“When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he entered he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him.”
People do laugh at the strangest moments, don’t they? There certainly doesn’t seem to be anything funny about the situation in our gospel lesson. The death of a child, twelve years old, at the dawn of life, is nothing less than tragic. So why did they laugh?
They laughed because Jesus said—“The child is not dead but sleeping.” To them it seemed an absurd statement. And when we hear something absurd, even in the most tragic circumstances, we laugh. It is a natural response. Absurdity is our recognition that we are being asked to believe that the impossible can happen. The absurd is a statement or a situation is so contrary to common sense that it cannot be. So the mourners in the story thought Jesus was being silly, and they laughed at him. The tragedy was not theirs, after all. It was someone else’s heartbreak.
They were there simply to make a racket. The etiquette of death in our own time demands silence and hushed voices. But in Bible times it was just the opposite. A well-to-do family like that of the ruler of the synagogue might have hired professional mourners to cause an appropriate commotion. They may have been paid for making a hullabaloo. Or it may be that the people who were there that day were just neighbors there to offer their condolences–and perhaps have a bite to eat. In either case they knew death when they saw it, and the child was dead. Kaput. Children died with much greater frequency in that place and time, but the situation was no less poignant for being relatively common. A life had been cut short. There was nothing more to be expected of the dead. Jesus walked in on a noisy wake and hushed the mourners. “Why do you make a commotion and weep?” And they laughed because there was no rational answer to such a ridiculous question.
But what the gospel writer wants us to understand is that the presence of Jesus is able to make what would otherwise be absurd, not only possible but inevitable. Nothing is ever over. “The child is not dead but sleeping,” he says. It is worth noticing with what tenderness the miracle is accomplished. Jesus took her by the hand, we are told. And then we are given something very rare and precious—“ipsissima verba dei”—the very voice of the Christ speaking. “Talitha cum,” Jesus says in Aramaic, a phrase which the evangelist Mark helpfully translates for his gentile readers—“Little girl, arise.”
And it says “she arose.” It is the very same word in Greek—“anatasis”—which is used for Christ’s own resurrection. And we are to understand that it is by the same power that Jesus was raised from the dead that the little girl is returned to life. So absurdity is abolished by the presence of the risen Lord. Now nothing is absurd. Anything can happen. That is the essence of the Gospel, and that is the central reality of the Gospel life we are called to live. It demands a changed attitude toward the whole of life. If Jesus rose from the dead now anything can happen. With God nothing is impossible.
That does not mean that everything that can happen will. What it does call us to do is offer up those impossible situations in our lives to the power that raised Christ from the dead. And all of us have those circumstances we deem hopeless. Consider this, beloved. Are there people from whom you are estranged, with whom you have not spoken for years? Do you have relationships that seem impossible to mend–with relatives, maybe, or with old friends? Are there chronic health conditions to which you have resigned yourself? The gospel demands that that we give up our old ideas of what is possible and open ourselves to any form in which healing and reconciliation may come.
The mourners in the story represent the old way of thinking about things. Their laughter is cynical, hopeless, and without joy. For them the dead are dead. Kaput. So it says that Jesus hushed them up, and “then he put them all outside. . .” He put them outside not only because they provided a noisy distraction to the miracle he was about to perform, but because they could not believe that the absurd can happen. But it can. And it does. The death and resurrection of Jesus provides the paradigm for a new kind of life. If he died an absurd death on the cross and rose again against all expectation, then the world is not the dead end it sometimes seems to be, but a realm from which the impossible has been banished, and a place of genuine laughter and great joy.