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

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