Tag Archives: Healings of Jesus

Matthew 17: 14-20 A Little Faith is Enough

By © Ralph Hammann – Wikimedia Commons – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39699229

Matthew 17: 14-20

14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 15 and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” 17 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

This is another scene in Matthew where the common interpretation of the scene involves Jesus berating his disciples and where I am going to suggest a significantly different reading. Translation into English involves several assumptions and the prevailing assumption of Jesus’ dismissive nature of his disciples continues to be seen here. Perhaps Jesus humiliates his disciples in front of the crowd and in private out of frustration, or perhaps, as my reading will suggest, his frustration resides in the forces that resist him and his response to his disciples is one of encouragement. Throughout this reading I’ve highlighted areas where Jesus may be pushing his disciples to claim the authority they have as his disciples over the powers that oppose the approaching kingdom of heaven, and these ‘little faith ones’ even without Peter, James and John present, attempt to help this father who brings his son to them. Like Peter stepping out of the boat, perhaps these disciples are continuing to make strides to approach Jesus in faith.

Comparing Mark’s narration of this scene to Matthew’s one can see both Matthew’s excision of details from the story but some very important, to Matthew’s narration, additions which are centered around this private discussion with the disciples about faith. The exorcism of the spirit which causes the man’s son to have convulsions, in Matthew, sets the scene for the contrast between the generation without faith and these little faith ones who may not realize that they are able to move mountains. They may feel that their only skill is to make a place for Jesus, but they are invited to listen to Jesus sharing with them what their little faith can do.

This scene comes after Jesus descends the mountain with Peter, James and John after the Transfiguration, and they come from their isolation to the crowd and the troubles down below. Matthew does not include Mark’s note that the scribes were arguing with the disciples in the crowd but instead immediately presents us with a father pleading to Jesus on behalf of his son. Interestingly in this scene there is only one person waiting for healing from Jesus in the crowd and perhaps the disciples have been able to heal others, but regardless we are confronted with a man who comes and kneels before Jesus, addressing him as Lord and asking on behalf of his child. In Matthew, this man’s address to Jesus places him with others like the centurion and the Canaanite who appeal to Jesus as ‘Lord’ and we expect that his appeal will be heard and acted upon. Unlike Mark where the man calls Jesus ‘teacher’ and has to ask Jesus to ‘help me with my unbelief’ in Matthew we are given every indication that this father is open to what Jesus is able to do and the presence of God’s healing power in him. In Matthew’s telling the father is not the faithless one, instead he has faith in a generation without faith. He comes to Jesus’ disciples initially and when they are not powerful enough. He refuses to be satisfied until he comes to the source and Jesus heals his son.

Most modern translations render the son’s condition as epilepsy, but that assigns a modern understanding to a term that is literally ‘moon seeking’ or the more familiar but misunderstood ‘moonstruck.’ The Greek goddess of the moon, Selene, was often associated with madness and sending demons on those who dishonored her and while ‘moonstruck’ in English is often associated with being in an irrational state due to falling in love, this ‘moonstruck’ one is possessed by a spirit, at least in the understanding of the time, which causes its host to lose control and fall into fire or water injuring itself. In a porous world where spirits, both good and evil, are able to act upon those a person, like Jesus, where the power of God’s spirit resides is where one can turn for aid for those afflicted.

Many scholars hear Jesus’ answer to the father as the first condemnation of the disciples in this scene, which I find intriguing because Jesus’ complaint is literally ‘O generation of no faith and distortion.’ Especially when you look at the other times Jesus mentions the ‘generation’ he is never referring to his disciples[1] one could argue that he is referring to either the Pharisees, scribes and those who oppose him or to the resistance to the kingdom of heaven in general but I believe if Matthew wanted us to know Jesus was frustrated with his disciples inability to handle the father’s appeal in his absence he would have directed that frustration at the disciples instead of the generation where sons are bound by a spirit that makes them lose control of their body and endanger themselves and others. Jesus’ frustration is either directed at the resistance to the kingdom of heaven or the delay in that kingdom’s realization among the disciples, the crowd and ultimately the nations. Jesus acts quickly in this instance rebuking the demon and the child is healed ‘from that hour’ which the NRSV’s ‘instantly’ captures the time aspect of but not the continuing future movement of the phrase. This child will not be like others in this generation where a demon is cast out, presumably by the exorcists of this age, and the demon returns with seven more and takes up residence making the child worse off than before. (12: 43-45)

When the disciples approach Jesus on their own and ask, ‘by what means (dia) were we are not powerful enough to cast it out?’ most interpreters assume Jesus chastises the disciples for their lack of faith. I’ve argued throughout this reading for a more charitable reading of oligopistos and its derived terms as ‘little faith ones’[2] where Jesus uses this as a term of encouragement and endearment rather than the typically harsh “you of little faith.” This term always is used for disciples and again Jesus here modifies the usage slightly to “by means of[3] (dia) the little faith (oligopistian) of you.” Perhaps instead of Jesus saying that their little faith is smaller than a mustard seed and that is why they are unable to do incredible things, Jesus here tells the disciples their little faith is all they need to handle this spirit or to say to the mountain Jesus just descended to depart and the mountain will depart, and nothing they are not powerful enough for. The Greek dunami (to be powerful, able) sits behind the father’s statemt of the disciples’ initial inability, their question of their insufficient power and Jesus encouragement that they have all the power they need. If they can command mountains to depart they can command a spirit in a moon-seeking child to come out. Instead of criticizing the disciples for their inability, perhaps Jesus is preparing them for the great things they will do in the future when they are sent out to proclaim the kingdom of heaven’s approach to all the nations and to teach them what they have learned from Jesus.

[1] Matthew 11: 16; 12: 39, 41, 42, 45; 16:4; 23:36; 24:34

[2] See my comments on Matthew 6: 19-34; 8: 23-27; 14: 22-33 and 16: 1-12.

[3] NRSV and many translations render dia as because but it is a term of agency or means here and should be rendered either through or by means of. Most translations assume this is a direct answer to the disciples question and that the ‘why’ in English needs a ‘because’ in English. In Greek it is more a question “by what means…’ ‘by this means…’

Matthew 14: 34-36 To Know Christ is to Know His Benefits

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

Matthew 14: 34-36

Parallels Mark 6: 53-56

34 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. 35 After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, 36 and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

This short little transition may not seem to add much to Matthew’s narration, but Matthew (like most ancient writers) does not waste words. Even small additions to the narrative can point to important links and serve a structural point in oral storytelling. Matthew follows the pattern of Mark’s narration and slightly reduces the length of Mark’s narration, but Matthew’s decision to keep these transitional stories of healing is revealing.

The reformer Philip Melanchthon famously said, “To know Christ is to know his benefits.” As we compare this scene in Matthew to others in the gospel, I think this is a helpful frame to see some of the structure that underlays Matthew’s narration. At the end of the previous chapter (13: 54-58) the people of Jesus’ hometown knew Jesus’ family but they were unable to accept the wisdom he brought or to have faith in his ability to bring God’s kingdom to them and there were very few healings done there. In contrast in Gennesaret, which is close to Capernaum where Jesus has done many acts of power, the people come and they send word to the neighboring places to bring the ones who need healing. These demonstrations of the power of Jesus play an important part of understanding who Jesus is and a receptiveness to these acts point to the nature of faith and prepare the disciple to hear Jesus’ teaching. Matthew used a scene of healing many to prepare the reader to hear the Sermon on the Mount, (4: 23-25) and a description of the healing serves as an demonstration to John the Baptist’s disciples sent to inquire if Jesus is the one they are expecting. (11: 4-6) The neglecting of these demonstrations of power by Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum have placed themselves below Tyre, Sidon and Gomorrah in the coming judgment (11: 20-24). The two other brief insertions of healing are both preceded by a miracle for an outsider (the healing of the Centurion’s servant/child before 8:14-17 and the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter prior to 15: 29-31—both possessing faith not seen in Israel). Structurally both this passage and 15: 29-31 are also bracketed by feeding miracles which also highlight Matthew’s organization (and by extension Mark’s organization since they share the structure of these chapters). One additional linkage that Matthew highlights is the healing of the woman with the flow of blood (9:20-22) who touches the fringe of his garment and hears that ‘her faith has made you well.’

These short readings highlight one of the primary ways that Matthew’s gospel wants us to understand what faith in Jesus looks like. Faith is an openness to the kingdom of heaven’s power at work in Christ, and to amend slightly Melanchthon’s wording: to know Christ is to remain open to his benefits or works. The crowd at Nazareth knows Christ primarily according to his family and are not open to his wisdom or works, the Pharisees, the scribes and soon the Sadducees in the narrative will judge Jesus’ works by their expectation of what the works should be, but those of faith are open to the works as they appear. They

trust that even the fringe of his garment, if touched, can heal/save (the Greek sozo translated healing means both) them completely.

 

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: 1-8 What Sort of Man is This Part 3

Christ Healing a Paralytic, Mosaic from the Cycle of the Life of Christ, Chora Church, Constantinople (1310-20)

Matthew 9: 1-8

Parallels Mark 2: 1-12; Luke 5: 17-26

1 And after getting into a boat he crossed the sea and came to his own town.

2 And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” 3 Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” 4 But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? 6 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he then said to the paralytic — “Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” 7 And he stood up and went to his home. 8 When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.

In this final miraculous story of this set of three which have all pointed to the authority Jesus bears and opened windows into who Jesus is in Matthew’s gospel we hear for a second time in this section of Matthew the use of the title the Son of Man. The differences in the way Matthew narrates this story from Mark and Luke probably are elements that may add details to the story (like the house being so full that the friends of the paralyzed man have to dig through the roof) but for all the gospels the central issue of this narrative is the authority that the Son of Man has and how to answer the charge of blasphemy that Jesus and his disciples will encounter.

We are returned to Capernaum which acts as a base of operations for Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and while the return connects us to the previous two stories where Jesus crossed to the other side of the sea, the return voyage is merely noted as we transition back to Jesus’ hometown. Unlike Mark and Luke we are not told that we are in a home and therefore there is no need for the friends of the paralytic find a way through the crowd at the home, climb up on the roof and open the roof to lower their friend. The story could take place in a home or in an outdoor location, but instead of the actions of the friends demonstrating their faith Jesus sees their faith. The faith may include the faith of the paralytic man or it may just be the faith of his friends, but this faith is enough for Jesus to see and speak.

Faith in Matthew’s gospel involves trusting that Jesus can do what is being hoped for, and here the faith can come from those other than the one being healed. I’ve been asked if it is possible to believe for someone else, and in the way the church has traditionally understood belief in terms of cognitive assent to doctrines my answer would be no, but in the way the New Testament discuss faith I think we need to say yes. Here, and in several places in Matthew’s gospel (ex. Matthew 8: 5-13, Matthew 9: 18-26, Matthew 15: 21-28) the trust of another in Jesus’ ability to bring about the healing they desire works on behalf of another person.

Jesus’ initial response to observing the faith of the friends and the paralytic man is to declare forgiveness on the man’s sins. While the declaration of forgiveness may seem strange to those of us who live in a world where injury and sickness are rarely viewed as dependent on the moral character of the ill or injured one, in the ancient world sin and sickness were often viewed as connected. Skin diseases or bleeding made one unclean and untouchable, blindness may be viewed as caused by either the individual’s or the parent’s sinfulness, and even injury or disability was viewed as either an action by a demonic threat or of divine judgment. These views are not limited to Judaism, but were common among cultures and in some strange forms persist even today when those who are sick or injured are viewed as lazy, gluttonous, or have done something morally deviant to incur their disease (Think for example of the way people think about diabetes or in the past the way HIV/AIDS was viewed). Matthew’s placement of this story as the climax of a series of stories where Jesus has demonstrated his authority over the elements, over the demonic prepares us for the declaration that he is one with the ability to forgive sins.

When a person can be labeled as a sinner the community is not responsible for their care, they can be left as an outsider. Forgiveness makes a way for inclusion. Like Job’s friends, religious people can sometimes spend time justifying why a person is dealing with an illness or injury, why they are disabled and while religion does help provide order for people’s lives it can also be used to exclude those who do not fit within the framework that they have established. Job’s friends needed to explain why Job’s suffering was Job’s fault and often it is easier to blame those who are needing assistance than engage the uncomfortable reality that sometimes people suffer and there is no apparent reason. On the other hand there are times where one’s actions do cause pain for oneself or others: one is intoxicated and causes an accident, one is injured while doing something unethical. We don’t know why the man in this story is paralyzed: was he injured while working, was he a revolutionary or a bandit who was injured, we can speculate and create a story behind this story but ultimately whatever the cause his friends trusted that Jesus could provide the answer and Jesus forgives whatever the believed or real cause of his paralysis was.

The reaction of the scribes which is not spoken publicly but only saying among (literally in) themselves and yet Jesus chooses to address this unspoken, or softly spoken deliberations. Unlike the friends of the paralytic who trust that Jesus is able to do what they desire for their friend, the scribes do not believe that Jesus is able to do what he says and that is the evil in their hearts. Jesus commands the paralytic to ‘rise up’ (again the Greek word egeipoo which is frequently used in this section and for Jesus at the resurrection) and take his bed and go home. His command and the paralytics response to the command, which demonstrates the authority Jesus had over the disability of the paralytic, demonstrates to the crowd the authority that has been given to human beings by God (not just Jesus in particular). On the one hand the Son of Man’s authority is implied in the narrative to be granted to the sons of humanity.

The title Son of Man is used in Matthew for the second time (Initially in Matthew 8:20). The title originates in the book of Daniel in a vision of judgment. This is one of the times where the desire for inclusive language in the NRSV obscures the linkage between texts. As the book of Daniel relays the vision:

I saw one like a human being (Aramaic is one like the son of man) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him. His dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.  Daniel 7: 13-14

The Son of Man is often discussed as an apocalyptic title in writing about the New Testament, but since the word apocalyptic carries a lot of baggage for many Christians that may not be appropriate to the way that scripture actually is used in books like Daniel or Revelation and certainly not in terms of Jesus. In the literature around the time of Jesus we do see a hope for God’s intervention in the world through a representative of God. Much like the earlier Jewish hope where the Davidic king would be the means through which God would provide security and blessings for God’s people, now this ‘heavenly figure’ becomes the one through which the dominion, glory and kingship of the kingdom of heaven is exercised. The term is used frequently in the gospels and with Son of God and Son of David become ways of referring to Jesus. The intentional use of the title Son of Man in relation to the authority to forgive sins links Jesus to operating with the authority of God.

The Son of Man has appeared in two sections related to the scribes at this point in the narrative and it is worth watching as we continue to journey through Matthew when this title continues to be used instead of another title. Matthew is very concerned with demonstrating that who Jesus is and what Jesus does is in accordance with the scriptures and yet the scribes, those with the ability to read and interpret the scriptures seem resistant to Jesus’ authority. Perhaps the introduction of the Son of Man whose authority comes directly from God and doesn’t need to be mediated through scripture is one of the reasons that it is introduced in relationship with the scribes. Jesus as we encounter him in Matthew makes some astounding claims of authority and interprets scripture at times in ways that are either blasphemous or awe inspiring. Perhaps the demons in the previous story may see who Jesus is because the threat he poses to them and their dominion, for them Jesus is an undeniable threat to their power and authority and denies them the ability to continue their oppression. The people in Gadarene and the scribes may see the acts Jesus does, but they are unwilling or unable to grant him the authority he claims. Where the evil that lies in their hearts originates (and the heart is the organ of decision not emotion in scriptures) that stands in contrast to the faith of the centurion and the friends of the paralytic but for the followers of Jesus he is one with authority from God, for the crowds he is one who embodies the authority God is granting to the sons and daughters of humanity, but we will continue to see conflict with those who will be unwilling or unable to see who Jesus is through the actions he does and the words he says.

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.