All right, friends, we’re through Holy Week, Easter, and the post-Easter recovery phase (sort of). So I’m headed back to my serial reading of and preaching on Matthew’s gospel. This week we’re reading and studying Matthew 8:18-9:1. I preached on Matthew 8:1-17 on Transfiguration Sunday, but I will need to re-orient myself to chapter eight and perhaps will need to do so for my listeners as well.
Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount, and the reviews are excellent. Jesus “finished these words” (Mt. 7:28). The verb is “teleo,” which can also mean to perfect or bring to fruition. The Matthean author likes that set of words and applies them to Jesus and his actions at several strategic points.
The author doesn’t have the Johannine “it is finished” to conclude the crucifixion account. But the Matthean author does have Jesus promise to be with the disciples until the “sunteleias” of the age. This is another related word that points to how Jesus sums up and brings to fruition God’s mission of life for the cosmos.
This might seem like a random connection, except that it isn’t. Jesus finishes saying these words. The crowds are astonished at his teaching because he teaches with authority. We should hear a prefiguring of the words of the “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:19-20. There Jesus declares that all authority in heaven and upon the earth has been given to him. He now commissions his disciples to baptize in the name of the Triune God and to teach all to obey what Jesus has commanded.
The verbal connection between Matthew 7:28-29 and 28:19-20 should be clear.
As Jesus was coming down from the sermonic mountain (Mt. 8:1), large crowds are following him. The verse begins with a genitive absolute which should be translated as “while” or “as.” Therefore, the crowds who had heard the Sermon, along with the disciples, also witnessed the healing of the leper in Matthew 8:1-4. It appears that the crowds continue to accompany Jesus as he heals the centurion’s servant in Capernaum and Peter’s mother-in-law, presumably in the same village.
I make this suggestion because in verse eighteen, the Matthean author mentions the presence of the crowds around Jesus. At this point, Jesus embarks on a boat and leaves the crowds behind. When Jesus and the disciples return to Capernaum (Mt. 9:1), the crowds appear to be waiting for him. They are explicitly mentioned again in Mt. 9:8 and Mt. 9:33. In this section of the Matthean account, the crowds serve as a sort of chorus repeatedly declaring their awe and amazement and glorifying God for what they have seen.
The leper embodies and enacts the astonishment of the crowds. While Jesus was descending the mountain, guess what! A leper, coming toward him, fell on his face before Jesus. He called him “Lord.” He appealed to Jesus “will” or desire to heal him.
The NRSV translates the leper’s request as “if you choose, you can make me clean.” But really, it’s much more like, “If it is your will to heal me, I shall be made clean.” I think the Matthean author wants us to think immediately about the Lord’s Prayer — “Let your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Depending on how we translate this text (and others like it), we can significantly under-read the Matthean Christology built into the narrative. I think it’s a pretty “high” Christology, but that can, as they say, get lost in translation.
Jesus stretches out his hand toward the leper. He accompanies this action with the declaration, “I will [it]. Be cleansed.” The healing is immediate and complete. Then Jesus orders the man to complete the ritual requirements for restoration to the community. Two things happen here. Jesus does not abrogate the Mosaic Torah but rather fulfills it. And he fulfills it by implementing the real intention of the Torah, which is the maintenance and restoration of the community of God’s people.
“In the ancient Mediterranean,” write Malina and Rohrbaugh, “one’s state of being was more important than one’s ability to act or function. The healers of that world,” they continue, “focused on restoring a person to a valued state of being rather than an ability to function” (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, page 70, Kindle Edition). As we go through Matthew 8 and 9, we meet several people who are restored to community and connection due to Jesus’ healing.
Illness was stigmatized and moralized in the ancient world. It remains stigmatized and moralized to a significant degree to this day. That is particularly true of our responses to mental illness, but we are still profoundly tempted to hold people personally responsible for their physical illnesses as well (even though we should know better).
Worse yet, we hold people morally culpable for situations like poverty. The “we” here is privileged, mostly white, people in the Western world. Capitalism is always in search of the “worthy poor,” those “deserving” of our help. Of course, poverty is, for many of us, a clear demonstration of unworthiness. Thus we find no “worthy poor” that we can help. And thus, we let ourselves of the hook and hang on to our stuff.
Whenever we make “worth” a condition of offering care, we’re opposing the Kin(g)dom of God. Yet it is the “unworthy” who provide the clearest direction to that Kin(g)dom. We need to keep that in mind, for example, when we come to the Great Judgment parable/prophecy in Matthew 25. As Stanley Hauerwas points out in his commentary on Matthew, it is the excluded and the stigmatized who recognize Jesus as Lord (page 93). And, I would add, it is the excluded and the stigmatized who bear the Lord’s presences in their excluded and stigmatized bodies.
Robert H. Smith writes these words about the leper’s healing. “Jesus…looks beyond the efforts to define boundaries. He has come with the authority of God neither to build a better wall nor to bow before the power of uncleanness. Acting in the place of God,” Smith continues, “Jesus begins to roll back the polluting powers and to restore God’s creation to primal purity and wholeness” (Matthew, page 131).
Jesus doesn’t “risk uncleanness” when he reaches out to touch the leper. Instead, he brings cleansing because he embodies that whole-making power of God in his ministry and in the world. We see throughout the Matthean account that the methodology of the Kin(g)dom is inclusion rather than exclusion. If we lose track of that interpretive focus as we read this gospel account, we can easily misread it as focused on exclusion. The texts in chapters eight and nine can help us to maintain the proper focus.
I have been re-reading Gabor Mate’s book, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, & Healing in a Toxic Culture. Mate argues that “chronic illness — mental or physical — is to a large extent a function or feature of the way things are and not a glitch; a consequence of how we live, not a mysterious aberration” (page 2).
I think that the Greco-Roman culture of the first-century Mediterranean world qualifies as another example of a “toxic culture.” The people Jesus encounters in Matthew 8 and 9 suffer the effects of that culture and point to the underlying trauma and tragedy upon which that culture is based. Therefore, Jesus heals people by taking away their illnesses and restoring them to a fullness of life that the larger culture cannot offer.
Jonathan Pennington argues that the Sermon on the Mount describes God’s blueprint for human flourishing. I think that’s a helpful discussion point, although I would extend that to a focus on the flourishing of all Creation. In any event, that’s the run-up to these healings and exorcisms. Jesus has taught what human flourishing can really mean. Now in thee chapters, he enacts and embodies that flourishing in those who have been trapped in the web of a toxic culture.
We’ll see how that continues to unfold in the succeeding stories.