Text Study for Matthew 4:12-25 (Part Two)

In one of the “Sermon Brainwave” podcasts, Matt Skinner strongly suggests that we should read through Matthew 4:25 for this Sunday. He notes that these verses are the bridge between the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, Skinner notes, the crowds that Jesus sees in Matthew 5:1 are described in Matthew 4:24-25.

“And many crowds – from Galilee, and the Decapolis, and Jerusalem, and Judea, and across the Jordan – followed him” (Matthew 4:25, my translation). Jesus’ reputation had spread throughout the Roman province of Syria, according to the Matthean author.

As a result, those who heard of him “were bringing to him all who were sick, having various kinds of diseases and torments, together with also the demon-possessed, those suffering from epilepsy, and those who were paralyzed…” (Matthew 4:24, my translation).

Jesus healed them, the text declares. So, this “mixed multitude,” saturated with those healed by Jesus and comprised of a variety of ethnicities, are the ones who hear the Sermon. They are the ones who hear, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” If for no other reason than to prepare the listeners for next week, we should read those last two verses of Matthew 4.

I think we can see and hear once again the Matthean author’s efforts to portray Jesus as the new and fulfilled Moses. In Exodus 12:38, we read that a “mixed crowd” followed Moses out of Egypt and into the wilderness. This could mean a variety of things, but I think it reflects the ethnic make-up of the crowd that accompanied Moses.

I don’t think that the book of Exodus is an historical chronicle of the events of what we call “the Exodus.” Instead, it seems likely that this reflects the historical situation of the community that composed the narratives we read. Those who made up the Chosen People in the land of Israel were not of one ethnic background. Instead, they too were a “mixed multitude.”

Archaeological evidence supports this view of the Exodus accounts. To be a “Hebrew” was first of all to be a formerly enslaved person who left Egypt behind. That may have been a literal leaving. Or it may have been a political leaving on the part of some of the “natives” the Israelites encountered as they entered the land.

To be part of Israel, therefore, meant to embrace the God of Israel much more than to be part of a particular ethnic group. This is a major part of the impact of the book of Ruth. Ruth the Moabite becomes part of the lineage of David – not so much by marriage as by embracing the God and the faith of Naomi – more even than does Naomi.

The mixed multitude that meets Jesus (in Capernaum?) strongly resembles the crowd that follows Moses into the wilderness. And just as that crowd received the covenant at Sinai, so Jesus invites the crowd into a new relationship with God and God’s law on that mountain in Galilee.

This probably should not be surprising in a Gospel that concludes with the commission to preach, teach, and baptize “all nations.” That commission is foreshadowed and launched here in Matthew 4 with the strange crowd walking up the hill to hear Jesus teach.

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