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.