Mark 5:35-39

DESPAIR AND HOPE

Mk. 5:35-39

While he was still speaking, messages came from the household of the ruler of the synagogue. “Your daughter,” they said, “has died. Why trouble the teacher any more?” Jesus overheard this message being given. He said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Don’t be afraid! Only keep on believing!” He allowed no one to accompany him except Peter and James and John, James’ brother. They came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue. He saw the uproar. He saw the people weeping and wailing. He came in. “Why,” he said to them, “are you so distressed? And what are you weeping for? The little girl has not died–she is sleeping.” They laughed him to scorn.

Jewish mourning customs were vivid and detailed, and practically all of them were designed to stress the desolation and the final separation of death. The triumphant victorious hope of the Christian faith was totally absent.

Immediately death had taken place a loud wailing was set up so that all might know that death had struck. The wailing was repeated at the grave side. The mourners hung over the dead body, begging for a response from the silent lips. They beat their breasts; they tore their hair; and they rent their garments.

The rending of garments was done according to certain rules and regulations. It was done just before the body was finally hid from sight. Garments were to be rent to the heart, that is, until the skin was exposed, but were not to be rent beyond the navel. For fathers and mothers the rent was on the left side, over the heart; for others it was on the right side. A woman was to rend her garments in private; she was then to reverse the inner garment, so that it was worn back to front; she then rent her outer garment, so that her body was not exposed. The rent garment was worn for thirty days. After seven days the rent might be roughly sewn up, in such a way that it was still clearly visible. After the thirty days the garment was properly repaired.

Flute-players were essential. Throughout most of the ancient world, in Rome, in Greece, in Phoenicia, in Assyria and in Palestine, the wailing of the flute was inseparably connected with death and tragedy. It was laid down that, however poor a man was, he must have at least two flute-players at his wife’s funeral. W. Taylor Smith in Hastings’ Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels quotes two interesting instances of the use of flute-players, which show how widespread the custom was. There were flute-players at the funeral of Claudius, the Roman Emperor. When in A.D. 67 news reached Jerusalem of the fall of Jotapata to the Roman armies, Josephus tells us that “most people engaged flute-players to lead their lamentations.”

The wail of the flutes, the screams of the mourners, the passionate appeals to the dead, the rent garments, the torn hair. must have made a Jewish house a poignant and pathetic place on the day of mourning.

When death came, a mourner was forbidden to work, to anoint himself or to wear shoes. Even the poorest man must cease from work for three days. He must not travel with goods; and the prohibition of work extended even to his servants. He must sit with head bound up. He must not shave, or “do anything for his comfort.” He must not read the Law or the Prophets, for to read these books is joy. He was allowed to read Job, Jeremiah and Lamentations. He must eat only in his own house, and he must abstain altogether from flesh and wine. He must not leave the town or village for thirty days. It was the custom not to eat at a table, but to eat sitting on the floor, using a chair as a table. It was the custom, which still survives, to eat eggs dipped in ashes and salt.

There was one curious custom. All water from the house, and from the three houses on each side, was emptied out, because it was said that the Angel of Death procured death with a sword dipped in water taken from close at hand. There was one peculiarly pathetic custom. In the case of a young life cut off too soon, if the young person had never been married, a form of marriage service was part of the burial rites. For the time of mourning the mourner was exempt from the keeping of the law, because he was supposed to be beside himself, mad with grief.

The mourner must go to the synagogue; and when he entered the people faced him and said, “Blessed is he that comforteth the mourner.” The Jewish prayer book has a special prayer to be used before meat in the house of the mourner.

“Blessed art thou, O God, our Lord, King of the Universe, God of our fathers, our Creator, our Redeemer, our Sanctifier, the Holy One of Jacob, the King of Life, who art good and doest good; the God of truth, the righteous Judge who judgest in righteousness, who takest the soul in judgment, and rulest alone in the universe, who doest in it according to his will and all his ways are in Judgment, and we are his people, and his servants, and in everything we are bound to praise him and to bless him, who shields all the calamities of Israel, and will shield us in this calamity, and from this mourning will bring us to life and peace. Comfort, O God, our Lord, all the mourners of Jerusalem that mourn in our sorrow. Comfort them in their mourning, and make them rejoice in their agony as a man is comforted by his mother. Blessed art thou, O God, the Comforter of Zion, thou that buildest again Jerusalem.”

That prayer is later than New Testament times, but it is against the background of the earlier, unrestrained expressions of grief that we must read this story of the girl who had died.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MARK

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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