Funerals and Flutes

Matthew 8-9 records three clusters of miracles, interspersed with snatches of Jesus’ teaching about various aspects of discipleship. Just as the Sermon on the Mount displays the authority of Jesus’ Word in teaching, these chapters display the authority of Jesus’ Word over sickness, uncleanness, the creation, demons, and death. In Jesus, the kingdom comes not only in Word, but in deed; or, better, the Word of the King accomplishes deeds. These chapters make clear that Jesus has come not only to redeem from sin and to teach the way of salvation, but to redeem from all the effects of sin.

One of the most intriguing passages in these chapters is Matthew 9:18-26, the combined story of the raising of Jairus’s daughter and the healing of the woman with the issue of blood. The passage is interesting on purely literary grounds. The story of Jairus’s daughter frames the story of the woman with the hemorrhage, helping us to see the parallels between the two healings. The comparison is strengthened by the repetition of the number 12: The woman has suffered from the hemorrhage for 12 years, and Jairus’s daughter is 12 years old (cf. Mk. 5:42). In keeping with the Old Testament purity laws, the gospels present the cleansing of uncleanness as a symbolic resurrection.

On the whole, Matthew’s presentation of this dual miracle is much more compact that Mark’s. Matthew refers to Jairus simply as “one ruler,” without mentioning his role in the synagogue or his name. He does not tell us that the woman with the hemorrhage had visited physicians, or that Jesus inquired who touched him. He does not tell us the age of Jairus’s daughter, nor does he tell us that after her resurrection she received food.

In the light of all these omissions, it is surprising that Matthew includes one fact of the story not found in the other gospels. Verse 23 tells us that when Jesus came into the synagogue ruler’s house, he was greeted by “flute-players.” Mark and Luke simply tell us that the house was full of weeping and wailing (Mk. 5:38; Lk. 8:52). Given that Matthew has greatly condensed the story, it is unlikely that this is an extraneous detail. Instead, it provides an ironic insight into the connection of this passage with the larger context.

The irony of the encounter is seen when we realize that the Bible usually associates flute-playing with feasting (1 Sam. 10:5 (prophesying); 1 Ki. 1:40; Job 21:12; 30:31; Is. 5:12; 30:29; Rev. 18:22). The use of flutes in mourning was not entirely unknown in the Old Testament. Jeremiah compares his mourning over Moab to the wailing of flutes (Jer. 48:36). But the emphasis of the Old Testament is that flutes are instruments of joy. We suspect that something strange is going on when we find flute-players at a wake.

This suspicion is strengthened by the fact that Jesus Himself spoke of flutes as instruments appropriate to the joy of wedding feasts. He compared the Jews of His generation to children playing games of wedding and funeral. They did not mourn when John came calling for repentance, nor did they rejoice when Jesus came preaching the gospel of the kingdom (Mat. 11:16-17, and see standard commentaries). Instead, they said that John was being demon-possessed and accused Jesus of capital offenses (vv. 18-19; cf. Dt. 21:18-21).

Matthew 11:7-19 has many parallels to 9:14-26. Several themes are common to both passages: the relationship of the old and new orders (11:11-12; 9:15-17), the role of John the Baptist (11:14; 9:14), the joy that Christ’s coming brings (11:17-19; 9:15). Given these strong thematic parallels, it seems no accident that flute-players would appear in both.

The flutes of Matthew 11 are associated with the joy of the kingdom announced and inaugurated by Jesus, an announcement to which the Jews responded with hostility. In order to understand the role of the flute-players in Matthew 9, we must take a closer look at the larger context. Immediately prior to his encounter with Jairus, Jesus had been discussing fasting with the disciples of John (Matthew 9:14-17). When asked why His disciples did not keep the rigorous fasts of the Pharisees and of John’s disciples, Jesus explained by contrasting the old and new. John was still part of the old order, the time of anticipation. Fasting was appropriate to John, since the wedding feast had not begun and the Bridegroom had not arrived. When the Bridegroom appears, however, the feast begins. It is an insult to the Groom to mourn in His presence. The coming of the Groom means an end to fasting and mourning, and the beginning of the feast of the kingdom.

The following passage, in which two women are healed, continues the theme of the Divine Bridegroom, come to rescue His Bride. Jesus has just identified Himself as the Bridegroom, and immediately He goes out to heal two women. Two women associated with the number 12! The typology is clear: Jesus as the divine Bridegroom has come to bring healing to His unclean, dead Bride, Israel. He comes to the Jew first.

(The woman with the issue of blood, significantly, reaches out to touch the “tassel” of Jesus’ garment [Mat. 9:20; the word is frequently translated as “fringe,” but can, and probably should, be understood as “tassel”]. Spreading the tasselled garment over a woman is a sign of engagement [cf. Ruth 3:9; cf. Dt. 22:12-30]. By reaching out for the tassel, the unclean woman was seeking engagement with the Divine Bridegroom, seeking to be covered by His skirt. Instead of rejecting her for her uncleanness, Jesus cleanses her and accepts her into His new marriage covenant.)

How utterly ironic, then, that Jesus’ arrival at a wake would be greeted with flute-playing. He is the Groom, come to bring His virgin Bride back to life. It is appropriate that He be greeted by flute-players, by the sounds of a wedding feast. It is appropriate that the Groom be greeted with laughter. But the flute-players do not realize what they are doing. Theirs is an unconscious announcement of the Bridegroom’s arrival. Jesus has come to raise the dead to life, but the flute-players wish to continue mourning the girl’s death. They laugh, but not in joy; instead, like Ishmael, they laugh in derision at the Greater Isaac. They greet the groom not with joy but with mourning; theirs is a deadly parody of the Wedding Feast. In their dullness of heart, they are typical of that generation: like children, playing flutes without dancing.

Peter Leithart is the president of Theopolis Institute. This post originally appeared on Biblical Horizons

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