Monthly Archives: November 2019

Matthew 9: 32-38 Never Has Anything Like This Been Seen in Israel part 3

James Tissot, Healing the Blind and Mute Man, late 19th Century

Matthew 9: 32-38

Parallels Mark 3:22, Luke 11: 14-15; Mark 6:6b, 34; Luke 8:1; 10:2

32 After they had gone away, a demoniac who was mute was brought to him. 33 And when the demon had been cast out, the one who had been mute spoke; and the crowds were amazed and said, “Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.” 34 But the Pharisees said, “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.”

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

This third miraculous story of the third set of stories brings this section to a close and prepares us for the time when the apostles are sent out into the fertile fields to collect the waiting harvest. Even though Jesus has ordered people not to discuss the healing they have received the word has been shared and the crowd is now watching Jesus. With this final story of an exorcism in this section we also see the Pharisees again enter the scene and challenging the authority that Jesus is demonstrating. The seeds have been planted, the good news of the kingdom is gaining a hearing, the demons holding people in bondage are being expelled and surrounding Jesus is the harassed and helpless crowd looking for a shepherd to lead them in their confusion. Like a skilled composer Matthew has brought us to this point in the narrative, rhythmically setting us up to contemplate what following Jesus will mean, preparing us for the calling to go out with the apostles as laborers in the harvest, as shepherds helping to gather the harassed and confused flock, and as emissaries of the kingdom of heaven.

The man’s muteness is attributed to demon possession, and while we in our scientific worldview might look for medical explanations of a person being unable to speak the narrative views the man’s muteness as symptomatic of demonic possession. Whether we consider this narrative a healing or an exorcism matters little in relation to the person healed, but it is key to the question of authority that is put to Jesus by the Pharisees. In Mark’s gospel this challenge is met by Jesus’ response about Satan casting out Satan and brief parable of binding the strong man, but in Matthew the Pharisees challenge merely contrasts with the amazement of the crowds. In each of the reflections on discipleship that come after each trio of miracle stories in these chapters the scribes and Pharisees find themselves on the outside looking in at Jesus and his disciples. They, unlike the crowd, remain unconvinced that Jesus’ authority is coming from God and they continue to find themselves unable to see Jesus as one who can act as the shepherd of the lost sheep of Israel. Jesus, in Matthew’s telling, seems unperturbed by the resistance of the Pharisees and doesn’t consider their challenge worthy of an answer.

Jesus has already been in motion but here the pace quickens as the intensity increases. The narrative speeds up as the we learn that the harvest time approaches, and we quickly move to the instruction Matthew feels is important for these heralds of the kingdom.

The identification of the crowd as ‘sheep without a shepherd’ echoes Moses’ concern in Numbers about the need for a leader for the people after he is no longer with them:

“Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd. Numbers 27: 16-17

This language gets echoed in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Micah and Zechariah[1] where the image of the shepherd is sometimes the faithless leaders, sometimes the hoped-for Davidic leader and frequently the LORD acting as the shepherd (often to gather and sometimes to scatter). Matthew probably hears not only Jesus acting in concert with Moses and the hoped-for Son of David but also probably in terms similar to Ezekiel 34:

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the LORD God. Ezekiel 34: 15

In addition to the image of the Lord acting as shepherd is the additional image of the Lord of harvest. The harvest is often an image of hope in the midst of judgment where there is both accountability for those who have led the people astray and a hope for a new beginning. For example, Hosea can state:

For you also, O Judah, a harvest is appointed. When I would restore the fortunes of my people. Hosea 6:11

 Joel can see the image of harvest as a time where God restores Israel and judges all the surrounding nations that have oppressed Israel in the midst of a very militaristic hope where plowshares are turned into swords and pruning hooks into spears for the warriors of the LORD (Joel 3). Yet, Jesus’ vision of the kingdom is a place where violence is not resisted, and where shepherds are both leaders and healers. It isn’t like anything that has been seen in Israel previously and perhaps that is why it is so difficult for those reading scripture in light of a different hope to understand Jesus’ proclamation and work. Yet, in spite of the resistance the seeds have been sown, the harassed crowds have found a shepherd and the harvest awaits laborers called to go forth into the harvest. As we have moved back and forth between Jesus’ actions that invite us to ponder his authority and identity and the calls into following him which invite us to wonder what this calling will mean,  Matthew will now take us into Jesus’ commissioning of his called laborers to participate in the awaiting harvest.

[1] Isaiah 41: 11; Jeremiah 23: 2,4; 31:4; Ezekiel 34; 37:24; Amos 3: 12; Micah 7: 14; Zechariah 10: 2; 11; 13:7

Matthew 9: 27-31 Never Has Anything Like This Been Seen in Israel part 2

Matthew 9: 27-31

Jesus Healing the Blind From 12th Century Basilica Catedrale di Santa Maria Nouva di Monreale in Sicily.

Parallels Mark 10: 46-52, Luke 18: 35-43 but these are closer to Matthew 20: 29-34

27 As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, crying loudly, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” 28 When he entered the house, the blind men came to him; and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” 29 Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you.” 30 And their eyes were opened. Then Jesus sternly ordered them, “See that no one knows of this.” 31 But they went away and spread the news about him throughout that district.

Irony is strong in these two chapters which are preparing us for the sending out of the followers of Jesus into the plentiful harvest. Untouchable and unclean lepers have been touched and made clean, a Centurion can express a trust in terms of his understanding of authority that Jesus has not seen in all Israel, disciples may wonder ‘what sort of man is this’ but demon possessed men can speak truthfully about Jesus being the Son of God, a scribe who will follow Jesus anywhere may not but a disciple will get in the boat even as a father is needing burial, sins can be forgiven a paralytic and sinners can become disciples, two daughters (one of the leader, one who Jesus addresses as daughter) are beyond touch but through their own or a parent’s faith are enabled to ‘rise up’ and have a new opportunity at life. Now two blind men see what others cannot and once again Jesus, the Son of David, is called as a healer who can bring sight to the trusting blind men.

The report has spread throughout the district that Jesus has done incredible things to those who have asked of him. Most recently a girl who was dead has been raised to life, and if Jesus is capable of restoring life or healing a flow of blood then it would be reasonable to assume that Jesus can bring sight to the blind. The number of blind men also links us to the two demoniacs in Matthew 8: 28-34 and this story’s close counterpart of the two blind men at Jericho in Matthew 20: 29-34. The Son of David title for Jesus in Matthew often occurs in contexts where healing occurs (Matthew 12: 23, 15: 22, and 20: 31) which is interesting because David is never lifted up as a healer in the stories and poetry about or attributed to him and this title is related to his role as the expected messianic figure from the line of David that brings about this new connection with God. (Hays, 2016, p. 147)

Within this short healing story faith/belief plays a strong role. The words for faith and believe are both from the Greek pistis and, as mentioned before, this word has the connotation in trusting that Jesus is powerful enough/capable of doing what is asked. Jesus says to the blind men, “Do you believe (pistis) I am able (dunamai-literally powerful) to do this?” Their response beginning with “Yes, Lord” indicates by both affirmation and title they choose to address Jesus by an understanding that is favorable in Matthew. These blind men can see that Jesus is Lord, not merely a teacher. They are healed according to the faith/trust they have in Jesus.

Eyes can be opened but tongues can apparently not be stilled. Eyes have been opened and the faithful and newly non-blind followers of the Lord the Son of David are told to see that others do not see. They are commanded to say nothing to anyone but instead they go away and spread the news throughout the district. The command for silence leads to proclamation, secrets are shouted from the rooftops, and the seeds of the upcoming harvest continue to be planted. Those who have never seen now see what no one in Israel has seen before and there are others who need to hear the good news of the kingdom to have their eyes opened, to receive healing from their diseases and sickness and to have their demons exorcised.

Matthew 9: 18-26 Never Has Anything Like This Been Seen in Israel part 1

Gabriel von Max, The Raising of the Daughter of Jairus *(1881)

Matthew 9: 18-26

Parallels Mark 5: 21-43, Luke 8: 40-56

18 While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” 19 And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. 20 Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, 21 for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” 22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. 23 When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, 24 he said, “Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. 25 But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. 26 And the report of this spread throughout that district.

Matthew is an efficient narrator bringing together stories and structure to attempt to prepare us to be sent out as bearers of the good news. Comparing how Mark and Matthew construct their narratives, which are both designed to be heard and remembered, Mark often spends significantly longer in stories, like this one, where Jesus is bringing healing to those who need to receive it. Matthew’s narration of this story is roughly half the size of Mark’s because Matthew is moving quickly to what is commonly know as the ‘Mission discourse’ in Matthew 10. Matthew wants us to hear these final three healing stories as planting the seeds for the plentiful harvest that is coming at the end of the chapter.

Most hearers are familiar with the longer Markan and Lukan narration of this story, and some of the deletions that Matthew makes simply make the story shorter, others are interesting because they change the possible ways of hearing the story. The first major change is not reflected in most translations because in Matthew it is a merely leader who comes to Jesus, not necessarily a leader of the synagogue (of the synagogue is not in the Greek text, most translations harmonize this with the Mark and Luke parallels). The father here comes with an incredible request, to raise a daughter from the dead and although he doesn’t comment on the father’s faith it links the story to two others who ask on behalf of their children: the Centurion in Matthew 8:5-13 and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15: 21-28. It is possible that Matthew wants us to hear this story in terms of a leader who is not a Jewish leader (although there isn’t the resistance that both the Centurion and the Canaanite woman receive so I view this as less likely), but it also may be Matthew using the bonds of parent to child in a powerful bond that makes us willing to ask the incredible and to believe on their behalf. The other instance of a father bringing a child occurs after the Transfiguration where a father brings his son who has seizures to Jesus and his disciples and bows down to Jesus asking for healing.

Jesus rises up and follows the father with his disciples but is interrupted on his journey. This first healing story, of the familiar pattern of three, actually involves two individuals seeking incredible things: a man on behalf of his daughter and a woman for her own healing. Matthew notes that the woman has been suffering for twelve years but deletes the age of the daughter (which in Mark and Luke is twelve structurally linking the two healings and the two suffers). The woman trusts that merely touching Jesus’ clothing will bring about healing. In both cases, the flow of blood and death, to touch the person would render a person unclean according to the law. By being out among those in the presence of Jesus this woman risks, in the views of the ancient world, contaminating anyone who comes into contact with her. Much like we have at times had erroneous ideas about the spread of diseases, the ancient world believed that contamination was spread by physical contact. The woman would have lost her place in society and in her desperate situation she dares to come up behind Jesus and touch the fringe of his garment. Even as Jesus ignores that taboos of purity violations of blood or death in the law, we have Matthew highlighting the fringe of the garment, a specifically Jewish custom in clothing. Jesus sees her, he doesn’t have to seek her out as in the other gospels’ narration of this scene, but his response is one of encouragement and announcing the healing that is done in her. It is her faith, her trust that Jesus can do that which she asked, which has, in the presence of Jesus, made her whole again.

The crowd in their mourning does not respond to Jesus as the father of the deceased girl does or the woman with the flow of blood. When Jesus tells them to cease their activities of mourning and to depart, ‘for the girl is not dead but sleeping’ they laugh at him. The crowd knows death when they behold it but unlike the girl’s father, they do not trust that Jesus or any other person can have power over death.  Yet, the father’s faith has caused Jesus to rise up and he will not be deterred by the crowd’s lack of faith. Instead he drives them out and proceeds to the girl and takes her by the hand and causes her to rise up. Jesus can do what Elijah and Elisha had done in bringing a child back to life, but Matthew is not content with us hearing Jesus as merely a prophet or wonder worker like Elijah or Elisha. Part of the cumulative effect of these three groups of miraculous stories and the introduction of titles is to draw the disciples and soon the crowds into wondering who this is who is in their midst because, “Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.” The word of this begins to pass throughout the land and the seeds are planted for the future harvest.

Matthew 9: 14-17 The Nature of Discipleship Part 2B

Carvaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600)

Matthew 9: 14-17

Parallels Mark 2: 18-22, Luke 5: 33-39

14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

I’ve been a pastor long enough and have seen enough conflicts among people to know that sometimes the action of welcoming someone into a congregation who is viewed as an outsider can create a schism in the fabric of the community. Sometimes the people who are the most invested in the community will be the ones who tear away when the community no longer looks or acts like they expect. In this continuation of the reflection about what the nature of the community of disciples will look like we see some older groups, like the disciples of John and the Pharisees, who are uncomfortable in the way in which this community of Jesus’ disciples practice their righteousness. The question the disciples of John ask about fasting identifies one of the differences in practice between Jesus and these other two groups of people attempting to faithfully embody their relationship to but the two portions of Jesus answer point to a different understanding of time and the inability to fit Jesus’ merciful conception of righteousness in the established practices of righteousness of either John’s disciples or the disciples of the Pharisees.

Jesus did address fasting in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6: 16-18) and as I mentioned there fasting is often conceived in terms of a personal piety, but even though most translations of Matthew 6 refer to practicing piety before others the term translated piety is righteousness. One thing to notice is the difference in the practice, the disciples of John are looking for a visible practice of fasting, while in the community of Jesus’ disciples the fasting does not exempt one from interacting with the community in a normal fashion. Their righteousness is practiced in their relationship with their Father who sees their action done in private and their interaction with the community in public ways. They may be those who hunger and thirst for righteousness who enter this time in the hope that they will be filled, but not so that their practice of righteousness is seen by others.

Jesus’ answer to the disciples of John consists in two parts, one focuses on the time in which the disciples of Jesus find themselves and the second takes the two images of old things being incompatible with new. In relationship to time, the time is now a time of celebration, like a wedding. Jesus is metaphorically cast as the bridegroom, an image that in both Psalm 19:5 and Isaiah 62:5 use to refer to God’s presence and Matthew may want us to hear this echo. Weddings are a time of joy in the ancient world, a time of feasting and celebration where the community is invited to share in the joy of the bridegroom and the bride. There are times that are inappropriate for the joyous feasting and celebration of a wedding, like the context of judgement we see in texts like Jeremiah 7:34, 16:9, 25: 10 and Joel 2: 16, but in Jesus’ view the time when he is present with the disciples is a time for eating and drinking and rejoicing rather than a time of mourning and fasting. The Pharisees and John’s disciples may view the times they find themselves in differently. They may look at the continued occupation of Galilee and Israel by Rome or the reign of Herod Antipas over Galilee, who will later execute John the Baptist (Matthew 14: 1-12), as indicative of a time closer to Jeremiah and Joel where feasting is inappropriate. Yet, Jesus views this as a time where tax collectors and sinners are welcomed to recline around the table with him as evidence of the kingdom of heaven continued expansion to those previously excluded.

The two images of an unshrunk patch on old clothing and new wine in old wineskins also point to the inability to fit Jesus’ practices and authority into old patterns of piety or old conceptions of righteousness. The way of Jesus is not the way of John or the Pharisees. The forgiveness of sins and the eating with sinners is bound to create a schism in among the religious community. The word translated tear is the Greek schisma where our English schism comes from. Like a wineskin without the ability to stretch with the release of gas that is a part of the fermentation process or a fabric which shrinks and tears away from the fabric it is sewn onto, sometimes the old is unable to contain the new. Yet, Jesus doesn’t try to force this new wine into the existing wineskins of the disciples of John or the Pharisees. Instead for those who are able to receive this new wine he allows them to receive it rather than attempting to patch up the existing movements that Jesus encounters. Perhaps in God’s economy there is a place where both have value and meaning and both can be preserved. As a person who has seen a church go through a schism in the past, I can only hope that those who viewed the practices and boundaries of the community differently still have a place in the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus will have conflicts with the Pharisees and different practices than John’s disciples, and yet he seems content with welcoming the sinners and tax collectors that have been previously excluded rather than expecting the Pharisees and followers of John the Baptist to join him in the practice of this manner of righteousness.

Matthew 9: 9-13 The Nature of Discipleship Part 2A

Carvaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600)

Matthew 9: 9-13

Parallels Mark 2: 13-17, Luke 5: 27-32

 9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Matthew composes his gospel for both the scribes who can read and the hearers who hear, and while we have lost the sensitivity to the rhythmic patterns that Matthew uses (especially when we break it up into small sections like is frequently done in worship) it is a skill that can be learned. Like a composer using a set of triplets to set up the following note (think for example of the beginning of Beethoven’s fifth symphony) and what comes before prepares us for what happens next. This interweaving of the narratives that highlight the identity and authority of Jesus with narratives that highlight what it means to follow Jesus prepare us for the next major block of instruction in chapter ten and connect us back to the Sermon on the Mount.

We are finally introduced to the disciple whose name is associated with this gospel, Matthew. Matthew’s name in Greek (Matthion) is closely related to the word translated followed him in verse 9 and disciples in verse 11 (mathetais) as well as the word translated learn in verse 13 (mathete). Ultimately a disciple is a learner, pupil or student of master who learn by listening and by following. Just as the name Matthew for the gospel gives us a clue of the purpose of the gospel, to form followers and learners from Jesus, also here in this central reflection on the nature of discipleship we continue to learn not only what it means to follow Jesus, but who our fellow followers might be. I’ve argued earlier in the Sermon on Mount against a perfectionistic reading of Jesus’ first sermon, here we find tax collectors and sinners reclining at the table with Jesus while the Pharisees protest this arrangement.

Matthew as a skilled editor places this text immediately following a story where Jesus has demonstrated he has the power to forgive sins. Jesus has authority over the elements, over the demons and over sins, stepping into a role that was presided over by the priests in the temple. Jesus claims for himself authority that the priests in the sacrificial system had mediated for the people of God. The sacrificial system was originally intended to be a means of reconciliation between God and the people and a way of restoring relationships within the community. Yet, we see in this story that there are those who by their vocation of by some previous action have been excluded from the reconciliation that the temple was to mediate. Matthew and the fellow tax collectors and sinners are those who, like the leper in Matthew 8: 1-4, would be assumed to be unclean and like the Centurion in 8: 5-13 would be viewed as emmisaries of a hostile empire. Any religious group has the potential to become exclusive with the insiders composing the righteous and the outsides consisting of the ‘sinners’ and yet we are encountering in Matthew a different understanding of what righteousness will consist of than the Pharisees or even the disciples of John the Baptist would conceive.

Matthew quotes Hosea 6:6 twice, once here and later in Matthew 12:1-8 in the context of plucking grain on the Sabbath. In both places we encounter one whose role is greater than the role of the temple. Jesus invites Matthew, and the other tax collectors and sinners to recline with him at the table, to break bread with them and invite them into the circle of followers invited to the banquet. The removal of the barrier for the sinners and tax collectors to gather with Jesus raises concerns among some other watchers of Jesus.

The Pharisees in this text refer to Jesus as ‘teacher’ like the scribe in Matthew 8: 19, and as I mentioned in discussing that scribe, when someone refers to Jesus as teacher in Matthew they are almost always challenging his authority. These Pharisees probably believe that one who shares bread with sinners becomes like them. They may point to a text like Proverbs 4: 14-17

14 Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of evildoers. 15 Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on. 16 For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong; they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble. 17 For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.

But the way of interpreting scripture and the meaning of righteousness that Jesus embodies centers around mercy, and the use of Hosea 6:6 becomes a key verse to understanding the practices of Jesus. Jesus who has authority to forgive the sins of the paralytic has authority to welcome the sinner who is forgiveable. Jesus who can heal Peter’s mother-in-law, the paralytic, the Centurion’s child, and the Gadarene demoniacs is the physician who can heal the sick (literally the bad/evil ones, Greek kakoos). This the cumulative effect of this narrative in the string of preceding stories illuminates a different way of perceiving the relationship between God and those who have been excluded. As Richard B. Hays can state:

Thus, if the Pharisees go to learn what Hosea 6:6 means, they will need to read more than one verse. Once they search the wider context of God’s scriptural intentions, they will find there, in the midst of a judgment oracle against the people, a call for repentance and a portrayal of a merciful God who wants his people to show mercy, not contempt to those who have gone astray. (Hays, 2016, p. 126)

This merciful reading of scripture points to a merciful God welcoming those who have gone astray. Righteousness is not a perfectionistic bar which sinners and tax collectors can never clear, but instead is an invitation to be a part of a community of disciples like Matthew who recline with Jesus around the table amazed at their inclusion in this community of learners who are learning that it is blessed to be merciful because they to have received mercy.