Jairus’ Daughter

Mark-5-two-miraclesIn today’s post we continue to reflect upon this coming Sunday’s gospel with a return event which opened the readings: Jairus and his daughter. “While he was still speaking, people from the synagogue official’s house arrived and said, “Your daughter has died; why trouble the teacher any longer?” Disregarding the message that was reported, Jesus said to the synagogue official, “Do not be afraid; just have faith.” (Mark 5:35-36) The interruption of attending to the hemorrhaging women creates a time delay in the narrative, during which the young girl dies. The community responds with, messengers to report to the father, and mourners to gather at the house (vv. 35, 38). The messengers present an obstacle to the healing by advising the father to leave Jesus alone, since the girl has died. Jesus takes the initiative by telling Jairus to have faith (v. 36). The reference to faith picks up the conclusion to the healing of the woman.

Jairus had exercised faith when he came to Jesus in the confidence that he could save his daughter. He had witnessed the healing of the woman which demonstrated the relationship between faith and divine help. But he was now asked to believe that his child would live even as he stood in the presence of death. Such faith  is radical trust in the ability of Jesus to confront a crisis situation with the power of God.

Jesus did not allow the crowds or even many disciples to accompany him to the house of Jairus. The disciples that did accompany Jesus were Peter, James, and John. The three disciples who accompany him will serve as an inner group at the transfiguration (9:2) and in Gethsemane (14:33). This limitation of witnesses echoes two OT scenes: (1) Elijah’s taking the widow’s son apart to his own chamber when he restores the boy’s life (1 Kgs 17:17–24) and (2) Elisha and his servant’s going into the room alone to restore life to the Shunammite woman’s son (2 Kgs 4:32–37).

When they arrived at the house of the synagogue official, he caught sight of a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. So he went in and said to them, “Why this commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but asleep.”  And they ridiculed him.

Arriving at the house Jesus saw that preparations had been made already for the funeral. The minstrels and professional mourners were performing their duties as the first part of the mourning ceremony. The wailing consisted of choral or antiphonal song accompanied by handclapping. Since even the poorest man was required by common custom to hire a minimum of two fluteplayers and one professional mourner in the event of his wife’s death, it is probable that one who held the rank of synagogue-leader would be expected to hire a large number of professional mourners.

When Jesus and those with him arrive at the house, the mourners laugh at his claim that the girl is not dead (vv. 38–40). However, their response assures readers that the girl is indeed dead. Funeral rites have already begun. As in the lengthy account of the woman’s illness, the mourners’ skepticism shows the reader how extraordinary Jesus’ powers really are. He will overcome death, not a mistaken diagnosis.

Jesus rebuked their noisy tumult and declared, “the child is not dead, but asleep.” In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ statement is ambiguous, and could allow the interpretation that the girl was in a state of very deep unconsciousness that is to be distinguished from death itself. (In the Gospel of Luke there is no ambiguity; Luke clearly speaks of resuscitation. It is probable that Mark intended his account to be understood in the same way. Jesus’ statement means that in spite of the girl’s real death, she has not been delivered over to the realm of death with all of its consequences. Mourning is inappropriate because she experiences a sleep from which she will soon awake.

The mourners, professionals that they were, disagree with Jesus’ assessment and ridicule his words. It is interesting how quickly wailing and tears are exchanged for laughter. Jesus cast the scoffers out of the house, and allowing only the parents of the girl and his three disciples to accompany him, entered the room where the young girl lay.

He took the child by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise!”  The girl rose up and walked about. The unpreparedness of the parents and the disciples for what they had witnessed is expressed with emphatic language. There was, apparently, no doubt in their minds that they had stood in the presence of death. God had intervened so dramatically they were left speechless with utter amazement.

Mark records that Jesus strictly charged those present not to disclose to others what had happened. This injunction to silence has attracted particular attention, for it is alleged to be impracticable. It was widely known that the girl had died; it would be impossible to keep her in isolation for an extended period of time. Accordingly, scholars have found in 5:43 strong confirmation that the secrecy phenomena in the Gospel is a theological construction for which Mark himself is responsible.

Lane [199] holds that this particular context lends no support to the theory of secret messiahship. “Fundamental to the narrative is the remarkable disclosure of Jesus’ authority made to the parents of the girl and the disciples. These five received the privilege of a special revelation which they were not to share with others. The secret is, accordingly, “a witnessed secret” which is to be kept from others whom Jesus had excluded. The accent of the narrative alternates between disclosure of the messiahship and veiling. Special motivation for the injunction to silence may be found in the rank unbelief of those who had ridiculed Jesus with their scornful laughter. It is clear throughout Mark that Jesus revealed his messiahship only with reserve. It is appropriate to this consistent pattern of behavior that he was unwilling to make himself known to the raucous, unbelieving group that had gathered outside Jairus’ house. He did not permit them to witness the saving action by which the girl was restored to her parents, and he directed that it should continue to remain unknown to those outside. He recognized that the responsibility of the parents in this regard could not continue indefinitely. When the child appeared in public the facts would speak for themselves. The parents could, however, withhold what had happened and thus fulfill the intention of Jesus. Before it was known that the girl was yet alive, the purpose for which the charge had been given would have been fulfilled; Jesus would have departed and could no longer be subject to ostentatious acclaim.”

There is a fine human touch in Mark’s final note, that in the midst of the excitement and confusion Jesus realized that the girl would need food.

The resuscitation of Jairus’ daughter is both a deed of compassion and a pledge of the conquering power of Jesus over the combined forces of death and unbelief, in which the Kingdom of God was disclosed as a saving reality. It is precisely in deliverance from death that the salvation which Jesus brings finds its most pointed expression.


William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974)

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