RPM, Volume 17, Number 46, November 8 to November 15, 2015

The Helpless Ruler

Luke 8:40-56

By D. Marion Clark


Have you ever felt helpless? I don't mean helpless figuring out how to operate electronic gadgets or how to communicate with a customer service representative. But have you felt helpless wanting to help someone you love and not having the power to do so? That is a father's dilemma in our story.


Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him. 41 And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue. And falling at Jesus' feet, he implored him to come to his house, 42 for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying.

Jesus has returned to the area where he had been teaching before his stormy cross over the lake. He is a celebrity now, and the crowds gather to meet him. Then follows a most pitiable scene. A father falls at Jesus' feet pleading for the life of his daughter. Let's consider this man.

His name is Jairus, and he is described as "a ruler of the synagogue." A synagogue is the equivalent to a Christian church. Only in the temple in Jerusalem could sacrifices be offered to God, but worship could take place in local assemblies. Jesus often taught in synagogues as a visiting teacher. As a ruler of the local synagogue, Jairus is responsible to see that everything was provided for the worship services. It is a position of high responsibility and consequently of dignity.

He would also be representative of the established religious authority. I add this last part to remind us that, though Jesus had become a celebrity to the crowds, he was still viewed with some suspicion by the religious authorities. He was overly familiar with "sinners." He worked on the Sabbath, i.e. he healed on that day. He had presumptuously forgiven a man his sins, and so on.

We do not know what Jairus' attitude had been toward Jesus, though it is likely that Jesus had taught in his synagogue. Whatever that attitude had been, all is put aside now. His daughter, his only daughter, is dying.

Note his actions. He falls at Jesus' feet, that is, he prostrates himself before Jesus. This man of high position in the synagogue prostrates himself on the ground in public before the feet of a questionable rabbi. He implores Jesus to come to his house. Other translations have plea and beg. He is speaking to Jesus with intensity. This man, whose permission was needed to speak in his synagogue, pleads with Jesus to come to his house.

Why the intensity? Why the humbling of himself? We fathers know why. His little girl is dying. We men care much about our pride. We can handle pain and trials; we cannot handle humiliation. But put the life of a child on the line, and especially that of a daughter, then let humiliation go where it may.

Let's now read the "interruption" that takes place on the way to Jairus' house.

As Jesus went, the people pressed around him. 43 And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone.

Note for how long the woman had her illness — twelve years, the same number as the age of the girl.

44 She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, and immediately her discharge of blood ceased. 45 And Jesus said, "Who was it that touched me?" When all denied it, Peter said, "Master, the crowds surround you and are pressing in on you!" 46 But Jesus said, "Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me." 47 And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48 And he said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace."

Note two things in that last verse. Jesus points out the critical role of faith —
"your faith has made you well." And he addresses her as "Daughter," the same term used in reference to the girl.

49 While he was still speaking, someone from the ruler's house came and said, "Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher any more."

Imagine the feelings of the father. No doubt he was first annoyed by Jesus' pause to find out who had touched him. "My daughter is dying." Then he must have been heartened to see how a woman was miraculously healed. "He really can heal. There is hope." And then the news that it was too late; his daughter had died. "If only Jesus had not paused."

50 But Jesus on hearing this answered him, "Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well."

It seems like an odd phrase — "Do not fear." Fear what? Should he not have said, "Do not grieve"? Fear is what the father felt when his daughter lay dying. In C. S. Lewis's book A Grief Observed, he comments about his own experience after the death of his wife, "No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing." The fear is realized. One enters into the unknown.

"Only believe." The same Greek word used for the woman's faith is here used for believe.

"And she will be well." This is the same Greek word Jesus said in regard to the woman: "your faith has made you well." If you are reading the NIV, your Bible uses "heal" instead of well. Those of you with your KJ Bibles read "made whole." The NASB reads "well," though the footnotes say "save." It is that last translation that is closest to what Jesus means. The woman is saved from her disease; the girl will be saved from death.

And so they move on.

51 And when he came to the house, he allowed no one to enter with him, except Peter and John and James, and the father and mother of the child. 52 And all were weeping and mourning for her, but he said, "Do not weep, for she is not dead but sleeping." 53 And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead.

Jesus did not walk into a quietly grieving home. It would have been packed with family and neighbors, and also with professional mourners. Matthew mentions flute-players. The weeping would be wailing with musical accompaniment. Mark records Jesus saying, "Why are you making a commotion?" We know from Matthew and Mark that Jesus orders these mourners out of the house, if only to have a moment of peace. Note their response to him. That they laugh at him indicates how surface their mourning is, but more to the point it indicates the certainty of the child's death.

54 But taking her by the hand he called, saying, "Child, arise." 55 And her spirit returned, and she got up at once. And he directed that something should be given her to eat. 56 And her parents were amazed, but he charged them to tell no one what had happened.

The miracle occurs so effortlessly that one wonders if Jesus was in earnest when he had said that the girl was merely sleeping. Luke's use of the phrase that "her spirit returned" indicates that he is recording a miracle in which Jesus brought her back to life.


Let's go back to the opening of the sermon where I asked the question — have you ever felt helpless, wanting to help a loved one but lacking the power? I would be surprised if you could answer no.

It may be a loved one who is sick, and you can do nothing to heal her or even to make her feel better. It may be a loved one who was dying, and you could not save him. It may be a child who has strayed away and is ruining his life, and you cannot make him see what he is doing. The illustrations are many; the common theme is your own feeling of helplessness.

That was the story of the father, a man in high position whose very job was to make things go right for his synagogue. He was the man to whom others turned to solve problems. Here was a problem he could not solve; more to the point, here was the apple of his eye withering away and about to die, and he could do nothing to stop it. No doubt he had brought in the best physicians he could find. Still nothing could be done.

You fathers know what you would have done if you could. You would take your child's place gladly. You would gladly bear the deadly disease, even die contentedly. Surely Jairus would have done the same. But he lacks the power to make that transfer, and he must then do the harder task — helplessly watch his daughter die.

And then a ray of hope appears, literally at the last moment. The Teacher has returned, the one who miraculously heals everyone who comes to him. And we know the rest of the story. There is a happy ending.

Now here is my question for the text. Jesus is not here in the flesh. What now? Why am I being told a story that cannot happen for me? There are stories today of miraculous healings and of loved ones being saved who seemed hopelessly lost, but there are also stories of loved ones dying, even of godly loved ones suffering who never experienced relief; loved ones who die young or in the midst of fruitful labor for the Lord. There are fathers who loved Jesus and have watched their children die. What then? What does this story do other than make our helplessness feel all the more acute?

The question can be rephrased. What good is faith? I understand how faith attains my salvation, but afterwards, what good is faith if it does not deliver my loved ones from sufferings? What good is prayer made in faith, when it will not bring my loved ones to faith? A passage like this only mocked the lack of the miraculous in my experience.

I found my answer in Hebrews 11:32-40:

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— 38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

Here are people of faith who conquer, and here are people who were conquered; people raised from the dead, and people tortured, dying painfully and not rising. But all were commended "through their faith." What then is the common element for which they were commended? For remaining faithful. That is what faith is good for — to remain faithful to our God.

Think about it. You are on your death bed. What do you want to be able to say? "Because of my faith everything went my way. My God did all that I asked so that I did not have to suffer or see any of my loved ones suffer." Or, "I have faced the good and the bad. I have born trials without an explanation for why they happened. And through it all, I remained faithful to my God." Is it not the latter that gives a true sense of dignity, of accomplishment? I remained faithful. Is that not what you want to hear from your Lord, "Well done, good and faithful servant"?

But how can I remain faithful when I see nothing happening through my faith? Because of the miraculous signs that Jesus accomplished when he was here. Now we come to the reason for Jesus' miracles and why they are recorded for us. How can I have faith that all will be well? That my loved one who died in faith is now with his or her Lord? That there really is an inheritance awaiting me and that I will receive it in the end? How do I know that God really is working all things out for my good? You know because Jesus Christ has demonstrated that he has both the power and the compassion to keep his promises.

He has the power over death, and so when he says, "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live," we can trust that he is able and willing to fulfill his promise. When he says that he goes to prepare a place for us and that he will return to take us there, we can trust him.

Our Lord whose power healed a woman sick for twelve years and raised a twelve year old girl, who healed all who came to him, who never failed to accomplish any miracle; our Lord who acted always out of mercy because of his love; our Lord can be trusted for what we cannot see. And it is such trust that pleases him. As he said to Thomas: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29). So he says of us — Blessed are those who have not seen miracles with their eyes, but nevertheless believe in me, nevertheless trust me to do what is right, what is good, what matters most as I lead them safely into my Father's arms, the one father who is never helpless.

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