Two weeks ago I was reading out loud a passage from Matthew chapter 9 and I came across something I’d never noticed before in a story I thought I knew inside out and backwards.
I was so shocked I almost stopped and said out loud “Hang on that’s not right” which would have been a bit unnerving as I was leading a service of Holy Communion at the time and it’s generally not done for the priest to contradict the word God before he or she has even started preaching on it.
My second thought was that I was reading from a dodgy translation so I came home and looked up the same story in multiple versions in my study.
And it checked out. Matthew’s version of the story (Matthew 9) of Jairus the synagogue leader who goes to asked Jesus to heal his daughter differs in one crucial respect from the way that Luke and Mark both tell the story (Mark 5, Luke 8)
In Matthew’s version of the story the un-named synagogue leader sets out to fetch Jesus and asked for his help ALREADY knowing that his daughter has died (verse18).
In Luke and Mark’s version of the same story, Jairus sets off to fetch Jesus believing that his daughter is close to death, okay maybe she is ‘as good as dead’ but she isn’t actually dead yet. There is still the a last-ditch hope onto which he is hanging.
The way Matthew tells the story, Jairus, the father of the dead little girl, has an even more astonishing amount of faith. Here is someone for whom ‘it’s all over’, things are as black as they could possibly be, his daughter has died. And yet in that moment he still chooses to set off to find Jesus with some sense that things can change.
Perhaps you might say he is crazed with grief, perhaps he is clutching at straws but nevertheless, he somehow articulates an astonishing confidence that for God the line between life and death is not as fixed as most people think.
He had biblical precedent, if he knew his old Testament Scriptures he would have known that Elijah raised widow’s son from death. He might have thought that Jesus was a powerful prophet, along the same lines.
In Mark and Luke, the little girl isn’t dead yet and that is why the story of the interruption from the woman who reaches out to touch the hem of Jesus’s garment is all the more ‘arresting’, literally. Jesus stops in his tracks to ask who has touched him in faith even though he was undoubtedly being jostled and pushed by many in the crowd. He does so in order to draw out this woman into the open, to restore her not merely physically but also emotionally and socially from the shameful place her reflection has kept her. Meanwhile, we’re all hopping from one foot to another with Jairus saying ‘come on, come on’ until the news then reaches them that ‘it’s too late’.
Jesus then goes on to show that ‘too late’ is meaningless to the God of all time and the Giver of life.
It doesn’t bother me that there is an apparent contradiction in the Gospels, such differences in storytelling actually lend more authenticity showing that the Gospels have not been constructed or tidied up. Each writer was writing from their own perspective.
Personally I’m not sure how to apply Matthew’s rendition of the story. It’s not that I doubt that God can raise the dead by that is the kind of spectacular miracle that I’d rather leave to Jesus. What does inspire me is the faith of the father: he didn’t give up even though everything looked bleak and hopeless. How often are we tempted to give up and say that everything looks bleak and hopeless and change isn’t possible, even when the situation is not one of life or death?
Jesus told stories to teach his disciples that “they should always pray and not give up” perhaps he was thinking of Jairus?