Text Study for Matthew 9:18-34, Part Two

“You’re Gonna Need a Bigger House”

Part two: Annotations Continued

9:29 – In the healing of the two blind men we have more touching. However, the Matthean author portrays a peculiarly passive Jesus at this point. I mean that literally since most of the verbs in this section are in the passive voice. The healing of the blind men happens “according to” their faith/trust. On the basis of that faith/trust Jesus says, “Let it happen to you.” That’s as “passive” as it gets.

Is this a reminder that the healing comes from God? That may be the case since we end this healing with the accusation that Jesus casts out demons by the power of the demons. Nonetheless, this is strikingly different from the tone Jesus adopts, for example, in the healing of the paralytic. There Jesus is clearly in charge, the actor, the one with the power both to forgive and to heal.

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com

9:30 – The parade of passives continues. The eyes of the blind men “are opened.” Is this a divine passive as well? That is certainly possible, and I think it is likely. But why?

Jesus commands the formerly blind men to “see to it.” Formerly blind men should see to it? That contrast could slip by us without a close reading. Is this humor on the part of the Matthean Jesus? Is it Matthean irony? In any case, it is worth observing, so to speak.

And let’s not forget how much agency the blind men have in this story. The agency is ratcheted up in each of these healing accounts. The blind men followed Jesus on their own with no apparent help from anyone. They cried out to him – probably repeatedly. The blind men pursued Jesus into house with no apparent assistance. They are the ones who trigger the healing based on their faith/trust. Once they are healed, they are in charge of regional rumor management. This is the only task in which they apparently fail!

I am puzzling over what all this agency in these stories means. But I think it’s important and could be worthy of homiletical attention.

9:31 – Rather than keep things to themselves, the blind men acclaimed Jesus in the whole land. The verb can be translated as “spread the news.” But it has “fame” as a part of its structure. This is more than news reporting. This is talking Jesus up as an honorable, powerful person. That acclaim is spread to “that whole land,” the same construction as we find in Matthew 9:26. The Matthean author wants to make it crystal clear that everyone was hearing about Jesus and hearing good things about him.

9:32-33 – More passives. This time a demon-possessed mute man is brought to Jesus. Jesus doesn’t throw out the demon. Instead, when the demon had been thrown out – another divine passive? Regardless, when that happened, the man began to speak.

The crowds reappear and have a different function. They are “amazed.” That’s always an ambiguous word. It can be positive. It can mean that people are astonished in a good way. It can also mean that people are unpleasantly surprised by something. It seems that the crowd has a positive response, but we can’t be certain of that.

“Never before has something like this appeared in Israel!” the crowd declares. That’s a peculiarly ambiguous response. First, there’s another passive. So, this could be an acknowledgement that God is indeed at work in these healings. We can find our way back to a previous pronouncement by the crowd in Matthew 9:8. “But when the crowds saw [the healing of the paralytic], they became frightened and glorified God who gave this sort of authority to human beings.” Attributing the healing to God is clearer in verse eight than here.

In addition, we can take the crowd’s amazement as a mixture of fear and appreciation in our current story. And the statement of the crowd reflects that God has done this great act. As a result, the crowd exercises appropriate reticence in naming God too obviously as the actor. The use of such passives certainly identifies the Matthean author as a careful Jewish theologian and writer.

That being said, it’s not clear if the crowd approves of Jesus’ actions or not. “We’ve never seen anything like this before.” That can be a statement of approval. Or it can be a criticism (“We’ve never done it that way before”). The Pharisees in this story don’t dispute the crowd’s assessment. However, they identify a reason why such a thing is happening.

9:34 – I think we should translate another “iterative imperfect” here. The Pharisees kept on asserting their accusation. Jesus doesn’t answer the charge at this point in the Matthean account. The charge will surface again in chapter 12 when Jesus heals a man who is both blind and mute.

It is apparently assumed in that story that the man is demon-possessed. Other connections to our current story are obvious. All the crowds were “amazed.” But the word is different in chapter 12. The verb has a clearer sense that the crowds are disoriented and destabilized by Jesus’ actions. They are confused and in danger of losing their senses. Jesus continues to shake things up.

The crowds wonder what the blind men had proclaimed. “Might this one be the Son of David?” The blind men had called out to Jesus as “the Son of David.” And he did nothing to correct them.

In any event, we hear the drumbeat of accusation beginning in our text. It will come to full force in chapter 12. So, keep that in mind.

I have a number of additional wonderings regarding the context and intratextual connections and contrasts.

The Matthean author certainly wants us to link these stories to one another in specific ways. As we’ve seen, we can make a connection between the reaction of the crowd in Matthew 9:8 and the reaction in Matthew 9:33. That reaction is always receptive but mixed.

Does this speak to the situation of the Matthean churches – surrounded by folks who are intrigued by Jesus but also hesitant? I think it certainly speaks to circumstances of American congregations, surrounded by more and more “nones.” Some of the “nones” have no interest in Jesus and his church. But some do.

This response could certainly be incorporated into a message that encourages a congregation to take heart and keep bringing the Easter good news to a world that often seems hostile to that message.

 Jesus’ response to the crowds is described in the next paragraph (Matthew 9:35-38). The mixed response of the crowds makes sense in light of the description there. They are “harried and helpless, like sheep who are without a shepherd” (9:36). They are chased by predators with no means of defense. When someone offers to lead them, the mixed response of hope and fear seems reasonable.

There is something about the stories of eating with tax collectors and sinners and the healing of the blind men that bespeaks a connection. Both stories mention “mercy.” When a Sermon on the Mount idea shows up in a Matthean reading, we should pay attention. “Fortunate are those who give mercy, for to them mercy shall be given” (Matthew 5:7).

Jesus apparently gives mercy to the tax collectors and sinners. The blind men ask for mercy and receive it. I am reflecting on what the nature of that connection and comparison is.

I noted previously how often Jesus heals by touch in this section of the Matthean account. The one exception to that method is when Jesus interacts with the demon-possessed. Note the language in Matthew 8:16 – “But when it was evening, they brought to him many who were demon-possessed, and he threw out the spirits by means of a word…”

I thought that might be a casual observation, but now I’m not so sure. When Jesus heals the demon-possessed mute man in 9:32-33, the absence of touch is notable in comparison to the other stories. I wonder if the Matthean author is making a comment on clean/unclean entities here. It is not disease (not even leprosy) that makes one unclean. Therefore, Jesus can heal all such people with a touch, or being touched, in the case of the woman.

But when it comes to demon-possession, that does in fact render the person unclean. Therefore, Jesus heals with a word rather than with touch. It’s not the case that the clean/unclean distinction is irrelevant. Rather, Jesus draws the boundaries in a radically different way. Jesus, the Matthean author reminds us, comes to fulfill Torah, not to abolish it.

In addition, it would seem that Jesus wants to redraw the boundaries of “the house of Israel.” As I write that phrase, I have a small flash of inspiration. Perhaps this is the answer to the question of why so many of these healings happen “in the house.” Those in need of healing come into a house or are brought into a house by Jesus. This is even more powerful if the house in question belongs to Jesus. I suspect this has already occurred to you, but I’m catching up.

Jesus says in the Matthean account that he has come for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Those in need of healing are certainly among the lost sheep. Jesus brings them back into the house of Israel as he heals them. He is redrawing the boundaries of insider and outsider. Perhaps this is a call to the Matthean community and to us always to be about the same business. I’m thinking that one possible sermon title this week might be, “You’re Gonna Need a Bigger House” (with apologies to the movie, Jaws).

More in the next post…

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