Monthly Archives: September 2019

Matthew 8: 14-17 Jesus Takes our Infirmities and Bears our Diseases part 3

John Bridges, Christ Healing the Mother of Peter’s Wife (1839)

Matthew 8: 14-17

Parallels Mark 1: 29-31, Luke 4: 38-39

14 When Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever; 15 he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve him. 16 That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. 17 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

Matthew places the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law in the final position of this trio of healing stories. The final position of this story fits the pattern of the following groups of healing stories where the final story involves an expansion of the people’s awareness of Jesus’ authority and power. As I’ve alluded to in the previous two stories, the quotation of Isaiah 53: 4 interprets the meaning of the healing stories for Matthew’s readers. Jesus is cast in the role of the suffering servant and the healing and exorcisms will be interpreted through the lens of the first half of Isaiah 53:4, the broader passage will continue to resonate particularly as we approach the crucifixion.

In Mark this story comes before the healing of the person with a skin disease (leper) but theologically needs to because in Mark’s narration Jesus is no longer able to enter town after the healed individual spreads the word. Matthew is a careful narrator and without the ‘Messianic secret’ motif of Mark is able to structurally use the coming of people in the evening for healing as an expansion of the awareness of Jesus’ power and authority. Jesus has returned to Capernaum and now enters the house of one of the fishermen he called before the Sermon on the Mount. Upon seeing Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed he touches and heals her and she responds by rising up and serving him. Jesus will latter claim that he came, ‘to serve, and not to be served’ (Matthew 10:28) and Peter’s mother-in-law in her own way embodies what the stance that Jesus models for all his disciples. The Greek word diakonia which is translated serve is the word that the office of deacon comes from and this ecclesiastical office is a reminder of the call of all followers of Jesus to serve.

Jesus has healed three by both touch and word, and now many are brought to be healed or to have demons cast out. Words and cures are given for all who are brought to the house and the kingdom of heaven’s power emanates from this foothold in Capernaum. Jesus brings a healing and wholeness that neither Israel nor Rome could offer. Jesus has already crossed many of the boundaries that separated groups of people, clean and unclean, Gentile and Jew, male and female and I do believe the type of community envisioned in the Sermon on the Mount is a place where healing can happen. The healings point to the nature of the kingdom of heaven and prepare us again to examine the nature of discipleship in light of the kingdom’s advent.

Matthew 8: 5-13 Jesus Takes our Infirmities and Bears our Diseases part 2

Paolo Veronese, Jesus Healing the Servant of the Centurion (16th Century)

Matthew 8: 5-13

Parallel Luke 7: 1-14

5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him 6 and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” 7 And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.” 8 The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 10 When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour.

This is the second in a trio of interconnected healing stories which will be interpreted in the final story with the quotation from Isaiah that “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” As Jesus is compared to the suffering servant from Isaiah by Matthew, this narrative invites us to consider the span of the ‘our’ that Jesus will take infirmities and bear diseases for. Early in Matthew’s gospel we saw an openness to the Gentiles expressing worship for Jesus and understanding what the leaders in Jerusalem did not (Matthew 2: 1-12) and here we have the first request for healing from a Gentile, an action that will demonstrate surprising faith from an unexpected character. Jesus returns home to Capernaum and an emissary of the empire meets him asking for what the empire cannot give him. In contrast to Rome’s claims to heal a sick world, a Roman officer approaches Jesus for what the kingdom of heaven can offer.

There are two translational issues that significantly shape how I believe this passage is intended to be heard that are obscured by most translations. The first issue is the translation of the person needing healing: the Greek word pais normally means child and the masculine article would indicate a son. While in some cases the word can mean servant, its translation here as servant is attempts to harmonize this story with Luke’s version where he translates the Greek doulos as slave or servant. Matthew understands the distinction and uses doulos in verse nine to refer to a slave who the centurion can order to ‘do this’ and the slave does it. If the one needing healing is a son it heightens the connection to the centurion and creates a linkage to the other narrative of surprising faith in Matthew when a Canaanite woman approaches Jesus to heal her daughter. (Matthew 15: 21-28)

The second translational issue is that the initial response of Jesus to the Centurion is structured in Greek as a question: “Am I to come heal him?” Like the Canaanite woman there is a barrier that is present and the question of who Jesus has come for is brought forward. Is this officer in a different empire to be a beneficiary of the kingdom of heaven’s approach? Even though modern readers know that Jesus does heal the Centurion’s child, the initial response does not guarantee it and the petitioning centurion now is placed in the position of answering Jesus’ query. Like the Canaanite woman, the centurion meets this reluctance or resistance with a demonstration of faith that amazes Jesus and is contrasted to the expressions of faith he has encountered among the people of Israel. Jesus does not have to come and heal the child, but only speak the word and it will be done. The centurion uses his experience of earthly authority as a model for the authority of Jesus.

Faith for the centurion, and throughout Matthew’s gospel, is not a solely intellectual thing. Often faith in churches is a type of intellectual assent to beliefs or doctrines about who Jesus or God is, but although the identity of Jesus is an important theme for Matthew faith seems to be trust in what Jesus, or God, can do. The centurion does use his understanding of authority to reason that Jesus can heal by simply saying the word, but that doesn’t mean that the centurion or others seeking healing from Jesus understand who Jesus is (as Matthew is attempting to illuminate through a combination of stories, scriptural references, conflicts and teaching). Nor has the centurion committed to the way of life outlined in the Sermon on the Mount and we don’t have any indication that the centurion’s interactions with Jesus will go beyond this one meeting. Yet, the centurion is able to see what many both opponents and followers of Jesus are unable to see at this time: that Jesus has the authority to do what he says. Yet, as highlighted in the previous story, the address of Jesus as Lord indicates this is a story where there is an attribution of faith. Even if the centurion may intend this as a polite address to authority, Matthew is continually inviting us as hearers to reflect on who Jesus is who has the authority to do these things.

Matthew also uses this narrative as a way to reinterpret the ‘our’ of the hope that . Matthew takes the hope of texts like Psalm 107: 2-3 and Isaiah 43: 5-7 which speak of the regathering of the people of Israel:

Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and the west, from the north and the south. Psalm 107: 2-3

Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made. Isaiah 43: 5-7

Now instead of those coming from east and west being the regathered heirs of the kingdom, now the Gentiles are included in this regathering for the banquet with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and some of those in Israel will not be included. This is a part of Matthew’s inclusion of the Gentiles in the kingdom of heaven, but the receptions by the Gentiles will not be universal as we see in future stories. Faith will be found within and beyond Israel and the kingdom will be for Jews and Gentiles, men and women, parents and children, centurions, lepers and more.  Even for those serving other empires, they are not beyond the reach of healing and redemption. Centurions can demonstrate faith unseen in Israel, Jesus can heal by saying the word and a child’s distress can be relieved in the hour of Jesus’ declaration that it is done according to the centurion’s understanding of faith.

Matthew 8: 1-4 Jesus Takes our Infirmities and Bears our Diseases part 1

Mosaic, Cathedral of the Assumption in Monreale, Sicily (12-13th Century)

Matthew 8: 1-4

Parallels (Mark 1: 40-45, Luke 5: 12-16)

1 When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; 2 and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” 3 He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 4 Then Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

Jesus comes down the mountain after the Sermon on the Mount and we see the kingdom of heaven in conflict with the forces that keep people enslaved in the world. In chapters eight and nine of Matthew’s Gospel we see three patterns of three stories each separated by some manner of conflict with those hearing the message and some explanation of what we are seeing. It has been noted that like Moses participating in God’s liberation of the people from Egypt with the ten signs and wonders in Exodus 7-12, there are in these two chapters a total of ten acts of healing, exorcism or miracles, (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 125) and while I would agree there is a strong Moses typology in Matthew’s gospel that both places Jesus in comparison and in contrast to Moses these ten signs that announce the kingdom of heaven’s approach. There is also resistance from the forces of the world to the approach of the kingdom of heaven which occur each time Jesus descends a mountain in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew eight and nine at the end of each set of three stories there is an expansion of the effect of the individual acts to the many or crowds that are brought into the sphere of influence of the kingdom’s activity.

The first healing in Matthew’s gospel is a person rendered unclean by a skin disease, and while this probably isn’t leprosy, or Hanson’s disease as we have long translated this term, it is for the people of Israel a disease that rendered a person unclean and forced them to live isolated from the community. Skin diseases were a significant concern among the people and the priests are given the role of properly identifying this as a disease that makes one unclean and excluding and reuniting the person with the community. Leviticus 13-14 give the details of how the priest is to diagnose, proclaim unclean, and if the person recovers to ritually declare the person clean again. This type of uncleanness was viewed as a punishment by God, for example Numbers 12 with Miriam, and many diseases in this time were viewed as either an affliction by God or the act of some demonic corrupting force. Yet, I do think it is interesting to note in comparison with Moses that the second sign God gives Moses is turning his hand diseased (leprous in most translations) before Moses goes to witness to Israel. Here Jesus reaches out his hand and touches an unclean man with an affliction of the skin and makes it clean. Matthew in narrating Jesus’ story moves this story ahead of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law in Mark’s Gospel and perhaps he alludes this connection early in Moses’ ministry.

Regardless of allusions, the issues of what righteousness and the relationship to the law which were important to the Sermon on the Mount are immediately brought into concrete expression as Jesus encounters one who is ritually unclean and acts in ways both contrary and in concert with the law. The law would declare the person unclean and untouchable and there is a view that uncleanness is contagious and because it not only was there a fear of contagion but a fear that the inclusion of the unclean one impacted the purity of the community in its standing before God. Yet, in the kingdom of heaven cleanness is contagious and can be transmitted. Jesus in many of the healings and exorcisms that occur in the next two chapters will cross a barrier to inclusion created by disease, possession, bleeding, being a Gentile, and even being dead. Jesus exercises the authority to make the unclean now clean, unlike the derivative authority of the priest which can only declare that which God has made clean as clean. Something greater than the law is at work here and yet there is still the insistence to offer the gift commanded by Moses as testimony to the priest.

Matthew removes the secrecy motif which is a part of Mark’s narration of this story. In Mark the cleansed leper is commanded not to tell anyone but spreads the word freely which prevents Jesus from being able to enter town. In Mark’s telling there is a great reversal where the formerly unclean leper goes into town telling the message he was to keep silent and Jesus now becomes unable to enter town but now people come from everywhere to touch him. In Matthew the narrative ends after the command to offer the gift to the priest. Matthew also places this story before the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law later in the chapter which has him entering the town of Capernaum. Another key portion of Matthew’s narration is the title people use to address Jesus. Here, and frequently in stories with positive attributions of faith in Matthew, Jesus is referred to as Lord instead of ‘teacher’ (often when faith is questioned) or ‘son of God’ (normally demons but also the Centurion at the cross) or ‘son of David’ (those who are blind but see what others cannot). Lord may simply be a polite address of authority, like ‘sir’ in English, but it also has a strong connection with how the people of Israel referred to the God of Israel (using Adonai, translated LORD instead of the name of the God of Israel). Matthew has already demonstrated a propensity for using language and vocations reserved for the God of Israel to talk about Jesus, so the frequent use of the term Lord in a positive light may point to the nature of faith seeing in Jesus the God who is with us. This is also highlighted by the action of the unclean one kneeling before Jesus in a stance that is appropriate to worship. The act of kneeling could be a stance giving honor to Jesus, but Matthew probably intends for the reader to see in this act the appropriate stance of giving worship to the Lord.