Matthew 8: 28-34 What Sort of Man is This Part 2

14th Century Slavic Inscribed Fresco from Vyoskie Dechany (Serbia)

Matthew 8: 28-34 What Sort of Man is This Part 2

Parallels Mark 5: 1-20, Luke 8: 26-39

28 When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 Suddenly they shouted, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30 Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. 31 The demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” 32 And he said to them, “Go!” So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water. 33 The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. 34 Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.

Matthew’s narration of Jesus’ encounter on the other side of the Sea of Galilee with demoniacs is significantly shorter than Mark’s (and Luke which follows Mark’s narration) with the naming of demon as ‘Legion’ being omitted. Matthew will regularly deviate from Mark’s narration for structural, theological and perhaps here social reasons. This is another story where comparing the differences in the stories can illuminate some of the subtle ways Matthew is constructing his gospel to help the disciple understand who Jesus is and what it will mean to follow him in a world of competing loyalties.

The first obvious difference between Matthew’s narrative and Mark’s is the number of people who are possessed. In Matthew there are two, where in Mark (and Luke) there is only one. Structurally the number of demoniacs gives us a structural clue linking this story to the story of the two blind men in Matthew 9: 27-31 (also the second miracle story in a group of three). Both the demon possessed ones and the blind ones see what others cannot. These two loud and fierce demoniacs which have made that portion of the country of Gadarenes their domain understand who Jesus is in a manner that his disciples in Matthew’s gospel do not yet.

As readers we have heard Jesus identified as ‘Son’ in the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:17) and will also hear this identification at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5) spoken from heaven. Now from the mouths of demon possessed we hear the same linkage as Jesus is titled Son of God. We have already seen Jesus’ power over demons, disease and even the elements but this is the first time we hear the demons speak. As Stanley Hauerwas can state:

Demons recognize the Son because they—more than we—are able to recognize what threatens them…. The disciples fear Jesus’ absence as he sleeps in the boat; the demons fear his presence. (Hauerwas, 2006, p. 97)

Ironically, the demons speak truthfully because they realize that Jesus’ presence is a threat to their domination of their hosts and the area where they are able to overpower others who would transgress the area around the tombs. They know that their time is coming to an end and that the kingdom of heaven is approaching, but they view Jesus’ action as a premature incursion occurring before the appointed time.

The most significant difference in Matthew’s narration is the exclusion of the conversation around the naming of the demon. There may be multiple reasons that Matthew does this. Matthew may be attempting to demonstrate the authority of Jesus and his ability to cast out the demon without its name (obtaining the name of something was considered powerful in the ancient world and this is one of the reasons that the name of God was never spoken). There may also be a social reason for the exclusion of this portion of the scene. Many scholars designate Antioch as the place where the gospel of Matthew was written. As I mention when writing about this passage in relation to the gospel of Mark the combination of Legion and the herd of swine could ask some very provocative questions about the relationship of Rome and the demonic. If Matthew is written near Antioch, it would also be near the Legion X Fretensis (one of two Roman legions in Syria) whose primary emblem was a swine. Matthew, while holding the tension between the kingdom of heaven and the empire of Rome, does not intentionally exclude Rome and even its soldiers from coming under the influence of the kingdom of heaven. I think the gospels in general and Matthew in particular do not portray Jesus as advocating for conflict between Jerusalem and Rome and any resistance is non-violent. Matthew may view the linkage of the demonic with the legions as language that was too near the revolutionary overtones used by zealots in the lead up to the Jewish War (66-73 C.E.) that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

Miracle of the Gadarene Swine by Briton Reviera (1883)

The community around the two demoniacs has found a way to cohabitate with their presence as marked by the large herd of swine nearby. The demons beg Jesus to cast them into the herd of swine and Jesus grants their plea. Even demons may beg Jesus for mercy. Immediately the herd rushes into the sea and we are connected back to the previous narrative where demonic (or at least dangerous powers) are at work on the sea but in the presence of Jesus the sea remains undisturbed. The casting out of the demons and the death of the herd of pigs causes the swineherds to return to town and to relate what they saw occur. Again, the irony of the story is strong when the whole town comes out to greet Jesus like a visiting dignitary but on seeing him, they but instead of welcoming him they ask him to depart their region. Like the demons they do this from the posture of begging, but Jesus hears and heeds their request.

This scene across the sea takes place among the Gentiles, and here Jesus is not met with great faith (unlike the Centurion or the Canaanite woman). Yet, the disciples, the little faith ones who get into the boat with him are left with another identity to ponder and another way in which Jesus demonstrates his power over the forces of the demonic. The kingdom is not welcome everywhere in Matthew’s story, nor will Jesus’ disciples always be welcome.  Jesus does not force himself on this community of the Gadarenes which is not ready to receive the gospel, nor will he put pearls before those who choose swine with demons to a reality where demons are driven away. Jesus does not condemn the community, but he does depart. The community chooses the world they know over the kingdom of heaven, but even those who attempt to follow Jesus may choose what is safe rather than having faith in the Son of God. But sometimes even those who are directly opposed to the kingdom of heaven bear witness in their own strange way to who Jesus is, and so demons can speak in harmony with the voice from heaven in declaring Jesus as ‘Son of God’ and disciples upon returning to the boat are left to wonder what sort of man this Jesus of Nazareth is.


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Matthew 8: 23-27 What Sort of Man is This part 1

Rembrandt, Christ in the Storm (1633)

Matthew 8: 23-27

Parallels Mark 4: 35-41, Luke 8: 22-25

23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. 27 They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”

Matthew weaves a tightly connected narrative that uses placement and word choice to give us several clues to give us insight into who Jesus is and what following him will mean for the chosen disciples. Immediately after a brief interruption where a scribe and a disciple come seeking to follow with stated or unstated conditions where language gives us clues that the scribe probably does not follow, but the disciple likely does we are brought back into a trio of confrontations which give us insight into the power that Jesus’ wields and encourage us to wonder with his disciples, “What sort of man is this?” The scene transitions quickly with Jesus getting into the boat (presumably of the boats of the four fishermen called in Matthew 4: 18-22) and his disciples follow him including, presumably, the disciple who asked Jesus previously for leave to bury his father.

Jesus has among his disciples several who are familiar with the Sea of Galilee because it was the place where they worked as fishermen. Boats at this time are small compared to sea faring ships of modern times, but the storm is literally a ‘great shaking that occurred on the sea.’  The story in both the Markan and Matthean version of this narrative is tied to the story that follows with the Gedarene demoniacs and the original hearers may have understood the storm as demonic and attempting to prevent Jesus from crossing to the other side. In our modern language we can refer to storms as an ‘act of God’ but in the spiritually porous worldview of our ancestors in the faith, spiritual forces both good and evil were actively at work in their world in not only disease but also in weather events like storms or famine. Additionally, at both the crucifixion and the resurrection in Matthew the same word that is the ‘great shaking on the sea’ (seismos) is used for the earthquake in Matthew 27 and 28. There is additional resonance with he crucifixion as the word for sleep here can have the same figurative usage we have in English when we say someone has ‘fallen asleep’ as a way of speaking about death and the word for waking (both by the disciples and Jesus getting up, various forms of the Greek egeipoo) is the same word used for rising up when talking about the resurrection in Matthew 27 and 28.

Another resonance within this story would be the story of Jonah, where Jonah (like Jesus) is asleep in the hull of a small boat while a great storm is overwhelming the small craft. While Jonah’s sleeping through the storm on a sea faring (therefore more robust vessel) is more plausible than the small boat that Jesus was on, but there does seem to be a literary connection with the basic narrative of the stories:

    • Departure by boat
    • a violent storm at sea
    • a sleeping main character
    • badly frightened sailors
    • a miraculous stilling related to the main character
    • a marveling response by the sailors (Marcus, 2000, p. 337)

The literary resonance with the Jonah shines an interesting light upon the question the disciples ask of “who is this.” In Jonah’s narrative the one who provides the great calm upon the waters is the God of Israel, while here Jesus ‘rebukes’ the wind and sea (the word rebuke can be used to silence another person but also can be used in casting out a demon, ex. Matthew 17: 18) and there becomes a great calm. The ‘great shaking’ of the storm and the ‘great calm’ of the sea after the storm are connected and yet whatever the source of the ‘great shaking’ the one who by rebuking the wind and sea brings about the great calm is greater.

Sea of Galilee Boat or “Jesus Boat” in the Yidal Alon Museum in Kibbutz Ginosar, Tiberias Israel Ancient fishing boat from 1st Century AD. Boat is 27 feet long, 7.5 feet wide.

Unique to Matthew’s telling of this narrative is the disciples’ plea to Jesus, “Lord, save us!” This pairing of Lord and save also resonates with the language of the Hebrew scriptures in relation to the LORD the God of Israel saving the people (2 Kings 19: 19; Psalms 6:4, 55: 16, 106: 47, 109: 26; 116:4, 118:25, 143:9; Isaiah 36:8, 37:20, 38: 28; Jeremiah 30:11). Matthew again invites us to consider who is Jesus in relation to the LORD the God of Israel. Instead of using direct quotations, like earlier in the narrative, now Matthew narrates the story in a manner that alludes to several times in Israel’s story where the LORD acted and allusively invites us into the position of the little faith ones in the boat with Jesus who are asking, “Who then is this that event the wind and the sea are obedient/subject to him?”

As mentioned above when commenting on Matthew 6:30 the translation of oligopistos as ‘little faith ones’ goes to the heart of my struggle with the way that Jesus in Matthew’s gospel is perceived. While “you of little faith” is a correct translation, it is impossible to say this without it being heard as an insult which I do not think is the intention in Matthew. I am going against the grain of the way this term has been read, but the ‘little faith ones’ are always Jesus’ disciples who are caught between the ‘great shakings’ of the storms and the ‘great peace.’ This phrase can be translated harshly as, “why are you cowardly—you of little faith?” but my reading of this is much gentler, spoken not in the commanding voice that rebuked the wind and sea but a softer, more compassionate, “why are you afraid my little faith ones?” Jesus never goes out and calls the ‘great faith ones’ but instead intentionally sticks with these little faith ones and never offers to increase their faith. The little faith ones are the ones who seems to respond in wonder to what Jesus is doing and can be in the place to ask, “who then is this.” Others who we will soon meet in the story will have answers to this question, but as little faith ones we are invited to be astonished and wonder what sort of man Jesus is and how he might be related to the LORD the God of Israel.

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Matthew 8: 18-22 The Nature of Discipleship part 1

Matthew 8: 18-22

Parallel Luke 9: 57-62

18 Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 A scribe then approached and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 21 Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 22 But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

Matthew’s gospel uses rhythm to help reveal meaning. Previously in chapter eight we’ve seen Matthew use a pattern of three healing stories which climax in the scriptural citation that Jesus is the one who ‘took our infirmities and bore our diseases’ to disclose who Jesus is. Each healing narrative build upon the preceding narrative to help illuminate who Jesus is through what Jesus does. Structures of three are common in ancient literature and here Matthew will use two interconnected patterns of three to continue to help the hearer answer the interconnected questions of who is Jesus? and what does it mean to follow him?

Sometimes it is helpful to see the structure graphically

Miracle story 1 (Matthew 8: 1-4) Healing the person with a skin disease
Miracle story 2 (Matthew 8: 5-14) Healing the centurion’s son
Miracle story 3 (Matthew 8:14-17) Healing Peter’s mother-in-law…healing all
Explanation ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases’
Nature of Discipleship: (Matthew 8: 18-22)A scribe and a disciple
Miracle story 1 (Matthew 8: 23-27) Jesus stills a storm
Miracle story 2 (Matthew 8: 28-9:1) Jesus casts out demons from two men
Miracle story 3 (Matthew 9:2-9:8) Jesus heals a paralytic
Explanation ‘God…had given such authority to human beings’
Nature of Discipleship: (Matthew 9:9-17) Call of Matthew and question on
Miracle story 1 (Matthew 9: 18-26) Woman and girl healed/raised
Miracle story 2 (Matthew 9: 27-31) Jesus heals two blind men
Miracle story 3 (Matthew 9: 32-34) Healing mute demoniac
Explanation ‘Never has anything been seen like this’ vs. ‘By demons he casts out
Nature of Discipleship: (Matthew 9:35-11:1) Jesus prepares disciples for

Matthew’s gospel is focused on helping form a community that will continue to follow Jesus amid the challenges of the world around them. From the placement of the sermon on the mount early in the ministry of Jesus to the regular interweaving of teaching and narrative we see Matthew exploring who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. Being a disciple of Jesus will involve embodying a different set of values and practices that will be visible to the surrounding world. As Matthew invites us back to considering the nature of discipleship, we are given several clues within this dialogue with the scribe and the disciple to suggest what the follower is needs to hear about the nature of discipleship even at this early stage in the gospel.

Titles matter in Matthew and the help the reader to gain insight about how each person approaches Jesus. While there are multiple titles used in Matthew’s gospel to help illuminate who Jesus is, Matthew deploys these titles carefully in the mouths of different petitioners. The scribe who comes to Jesus uses the title ‘teacher’ and although Jesus can use this term when referring to himself (Matthew 10: 24,25; 23:8 and 26:18) when it is spoken by someone else it is normally is used when people are challenging Jesus’ identity (Matthew 9:11; 12: 38; 17: 24; 19:16; 22:16; 22:24; 22:36). This scribe who approaches Jesus seems to have positive intentions in the narrative but the initial title and the way he is titled (as a scribe) hints that this scribe probably does not follow Jesus ‘wherever he goes.’ Jesus’ response to the scribe is a challenge, but as we saw in the healing of the centurion’s son when Jesus’ challenges someone there is the opportunity to respond with trust. The other hint we are given is that the scribe is the initiator of the offer of following Jesus rather than Jesus (as in the disciple’s case).

The second in dialogue with Jesus is labeled as a disciple and they come to Jesus asking for permission to do what is expected in a family relationship. We don’t know the condition of the father, whether he has already died, is very sick or whether the disciple is stating, “Once my father dies, then I can follow you” but we do know that Jesus provides resistance to this qualification. Jesus initiates the call using the same words he used with Peter and Andrew (and presumably James and John) in Matthew 4: 19 and will later use for Matthew in Matthew 9:9. We are given two verbal clues that this disciple does follow Jesus, even after the challenge to ‘let the dead bury their own dead.’

The nature of discipleship in Matthew seems to be called rather than chosen. Others outside the disciples may demonstrate great faith, often more than the disciples themselves demonstrate. Outsiders may see what the disciples struggle to see and yet, those who are disciples in Matthew are invited into this group by Jesus. It is critical for Matthew to link Jesus’ identity to the witness of scriptures, but here an interpreter of those scriptures, a scribe, is challenged and presumably does not get into the boat with his disciples, while his disciples, even one who leaves behind a father who will need to be buried, get into the boat to go away from home. Even though Jesus does seem to operate out of Capernaum as a base of operations for portions of Matthew, he will also continue to travel and send his disciples to travel to towns and villages where they are unknown. The disciples will be separated from the support of home and family as they become a part of the proclamation of the kingdom of heaven. In Jesus they will discover one who is more important than the other commitments and callings of life. In entering the journey with Jesus, they will leave behind other things, but those who get into the boat with him have been called to be there and wonder ‘What sort of man he is.’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Gospel of Matthew Chapters 1-7

James Tissot, The Lord’s Prayer (1896-1894)

Transitioning into the Gospel of Matthew
Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew
Matthew 1: 1-17 How the Story Begins
From Abraham to David in Matthew’s Genealogy
The Line of Kings compared with the Hebrew Scriptures
Matthew 1: 18-24 The Birth of Jesus
Matthew 2: 1-12 Magi, The Creation and Scriptures Point to Jesus
A Brief Introduction to Herod the Great
Matthew 2: 13-23 Hearing Hope in Tragedy
Matthew 3: 1-12 The Herald of the Kingdom of Heaven
Matthew 3: 13-17 The Baptism and Revelation of Jesus
Matthew 4: 1-11 The Temptation in the Wilderness
Matthew 4: 12-17 The Kingdom’s Foothold
Matthew 4: 18-25 Snagging the Fishers for Humanity and Spreading the Kingdom
Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount
Perfection and Blamelessness in the Bible
Matthew 5: 1-12 The Wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount
Matthew 5: 13-20 A Visible Vocation Connected to Scripture
Matthew 5: 21-32 Law and Relationships in the Kingdom
Gehenna, Tartaros, Sheol, Hades and Hell
Matthew 5: 33-47 A Community of Truthful Speech, Non-Violence and Love
Matthew 6: 1-4 Exploring Righteousness and Justice
Matthew 6: 5-15 Exploring Prayer, Forgiveness and Righteousness
Matthew 6: 16-18 Exploring Fasting and Righteousness
Matthew 6: 19-34 Wealth, Anxiety and Righteousness
Matthew 7: 1-6 Nonjudgmental Righteousness
Matthew 7: 7-12 Seeking God and Right Relationships
Matthew 7: 13-29 Choosing the Way of Christ
The Imperfect Church and the Kingdom of Heaven

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