This is the second in a series of three sermons on a vitally important but almost unnoticed theme in the gospels. In order to understand anything in the gospels we have to have an idea of who is writing, who is meant to be reading and what message is being presented.
Most people think very little about this and imagine that the gospels are simply there to tell people about Jesus. They are not. They are documents produced in and by the early generations of the church and they present teaching which is intended to supply the early church with the tools required to live the spiritual life. The worth of what is presented is not how accurately it reflects the life of Jesus but how effective it is in allowing the disciple to progress on the spiritual path.
The first in the trio of sermons is not yet available as a podcast. It was on the Good Samaritan. The third will be available next week and this is on the Prodigal Son. This sermon is on the healing of the synagogue ruler’s daughter. Although this is presented as the report of an event which took place it functions in Matthew, Mark and Luke as a parable and this is how it is intended to be read.
Matthew 9: 18-26 (NRSV)
While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue 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 got up and followed him, with his disciples. Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, 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. When Jesus came to the leader’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 got up. And the report of this spread throughout that district.
Donald Trump and Brexit and this last year and more has awakened everyone to a truth that was probably known to us deep down anyway and that is that not everything we hear is exactly what it seems to be.
I detest the expression ‘fake news’ but there is definitely fake news out there. Te gentler expression with which we became familiar in the Blair years under Alasdair Campbell was spin. That was the era of the emergence of the spin doctors who would present the facts in the way which suited the aims and objectives of whomsoever was paying them.
And we all do that.
And so in order to know what is likely to be going on one has to know who is presenting the facts, who the intended audience is and what the point is that they are trying to make.
Because nothing is neutral and nothing is reported simply for the sake of it.
The world of the early church was no different. The methods and the conventions may have been different but when we read the Bible – including the gospels – we have to be asking those three questions – who was producing, writing, the gospels, what was the intended audience and what point were they trying to get across.
If you don’t ask these questions and give serious consideration to the possible answers then you are going to end up missing the point of what you are reading.
It is obvious with say, Paul’s letters. You want to know what was going on in Corinth or Rome or wherever so that you can understand why he is warning them about this or encouraging them about that or whatever.
And it is equally important in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – it is more difficult to work out at first but we have to be asking those questions, Who was writing this? For whom were they writing it? And why were they writing it?
Once you get it and begin to see what is going on you will begin to see connections. What seem to be unconnected stories and reports begin to reveal connections – a shared point and purpose.
Paul’s letters and the other material in the New Testament help us here. Because we know that the biggest issue facing the very early church was whether or not non-Jews had to convert to Judaism before they could be come Christians, be baptised and admitted to the church.
The Jewish party in the church said they had to be circumcised. They had to convert. They had to submit to obedience to the Torah, the jewish Law, the regulations, effectively they had to be cleansed.
Others – such as Paul – said that they didn’t. They didn’t need to convert. They didn’t need to be cleansed. They could come into the church as they were. What God had revealed in Christ was enough, sufficient.
The intended audience for the gospels was the early church – a church which needed to be persuaded that Gentiles, non Jews, could be welcomed into the church as they were without being circumcised, without becoming Jews first.
So that is the audience – a group which needs to be convinced of this one idea.
The writers of the Gospels and we do not know their names or who they were – were people in the church itself. And their aim is to set the early church on the right lines.
So they present the stories and reports with this agenda in mind. They make other points too but there are three occasions – two parables and a report – in which it is very clear that this question of whether the church is open or restricted is addressed. These three are all linked if you know how to read them.
The first, we looked at last time I was here, at the beginning of the month, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
The second is today’s reading, the healing of the synagogue ruler’s daughter.
And the third is what we’ll be looking at next week. The Prodigal Son.
And listen, because these three passages should be shaking the church AS WE KNOW IT to its very foundations.
We should be left asking what we are meant to be doing. If we find ourselves with that question then we are hearing what we have here as it is meant to be heard.
It doesn’t appear in John’s Gospel but today’s reading does appear in Matthew, Mark and Luke. It looks like it is the story of a not very spectacular – in the scheme of things – healing of a girl and an older woman.
In fact it is not a healing story at all. The two hearings are subplots in a much bigger and more shocking main story.
You need to keep your eye on the ball in this story and Jesus has the ball all the way through, Watch what happens to him. Watch how he changes as the story goes on.
He comes out of nowhere. The synagogue ruler approaches him. This man’s daughter is really ill, dying. So this is the scene set for us. We sympathise with him. But he is not the story. He is the one through whose eyes we are supposed to view the story – he is the serious and religious and pious Jew.
And remember that the earliest Christians met in two places – the domestic home and the synagogue.
And for the Jewish Christian the question was, are we willing to throw Judaism open to the followers of Jesus. Has he really fulfilled the law?
So keep an eye on the synagogue ruler too – but mainly watch Jesus.
Of course Jesus says he will come to the synagogue ruler’s house. But, immediately, from the crowd, in the crowd, comes a woman who we are told has been bleeding for twelve years.
And she doesn’t touch Jesus. She touches his clothing.
And Matthew’s Gospel actually tells you TWICE that she touched Jesus’ clothing. And this is an important detail for reasons which will become clear in a minute.
This woman has been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years, she had been bleeding.
Think back to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Why did the priest and the Levite leave the man in the road? Not because they were bad men but because Leviticus told them that they could not touch blood – or a dead body or a foreigner.
But Jesus was definitely not permitted to be in contact with someone who was bleeding – especially that kind of bleeding.
And to emphasise that it happened we are told that the woman touched Jesus’ clothing.
There was debate among the rabbis, the Jewish leaders at the time about whether touching the clothing of someone who was unclean made you unclean.
The net effect, consequence, is that we now know and we are told that Jesus is now contaminated, he is unclean. He should go to get himself cleansed.
Now look at this through the synagogue leader’s eyes. This is the pivotal moment in the story.
Just as the Samaritan who stumbled across the injured man in the road had to decide whether compassion was more important than blind obedience to the letter of the law so does the Synagogue ruler.
Does he withdraw his request to Jesus? Does he demand that jesus be cleansed? Does he continue to allow Jesus to come to his house.
Compassion and love for his daughter wins. Jesus arrives at the house., There are flute players there – in other words, mourners. The child is dead.
But nevertheless Jesus continues on his way into the house. The daughter who is dead rises, is cured and lives.
There is, in other words, death and resurrection and life.
And this is the end of the story. And this is the message to the early church – and to us.
But specifically to the early church Jesus enters the synagogue leader’s house and you have healing, resurrection and life.
Jesus is not asked to be cleansed or to show himself to the priests in the temple. He comes as he is.
Jesus is the contaminated, unclean, person who should – by rights perhaps – have been refused entry.
It is a very powerful, direct message to a church which was closing its doors. Keep them out and you keep Christ out.
The gospels all present this as a report of two hearings but it functions in the gospels as a parable for the church.
And as a parable it is every bit as powerful and effective as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son with which it sits.
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