Posted by: Dan | January 25, 2007

Mt 9.18-26: Miraculous Healing or Shrewd Insight?

I'm continuing to work my way through Matthew and I was struck by something in Mt 9.18-26.

Basically, in the last few chapters (8-9), Jesus has been performing healings and pronouncing blessings upon unexpected people (the leper, the centurion's servant, the demoniacs who live amongst the tombs, etc.) while simultaneously arguing that those who expected blessing might well be shut out (“the sons of the kingdom will be cast out…”) and challenging a lot of the structures of first-century Jewish society (“let the dead bury the dead…”). Then, right after Jesus finishes saying that you can't put “new wine in old wineskins,” we get a “synagogue official” coming to Jesus saying that his daughter has died, so can Jesus please come and make her live again (Mt seems to want us to read about this event in light of Jesus announcement re: the wineskins). So, Jesus goes to the officials house and sees all the signs of mourning but then pronounces, “the girl has not died but is asleep” at which point everybody starts laughing at him. However, after the crowds are sent out, Jesus takes the the girl by the hand and the girl got up.

Now then, the (admittedly, very few) commentaries I have looked at tend to see this in two ways. (1) Reading Mark back into Matthew, some commentators argue that Jesus actually did raise the girl from the dead (cf. Mk 5). (2) Others take the language of “sleeping” more seriously and think that the girl was not dead but had fallen into a coma. In both (1) and (2) Jesus performs a genuine healing miracle.

However, I have been wondering if a third alternative is possible (especially since I'm a little cautious about reading Mt totally through the lenses of Mk). Could it be that Matthew presents this episode as a time when the rulers tried to trick Jesus? Were the synagogue official and his friends trying to pull one over on Jesus? The language of healing never actually occurs in these chapters. The girl is sleeping and Jesus takes her by the hand, and she gets up. So what is the news that spreads throughout the land (Mt 9.26)? Perhaps it is that Jesus is not so easily fooled.

This reading would seem to fit with the dramatic reversals that are occurring in these chapters — and would also then fit well with the Pharisees (subsequent) accusation that Jesus casts out demons by the power of the ruler of the demons (Mt 9.34). They've realized that they might not be able to trick Jesus, and so they decide to slander him. Thus, the synagogue official and his friends become the old wineskins who are incapable of receiving the new wine — and they are so blind that they even try to make a mockery of the one who brings that new wine.

Any thoughts on this reading of the text?

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