Throwing the Minstrels Out of the House

Without a doubt one of the strangest passages of the King James Version of the Bible is as follows:

While he spake these things unto them, behold, there came a certain ruler, and worshipped him, saying, My daughter is even now dead: but come and lay thy hand upon her, and she shall live. And Jesus arose, and followed him, and so did his disciples…And when Jesus came into the ruler’s house, and saw the minstrels and the people making a noise, He said unto them, Give place: for the maid is not dead, but sleepeth. And they laughed him to scorn. But when the people were put forth, he went in, and took her by the hand, and the maid arose. And the fame hereof went abroad into all that land. (Matthew 9:18-19, 23-26)

This was Jesus’ first raising of the dead. It was at the instance of a synagogue ruler, which reminds us that everyone needs the power of God in their life. But what is the business about these minstrels? And why did Jesus have to throw them out?

The English language has changed a great deal since King James’ men put together their enduring translation. The term minstrels conjures up images of a bunch of guys in tights with mandolins, or the Christy Minstrels in blackface before the U.S. Civil War, or the New Christy Minstrels in the 1960’s. (Jethro Tull fans are doubtless thinking about the Minstrel in the Gallery, but we deal with the Tull fans elsewhere.)  Why would they be at a wake?

The reality is that the “minstrels” were probably professional mourners whose job was to drive home the sadness of the death by wailing and bawling, backed up by instruments, doubtless in that minor key common in so much folk music in so many places in our world. This was a common practice all around the Mediterranean. An interesting reminiscence in more recent times (before the establishment of the State of Israel) is found in Barnes’ Notes from a Professor Hackett:

During my stay at Jerusalem I frequently heard a singular cry issuing from the houses in the neighborhood of the place where I lodged, or from those on the streets through which I passed. It was to be heard at all hours– in the morning, at noonday, at evening, or in the deep silence of night. For some time I was at a loss to understand the cause of this strange interruption of the stillness which, for the most part, hangs so oppressively over the lonely city. Had it not been so irregular in its occurrence, I might have supposed it to indicate some festive occasion; for the tones of voice (yet hardly tones so much as shrieks) used for the expression of different feelings sound so much alike to the unpracticed ear, that it is not easy always to distinguish the mournful and the joyous from each other.

I ascertained, at length, that this special cry was, no doubt, in most instances, the signal of the death of some person in the house from which it was heard. It is customary, when a member of the family is about to die, for the friends to assemble around him and watch the ebbing away of life, so as to remark the precise moment when he breathes his last, upon which they set up instantly a united outcry, attended with weeping, and often with beating upon the breast, and tearing out the hair of the head. This lamentation they repeat at other times, especially at the funeral, both during the procession to the grave and after the arrival there, as they commit the remains to their last resting-place. (from Barnes’ Notes)

The well known men’s ministries leader Patrick Morley tells us that we should be focused on people who will cry at our funeral, and the minstrels’ job was to make sure that they–and everyone else in earshot–did.

The idea of people being paid to whip up grief hasn’t died around the Mediterranean. We saw this during the recent war between Hezbollah and Israel. We saw the same woman mourning the destruction of two different houses, both of which were supposed to be hers. We saw the same stuffed toy lying in the ruins on more than one place. And some of the minstrels, abandoning their lutes and mandolins, turned to Adobe Photoshop to increase the emotional reaction. Hezbollah reminded us that they could run with the best in terms of whipping up mourning and sadness, which they did to further their cause. As is usually the case in the Middle East, the more things change, the more things stay the same.

They had help from that gullible institution, the Western press. No matter how many paid “mourners” are sent in, no matter how many paid protesters march down the street, or any of the other devices people and organisations use to induce emotions, the press is there to uncritically report everything and sometimes join these modern-day minstrels in the show. In doing this they are turning from reporters of the facts to conduits for advocacy.

Why is this? Leaving aside straightforward bias (which is prevalent enough in our media,) part of the problem is haste: they’re in too big of a hurry to “get the story” to make sure it is the story. There’s also laziness at work here; it’s a lot easier (and safer, especially in the Middle East) to sit in the hotel and gather rumours from your local handlers than to do a little digging. Journalists, like the prophecy preachers, also show a consistent lack of sophistication and common sense in interpreting the workings of the world around them. Many came into the profession to change the world; when the world doesn’t fit their mould, they simply ignore the contradictory facts and go on. Their philosophy mirrors the Moody Blues: “But we decide which is right/And which is an illusion.”

This is not to say that we should be callous to human suffering. Jesus himself, at his last raising from the dead while on this earth, wept at the passing of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35.) And when on this earth, he shared our sad state: “Our High Priest is not one unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who has in every way been tempted, exactly as we have been, but without sinning…Jesus, in the days of his earthly life, offered prayers and supplications, with earnest cries and with tears, to him who was able to save him from death; and he was heard because of his devout submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from his sufferings…” (Heb. 4:15, 5:7-8)

But Jesus’ work on this earth is ultimately about healing, reconciliation and the truth. In his first raising from the dead, he found it necessary to clear the house of all of those who were profiting from the tragedy that was in front of them before he reversed it. The lesson from this is clear: if we want healing (Isaiah 53:5), reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18), and the truth (John 14:6), the first thing we’re going to have to do is to throw the minstrels out of the house.

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