Give place: for the maid is not dead, but sleepeth (Matthew 9:24).

The majestic calm of these words is pregnant with the coming laughter of God. Spoken to an unsympathetic crowd wallowing in gloom, the Master’s words sound as though he is deliberately exposing himself to ridicule. Actually they are carefully chosen by One who, knowing the end from the beginning, is preparing the way for his enemies to see that the joke is really on them. The story contains in dramatic form the Advent truth of Psalm 2: “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh” at his enemies’ puny efforts to wreck his advancing Kingdom. History will culminate in God’s turning the wrath of man to His praise.

From the record of Scripture, Christ is never known to have laughed aloud, but a great deal that he did and said is imbued with transposed laughter as he deals in his unique saving way with the inadequacies of his friends and the enmity of his adversaries. Thus he helps a sorrowing father and afflicted woman to an experience of salvation beyond all expectation, and enables unbelieving crowds to see the reversal of “normal,” “incurable” evils. He tackles the forces that oppose him derisively by conquering them redemptively. So he presages the fulfillment of the Psalmist’s preview of God’s laughing best because he laughs last.

The story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter with its parenthetic story of the woman in the crowd adumbrates aspects of the divine laughter in the course and at the conclusion of history. The parenthesis illustrates the hidden divine laughter in the overruling of adverse circumstances—delay, and the inadequacies of the human equation—so that they serve the purposes of His Kingdom. The main story, the raising of the dead girl, illustrates the laughter of “him that sitteth in the heavens” in relation to the misplaced laughter of the unbelieving, and is an acted parable of God’s redemptive “turning of the tables” at the conclusion of history.

First, then, let us view the picture of how God, in the course of history, overrules circumstances adverse to his Kingdom’s progress. The opening incident is one of delay and interruption. Jesus has accepted an urgent invitation from the warden of a local synagogue to come and heal his dying twelve-year-old daughter. The faith of the distraught father was just about adequate to the situation if Jesus could hurry and not be delayed. Jesus is now walking through the crowded streets on the way to the child’s home. Suddenly an unusual incident breaks in upon his progress. The delay is followed by the arrival of bad news. The child is already dead, and the Master need not trouble to come further. What could be the meaning of this? Suffice it to say that Jesus did not consider the occurrence to be one of chance but to be part of the providence of God. The father’s wavering faith needed strengthening to survive this test. “Be not afraid,” came the answer, “only believe.” Delay causes things to get worse before they can get better; but it also makes possible, as in this story, a fuller victory in the end. Interruptions, however unwelcome, should be integrated into the scheme of things: for they make possible a wider scope for Christ’s redemptive work and a larger answer to prayer.

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We watch next the parenthetic incident itself. Here too there are circumstances contrary to the known interests of God’s Kingdom. A woman with a longstanding disease seeks healing from Jesus by secretly touching the fringe of his coat while she is in the midst of a jostling crowd. Her womanly modesty and the nature of her disease prevents her from a more public approach. The difficulty of her situation, from Jesus’ point of view, is that salvation for either body or soul cannot be stolen: it must be applied for by a person-to-Person approach, and its reception must be acknowledged. Again, the woman’s faith needed education and redirection before it could be trusted with the desired gift: at first it contained elements of superstition. Her prayer—the prayer implicit in her intention—cannot be answered in the way she wants it: if answered at all, it will be answered above all that she asked or thought. Her soul as well as her body must be healed. While she seeks a partial healing, God intends a whole salvation. And there is the temptation to get away without avowing the faith that saves. To approach God at all means to take the risk of finding ourselves in touch with One who means to give more than we mean to receive, and who will challenge us to come out openly and wholly on his side. This is one way in which God has the last laugh; it is also a laughter in which the Christian can join cheerfully, since there is nothing but grace in it. The victory of God over ourselves and our present inadequacies is one which gives us just cause to say with the Psalmist: “When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion … then was our mouth filled with laughter, …” (126:1–2).

The Church is the community of men and women who are learning with increasing gaiety that the joke is on them, that God has redeemed them in spite of themselves and their “human equation.” It is the interim community, the community of those who are saved in the course of that history which is the arena for Christ’s achievement of the final redemption—the transfiguration of the temporal norm of sin and death into the eternal norm of life and peace.

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The arrival at the house of Jairus introduces us to actions which prefigure this conclusion of history when Christ consummates his saving victory over the Kingdom’s enemies. The first enemy to be dealt with is the world of unbelief. Christ meets it as the spirit of scorn. His entrance into the courtyard arrests the dismal discords of professional mourners with the majestic calm of One who has the secret of assured victory. He commands them to get out of the way with their unseemly gloom and states: “the girl is not dead, but asleep.” The declaration is pure Gospel, spoken in the confidence of a victory to be won on the Calvary road.

Christ treats the enmity of unbelief proleptically; that is, he exhibits that quiet confidence and majestic authority which will be vindicated at history’s conclusion when the Sun of Righteousness will rise to scatter all unbelief as he heralds the dawning of the Eternal Day. Behind that quiet lies the sublimated laughter of which the Psalmist speaks: “The kings of the earth … take counsel … against the Lord, and against his anointed … He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh.” The laughter of men arises out of the funny pictures made by life’s jigsaw puzzle where some of the pieces are missing. The laughter of God, however, comes from the fact that he knows the end from the beginning. The first is tentative and provisional; the second is permanent and conclusive. The strategy behind God’s sublimated laughter is, by simple and clear proclamation of the paradox of the Gospel, to invite unbelief’s fullest self-expression, in order, in the fullness of time, to lead it on to the completest self-condemnation.

The effectiveness of this strategy appears in the story of the miracle. Let us look at Christ’s treatment of this last and most stubborn enemy—death. Death is the key member of a complex of evils which the coming of Christ was designed to conquer. On this side of eternity death is still inescapable. But by the Gospel of his mighty acts Christ has already removed from death the aspect of doom, He has “brought life and immortality to light.” Look next at Christ’s method in dealing with death. First he makes personal contact with death: “he took her by the hand.” Christ is not only himself undefiled by his contact with death; he removes the defilement of death altogether as he removes its sting. Next he raises her up to life again. The creation of free creatures in God’s image made sin, and with it death, possible: the redemption wrought by Christ brought about the death of death and the conquest of its related evils. Christians therefore can now say that in the deepest sense of the word there is no death, just a falling asleep, and from this sleep there is an awakening to life eternal. The raising of the girl was an acted parable of this. Finally, Christ commanded that “something be given her to eat,” and then he quietly made his departure. Tidings of the miracle soon spread far and wide in spite of all efforts to keep it quiet.

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Thus does Jesus bring about the vindication of his Gospel. His declaration before the miracle brought forth unbelieving laughter. Jesus knew it would. He could foresee how those jeers could be drafted to further the truth of the Gospel and exemplify the truth of the conclusive laughter of God. The unbelieving scoffers were made the unwitting allies of the Gospel by being made to give incontestable evidence of the reality of the death from which the girl was raised, and hence also of the reality of the miracle and the saving truth of which it is a dramatic manifestation. They have also provided undesigned testimony to the credibility of the narrative. Their greatest interest, in view of their preconceived hostility to the Gospel, was actually against the fact that the girl was dead, since, on her being raised from the dead, no one could halt the growing fame of Jesus and his Gospel. One can imagine how they must have wished they had accepted literally the statement of Jesus at which they had laughed. Now nothing can check the contagion of the gospel of resurrection. So it is that the Providence that brings about history’s conclusion also brings about the turning of the wrath of men to God’s praise.

The presence and activity of the Redeemer among us even now makes saving inroads into the earthly prevalence of disease and death, ignorance and unbelief. Each of those inroads acts as a guarantee and foretaste of the cosmic consummation when the historic process will be completed and life and immortality will take over permanently.

“The maid is not dead, but sleepeth.” Let us adore the mystery in the words and works of God when they contain things beyond our ken. Let us trust Christ even when we see nothing ahead of us. For soon we shall see “the great awakening, and the end of toil and gloom.” Meanwhile the first installment of final victory is already with us. Already we can share that quiet confidence which is imbued with the conclusive laughter of God. Already we can sing: “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy” (Ps. 126:5).

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John W. Duddington is Episcopal chaplain at Stanford University. Born in England, he holds the B.A. and M.A. from Durham University. In 1924–25 he was tutor and chaplain at St. Ardan’s Theological College, Birkenhead, and lecturer in Hellenistic Greek at Liverpool University. He served as missionary to China from 1928–48, and in 1950 transferred to the (American) Episcopal Church, serving parishes in California and Manila before his present post at Stanford.

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