of grief an incessant wailing was kept up. The wailing was done by professional wailing women. They still exist in the east and W. M. Thomson in The Land and the Book describes them: “There are in every city and community women exceedingly cunning in this business. They are always sent for and kept in readiness. When a fresh company of sympathisers comes in, these women make haste to take up a wailing, that the newly-come may the more easily unite their tears with the mourners. They know the domestic history of every person, and immediately strike up an impromptu lamentation, in which they introduce the names of their relatives who have recently died, touching some tender chord in every heart; and thus each one weeps for his own dead, and the performance, which would otherwise be difficult or impossible, comes easy and natural.”
There were the flute-players. The music of the flute was especially associated with death. The Talmud lays it down: “The husband is bound to bury his dead wife, and to make lamentations and mourning for her, according to the custom of all countries. And also the very poorest amongst the Israelites will not allow her less than two flutes and one wailing woman; but, if he be rich, let all things be done according to his qualities.” Even in Rome the flute-players were a feature of days of grief. There were flute-players at the funeral of the Roman Emperor Claudius, and Seneca tells us that they made such a shrilling that even Claudius himself, dead though he was, might have heard them. So insistent and so emotionally exciting was the wailing of the flute that Roman law limited the number of flute-players at any funeral to ten.
We can then picture the scene in the house of the ruler of the synagogue. The garments were being rent; the wailing women were uttering their shrieks in an abandonment of synthetic grief; the flutes were shrilling their eerie sound. In that house there was all the pandemonium of eastern grief.
Into that excited and hysterical atmosphere came Jesus. Authoritatively he put them all out. Quietly he told them that the maid was not dead but only asleep, and they laughed him to scorn. It is a strangely human touch this. The mourners were so luxuriating in their grief that they even resented hope.
It is probable that when Jesus said the maid was asleep, he meant exactly what he said. In Greek as in English a dead person was often said to be asleep. In fact the word cemetery comes from the Greek word koimeterion (compare koimao, GSN2837), and means a place where people sleep. In Greek there are two words for to sleep; the one is koimasthai (GSN2837), which is very commonly used both of natural sleep and of the sleep of death; the other is katheudein (GSN2518), which is not used nearly so frequently of the sleep of death, but which much more usually means natural sleep. It is katheudein (GSN2518) which is used in this passage.
In the east cataleptic coma was by no means uncommon. Burial in the east follows death very quickly, because the climate makes it necessary. Tristram writes: “Interments always take place at latest on the evening of the day of death, and frequently at night, if the deceased have lived till after sunset.” Because of the commonness of this state of coma, and because of the commonness of speedy burial, not infrequently people were buried alive, as the evidence of the tombs shows. It may well be that here we have an example, not so much of divine healing as of divine diagnosis; and that Jesus saved this girl from a terrible end.
One thing is certain, Jesus that day in Capernaum rescued a Jewish maid from the grasp of death.
Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Back to: Barclay’s Commentary