Text Study for Matthew 9:2-17 (sermon)

What Easter Looks Like Now

Two weeks ago, we read the Easter story. Now, we’re back in the middle of Jesus’ earthly ministry. “Pastor,” you might ask, “what’s going on here?” I’m so glad you asked!

Matthew wrote this gospel story about fifty years after the first Easter. The people who heard and read this story knew how it ended. They were reading the story after Easter just like we are. The first audience listened for the echoes of Easter. That’s the way to read the gospel stories. That’s especially true in today’s reading.

Jesus has returned from Gentile territory to his home base in Jewish Capernaum. He barely gets out of the boat when a crowd meets him on the shore. Suddenly the crowd splits in two. A group of people are carrying a makeshift stretcher. They carried their friend – a paralyzed man.

After some theological debate, Jesus gets down to business. “Get up!” he tells the paralyzed man. “Take your bed and go home!” Because we’re reading an English translation, we might miss something important. When Jesus says, “Get up!” he’s using a resurrection word. We’re getting a little echo of Easter here.

This is what Easter looks like for some people. Is there something that keeps you pinned to your bed? Is there something that paralyzes you? Is there something that leaves you flat on your back – feeling useless and as good as dead? Then I’ve got a story for you!

The risen Jesus releases us from bondage. The risen Jesus raises us up from our beds. The risen Jesus sends us home, but also sends us changed.

That’s how resurrection works in our lives now.

Jesus continues his walk from the seashore to his house in Capernaum. Capernaum was a busy commercial and fishing center. It was near the border between two Roman districts. Whenever people carried grain or pottery or fish across the border, the Romans collected a toll. A man named Matthew worked as a toll collector. He was sitting in his tax shack, just doing his job.

Jesus saw Matthew. He stopped for a minute. Then Jesus said to Matthew, “Follow me!” Matthew got up and followed Jesus.

Did you notice an important phrase? Matthew “got up.” Again, we English readers might miss this. The word for “got up” is exactly the word for “resurrection.” We’re getting a bigger echo of Easter here.

Matthew didn’t just get off his tax collector behind. “And rising up,” our text says, “he followed [Jesus].”

It’s just one out of one thousand seventy-one verses in Matthew’s gospel. We could slip right past it. But let’s not.

Matthew was a toll-collector. He probably wasn’t rich. These toll-collectors usually did this work because they couldn’t find any other work. They didn’t make much money for themselves. Matthew was probably just scraping by. He might even have slept in the toll booth because he had no home of his own.

I want you to imagine Matthew like this. Here’s a guy in a dead-end job with no future. He’s one mistake from being homeless. Apparently, he has no family to support him. Or they may have disowned him for some reason. He’s stuck in a job that makes him hated, despised, and reviled in the community. Matthew is stuck in that toll booth with no way out.

Jesus walks by and sees him. Jesus sees him. How many people never gave Matthew a second look, never made eye contact, never even acknowledged his existence? How many people threw their coins at him in disgust? How many spat on him as a worthless traitor?

But not Jesus. Jesus sees him. Jesus believes in him. Jesus calls Matthew to a new life. We’re getting a little echo of Easter here.

This is what Easter looks like for some people. Are you stuck in a place that feels like death? Do the systems and structures of society lock you out of real life? Has the world decided that you aren’t worth the title of “human being”? Are you invisible at best and disgusting at worst? Then I’ve got a story for you!

The risen Jesus sees us as we are. The risen Jesus believes we are more than we are. The risen Jesus calls us into a new life – a life of purpose and hope, a life of loving and serving. That new life is a preview of the life that will not end.

That’s how resurrection works in our lives now.

Matthew’s story doesn’t end with him. Jesus gets to the house in Capernaum. Mark’s gospel tells us that this is Matthew’s house. Matthew throws a dinner party for all his colleagues, friends, and neighbors. And Jesus is the guest of honor!

Resurrection is contagious. It spreads from one life to another. And it raises questions.

Some of the local Pharisees had such questions. “Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” We don’t need to hear criticism in this question. Let’s choose to hear curiosity. Let’s be gracious to these Pharisees. After all, what Jesus is doing is really new. It’s not wrong, when something new happens. It’s not wrong to wonder what’s happening.

Jesus is pushing the Pharisees out of their comfort zone. So, he starts with a familiar proverb: “The ones who are healthy have no need of a physician, but rather those who are in bad shape certainly do.” Jesus focuses on those who need help and healing. He invites the Pharisees to study the Hebrew scriptures. They will find the same message there.

Then we get another echo of Easter. “For I did not come to call the righteous ones,” Jesus says, “but rather sinners.”

Jesus calls the paralyzed man to get up off his bed. Jesus releases him from the power of sin that has kept him there. Jesus calls Matthew to leave the toll booth and embrace a new life. That call sloshes over into the lives of those who know and love Matthew. Jesus calls you and me in our baptism to be beloved children of God and partners in God’s work in the world.

That’s how resurrection works in our lives now.

Easter changes everything. That’s why our reading talks about patches and wineskins. The power of Easter invades the middle of our lives. It’s not a happy ending to an otherwise difficult story.

Easter life is the new garment we call baptism. Easter life is the new wine, given and shed for us so that we might live for God. All that newness is going to push us beyond our comfort zones. All that newness requires new clothes and new containers. All that newness will bring new people to our tables.

That’s how resurrection works in our lives now.

What meaning do I take from our reading today? I’m so glad you asked!

How does Jesus call us today? Jesus calls us to move from church questions to God questions. Too often, we wonder what it will take to keep the doors of the church open. That’s the wrong question. The right question is, “What is God up to among us today?” And more important, what is God up to in the life of those who aren’t part of our congregation?

Jesus called the paralyzed man to get up and walk. Jesus called Matthew to leave the toll booth and follow him. Jesus called the Pharisees to focus on compassion more than tradition. Those calls take us beyond ourselves and into the lives of those who need Jesus, the great physician.

I’m happy to say that Mamrelund Lutheran Church is a place where reaching beyond the walls of the church is both possible and welcome.

What is the new life to which Jesus calls us today? Jesus calls us to life which is really new. This means that congregations need to be experimental cultures. We need to try new things and see how they work. We need to stop penalizing good tries that didn’t work. We need to reward innovation and adaptation and creativity.

I’m happy to say that Mamrelund Lutheran Church is a place where new things are both possible and welcome.

What is the new life to which Jesus calls us today? Jesus calls us to church as partnership rather than performance. The days when church is what happened up front are over. The real action is in the pews. If you’ve come to watch someone else do church for you, you will be disappointed. You – we – are the church together.

I’m happy to say that Mamrelund Lutheran Church is a place hungry for that kind of partnership between platform and pew.

Get up and walk into the new Jesus life! That’s what resurrection looks like today. Are you willing to answer the call?

Text Study for Matthew 9:2-17, Part Two

Matthew 9:2-17 (NRSV)

Twice the Matthean author has Jesus quote Hosea 6:6 — here in Matthew 9:13, and in Matthew 12:7. This citation doesn’t appear in the other synoptic accounts at all, much less in the parallels to these passages. It’s clear that Hosea 6:6 is a big deal for the Matthean author, an interpretive key to understand Jesus’ mission and ministry.

Mary Hinkle (now Mary Hinkle Shore) offers a helpful analysis of this usage in her 1998 article in Word and World. She argues that understanding how the Matthean Jesus deploys this verse and the whole concept of “mercy” will help us as readers in “learning what righteousness means.” These two citations and other mercy-related spots in the Matthean account will help us to see that the righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is to show mercy (page 356).

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In addition to the direct quotations of the Hosea passage, the Matthean author uses the verb form of “to have mercy” seven times. Five of those, Hinkle notes, are in healing stories. “Mercy is what people ask for from Jesus,” Hinkle writes, “before they receive healing” (page 357).

Moreover, in both of the direct quotations, Jesus is engaged in a controversy with Pharisees about the interpretation of Torah. Here in Matthew 9, the question is about appropriate table fellowship. In Matthew 12, the question will be about plucking grain on the Sabbath. In each case, Jesus argues that merciful acts supersede ritual observance. “Righteous observance of the law,” Hinkle observes, “is expressed in merciful action toward the neighbor” (page 357).

Before we go further on this path, I want to be responsible to our Jewish siblings. As, for example, Amy-Jill Levine so often points out, we should be alert to the use of the Pharisees here as a Matthean foil and polemical tool. We should not argue in historical terms that the Pharisees always put ritual purity and practice ahead of works of mercy. In fact, Torah commands works of mercy. It’s important to make sure, as Levine says, that we don’t make Jews look bad in order to make Jesus (or Christians) look good.

That beings said, the context and content of Hosea six is a prophetic critique of the religious practices and priorities of Israelites in the Northern Kingdom prior to the Assyrian assault and conquest. Hinkle points us to that context and notes that the Hebrew word for “mercy” in that text is “chesed.” This word is most often translated in English as “steadfast love.” In the Septuagint, it is translated as “eleos,” which typically shows up in English translations as “mercy.”

In Hosea 6:1-3, the prophet quotes Israelites who urge repentance from unfaithfulness and the worship of idols. It is difficult to read the tone of the verses. The tone could be of sincere remorse and a commitment to do better. Or the tone could be a shallow confidence that God will forgive because that’s what the Lord always does. I think of the Heinrich Heine quote in this regard: “Of course God will forgive me; that’s His job.”

I lean toward the latter interpretation, and the text seems to support that reading. “Whether these remarks indicate sincere repentance or only the expectation that God can be quickly and easily manipulated by a show of remorse,” Hinkle writes, “the prophet lets the people know in the next verses that their devotion falls short of God’s desire” (page 358).

God sounds like God is about ready to throw in the towel when it comes to the Israelites. Their steadfast love is about as reliable as a morning cloud. It last about as long as dew in the early morning. As Hinkle notes, their steadfast love is anything but steadfast. It is not faithful over time. Therefore, it is not anything like God’s steadfast love.

In addition, their “mercy” is not merciful. Hinkle observes that “instead of demonstrating
steadfastness in their devotion to the Lord, or mercy in their interactions with fellow Israelites, Ephraim has been making love with Baal and making war with Judah” (page 359). The problem with Israel in Hosea 6 is that their steadfast love is neither steadfast nor loving (merciful).

Let’s take the Hosea quote as the framework that Jesus uses to asses the behavior of those he criticizes. Hinkle points to the Matthean Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees. Their actions don’t match their words. They are hypocrites (see Matthew 23). They are, therefore, not steadfast. Nor are they merciful, in the Matthean construction, since they put a greater premium on ritual observance than on “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23).

“In short,” Hinkle writes, “the Pharisees’ righteousness exhibits neither of the defining characteristics of [chesed], and so is not the righteousness of God at all” (page 360).

These days, some New Testament scholars are engaged in a “quest for the historical Pharisees.” In 2019, for example, a conference was organized in Rome titled “Jesus and the Pharisees: An Interdisciplinary Reappraisal.” You can watch some of the presentations on YouTube, including an incisive talk by Amy-Jill Levine.

In part, that quest is a way to moderate the anti-Judaism which can so easily arise from traditional readings of texts like Matthew 9. The historical Pharisees were a lay-led reform movement within the Judaisms of the time — a movement that did indeed focus on holiness but was not in any way opposed to works of mercy and charity.

Instead, the historical Pharisees understood these works as clearly commanded by Torah. It’s a mistake to read the Matthean account of the Pharisees as an historical report of the actual behavior of the Pharisees in the twenties and thirties of the first century. Instead, we need to remember that the Matthean community is engaged in an intra-Jewish struggle with other communal interpretations of Torah. The Matthean community is made up of Christian Jews who are trying to make sense of their allegiance to Jesus as Messiah both for themselves and for the surrounding community.

It’s also important to me as an interpreter to remember that the primary audience for the Matthean account is the Matthean community. The question isn’t whether this is an historically accurate representation of the Pharisees. Instead, the interpretive question is more like, “What is the Matthean author seeking to impact and change within the author’s own community?” With that question in mind, we can focus less on what was “wrong” with the historical Pharisees and more on what the Matthean author has to say to our own faith and practice.

In the Matthean account, as Hinkle concludes, the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees is marked by an abundance of steadfast love — doing mercy. In contemporary terms, I would suggest that the Matthean author is critiquing a “performative” spirituality. By this I mean an understanding of discipleship that focuses on saying the right things, holding the right beliefs, and engaging in the the right expressions of public piety.

There’s nothing wrong with that performative spirituality in and of itself. It is problematic, however, when it becomes the maximum or normative standard for discipleship. I think this is the “evangelical” version of sacrifice rather than mercy. It is equally problematic when performative spirituality is regarded as “enough” discipleship or even as a substitute for doing mercy. I think this is the “mainline” version of sacrifice rather than mercy.

In the Matthean account, discipleship means hearing Jesus’ words and doing them. “For readers of Matthew,” Hinkle concludes, “to learn what Hos 6:6 means is not so much to receive a new law as to come to recognize the steadfast love of the God of Israel as it is embodied and enacted by Jesus” (page 362). Jesus heals and exorcises. Jesus sits at table with sinners. He embodies mercy and does it. And he does it faithfully — that is, to the end.

“Demonstrating both mercy and faithfulness,” Hinkle continues, “Jesus loves the way God loves, and Jesus loves the way Hosea announces that God intends God’s people to love” (page 362). If the Matthean account if a manual for disciples (and it clearly is), then disciples need to regularly learn and relearn the Hosea lesson. And then, as Hinkle notes in pointing to the Great Commission, disciples are called to teach that command of mercy to all nations.

On the one hand, Jesus teaches this path in continuity with the Hebrew prophets. On the other hand, there is clearly something new going on here as well. Immediately after the Hosea quote, we get a question from John’s disciples about a ritual practice. In response, Jesus identifies himself as the Messianic bridegroom — the new factor in the equation. God has come to be with us in Jesus and to do mercy for all the nations.

Patching up the old practices isn’t going to be enough now. Refilling the stiff old wine skins of traditionalism is a formula for disaster. Something new is going on here. And that newness continues to unfold in the Matthean account.

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.

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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!