Text Study for Matthew 9:2-17, part one

Matthew 9:2-17 (NRSV)

The longer and more deeply I study the Matthean account, the more taken I am with it. I’m glad to recover from my unfounded prejudices and to hear in this account some wonderful artistry, theological depth, and practical nuance.

Jesus has returned from the territory of the Gadarenes to his home in Capernaum. The disciples have weathered the storm on the lake and witnessed Jesus’ authority over wind and waves. Jesus barely gets into town when he is accosted by a quartet of faithful friends carrying their fifth and paralyzed friend on a litter.

Photo by Allan Mas on Pexels.com

Some commentators suggest that they “ran into” Jesus in a moment of serendipity. That seems unlikely on its face and isn’t really supported by the text. Matthew 9:2 says they were bearing their friend “to him.” They had been waiting for his return from the other side of the lake. Perhaps they’d been camped out at Jesus’ house or had posted a lookout down at the shore. When word of Jesus’ arrival came to them, they were ready.

The Matthean account can encourage some interpreters to portray the Matthean Jesus as a sort of mind-reader. I don’t think that’s necessary or helpful. The “faith” that Jesus sees on the part of the four friends in verse two doesn’t have to be mysterious (nor is the skepticism in verses 3 and 4).

Warren Carter observes that the verb “were bringing,” in the imperfect tense “suggests a protracted action” (page 215). They waited for Jesus to return. They had the litter ready to go. They had prepared their friend for the adventure. They pushed their way through the crowd to get to Jesus.

This is what “faith” looks like in the Matthean account. Believing is never separate from doing. Trust results in action. There is no spiritualizing of faith away from works. There is no hyper-Protestant segregation of believing and doing. They are organically related. More than that, actions are the evidence of faith, as is the case in our text. And faith is the motive for such actions. The text provides an opportunity to hold the two together.

This faith is a communal phenomenon rather than an individual one. Upon observing “their” faith, Jesus began the healing process. Many preachers assume, I think, that the plural pronoun refers to the faith of the friends. I always imagine four of them, one at each corner of the litter. But the text is not that specific.

Nor is the pronoun limited to those who were carrying the litter. There is no reason to think that “their” excludes the paralyzed one. It could be that the paralyzed one was not consulted in advance, but that seems unlikely. It seems more credible that this initiative had the consent of all involved — and especially the consent of the paralyzed one. At the least, there is no reason to exclude the paralyzed one from the decision-making process.

I think this is important as one way to screen out the worst parts of able-ist readings of this text. I am trying to repent of readings that deprive the disabled characters of agency. There is no reason to see the paralyzed one as purely passive in this text — as one whose “faith” was of no consequence in Jesus’ response.

In fact, the text portrays Jesus as looking directly at the litter and seeing “their” faith. So, I think we should not make the paralyzed one into a prop. Instead, we should portray that one as a full participant in the story and a partner in the outcome.

And I suspect that we should portray the paralyzed one as a person at least known to Jesus. It may be that the friends carried the litter from some distance away. But it is more likely that all were residents of Capernaum or the immediate area.

Scholars estimate the population of Capernaum at about 1500 people in Jesus’ time. It may be that Jesus did not know the group personally, but it is hard to imagine that he had no familiarity with the situation of the paralyzed one. It is more likely that, either through personal acquaintance or through the highly efficient local gossip network, Jesus knew the story and circumstances of the paralyzed one in some detail.

I think this matters for a couple interpretive reasons. First, Jesus addresses the paralyzed one as “child.” The Greek word is “teknon,” and could be translated here as “my child.” Warren Carter suggests that this is a term of endearment, although only his reference of Matthew 7:11 really supports that claim. Nonetheless, it seems to be such an expression of tender and familiar care here.

Second, Jesus declares that the paralyzed one’s sins are forgiven. This certainly reflects the first century conviction that suffering — and especially paralysis — came as a result of a personal sin. It seems to me that Jesus has some familiarity with the paralyzed one’s history. I find that important because then this forgiveness is about that individual rather than a blanket declaration that suffering is always a punishment for or consequence of sin.

A text like this is going to cause a certain amount of emotional distress for some of those who hear our interpretations. It’s typical that in the midst of distress we might wonder to ourselves, “What did I do to deserve this?” Some folks will convert that into a declaration — “I must have done something to deserve this.”

In my experience, those folks most likely to think in these ways have the least justification for thinking like this. But we are creatures who make meaning. We’d often rather settle for a bad explanation for suffering than to live with the ambiguity of no explanation at all. We often prefer self-recrimination to living with the mystery of suffering.

It may be that Jesus knows something of the personal situation of the paralyzed one. But he has bigger fish to fry here. I think we tend to interpret the “forgiveness” as the precursor to the healing. But that is another example of separating the internal from the external — a separation which makes little sense in the Matthean account. Instead, as we shall see in a few verses, the healing is the forgiveness, and the forgiveness is the healing.

The word translated as “forgiven” has as its most basic meaning “to release” or “to let go.” Think about how many times in the gospel accounts Jesus connects healing with release from bondage or captivity. When Jesus forgives the sins of the paralyzed one, he releases that one from the things that hold that one in bondage. Jesus doesn’t shame or blame. Jesus liberates and releases.

In addition, when the Matthean author quotes Jesus as using the passive voice of the verb — “are forgiven” — that is often an indication that God is the one doing the action. This is the so-called “divine passive.” It may be this passive construction which leads the religious authorities on the scene to conclude that Jesus is claiming the Divine prerogative to heal for himself. That is either a sign that the Kin(g)dom has indeed come or it is blasphemy.

The paralyzed one may be in bondage to some element of past history. The paralyzed one may be held captive by physical illness or injury. The paralyzed one may be a victim of a whole system that keeps God’s people in bondage — political, social, spiritual, and emotional.

The call to “take heart” echoes numerous verses in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Jesus may be echoing the words of Psalm 31. The Psalmist prays for rescue from a variety of enemies. The poet is wasting away physically. The poet is scorned and shamed by adversaries and forgotten by friends and family. The Psalmist is surrounded by threats and dangers and prays for deliverance.

The Lord answers this cry for help. In response the Psalmist offers a benediction in verses 23-24 (NRSV). “Love the Lord, all you his saints. The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily. Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.” I think this is the sort of interpretive horizon against which Jesus offers comfort and hope to the paralyzed one.

We could also think about Deuteronomy 31:6 or Psalm 27:14 in this regard. The call to the paralyzed one reverberates with the hope of the Hebrew scriptures. And we will hear this encouraging phrase again in Matthew 9:22, as the woman in healed in that story.

The words to the paralytic are words to the western Church in this time. Be released from whatever paralyzes you. Get up and leave oppressive systems behind. That’s what Easter looks like in the here and now. The paralysis in the Matthean account has both personal and systemic causes. The same is often true for us in the here and now.

Well, dear friends, that gets us all the way through Matthew 9, verse 2. More to come!

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