Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bring on the Flutes

Matthew takes a shortcut in this morning’s Gospel reading (Matt. 9:18-26). It’s the sandwiched stories of the ruler’s sick daughter and the hemorrhaging woman. While on the way to heal the little girl, a woman touches his garment and is healed, but, by the time he makes it to the ruler’s house, the girl has died, yet Jesus miraculously brings her back to life. Beautiful compound story. But Matthew gives us the abbreviated version.

When Mark tells this same set of stories, he gives us long details about the exchanges. In his account, Jesus calls out after the woman touches his clothes, “Who touched me?” That heightens the drama. It allows the reader to stop and realize just how verboten the physical contact had been. Matthew compresses all of those details into a shorter version that seems focused on only the miracles themselves.

But then there’s one detail that he adds, which isn’t present in Mark’s version. He writes, “And when Jesus came to the ruler’s house, and saw the flute players, and the crowd making a tumult, he said…” It’s those darned flute players that caught my eye this morning. Mark has the crowd weeping and wailing. Matthew has them playing flutes. I don’t know a lot about ancient burial customs, but I’m guessing that has to do with a funeral of sorts. As far as I can tell, those flutes represent not a spontaneous expression of grief, but a calculated, planned, secondary response. It’s as if Matthew wants us to imagine that Jesus gets to the house so late that the funeral players had even arrived before him.

Although that detail does heighten the significance of the girl’s being raised from the dead, I think it points to another distinction. Matthew is contrasting for us the difference between the people’s expectations and what is possible through God. In the eyes of the crowd, the girl’s death was a moment for sorrow and grief. It was a moment to carry on with the expected mechanisms of bidding a final farewell to a loved-one. Flutes were played because flutes were always played. In a contemporary retelling of this story, one might say that Jesus came upon a crowd who had gathered at the funeral home just as they began reciting the 23rd Psalm. Everything was proceeding as normal—as it was expected.

But then Jesus came. “The girl is only sleeping,” he told them. To a panicked mother who had just watched her daughter die, those words might have been received as false hope. “Maybe she isn’t really dead,” a mother would wonder immediately afterward. “Oh, she is only sleeping. Hooray!” she might have replied. But, by the time the flutes begin to play, there isn’t any room left for false hope. Only real hope could help this situation. And, of course, that’s what Jesus offered.

In what ways are we plowing ahead as if everything is proceeding as normal? And in what circumstances is God reaching out to shake us from our expectations and bring the miraculous into our life?

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