Read the passage here
Today we begin a new section in the Gospel according to Matthew (remember that there are five major divisions in Matthew, each beginning with a narrative, followed by a discourse, and concluding with some form of the phrase, “after Jesus had finished these sayings…”).
Now there are a number of themes and motifs going on in that first major section, but one of the main ones that we focussed on is that Jesus is, in fact, the anticipated Messiah – we actually see this especially in the birth narrative, continuing on into the first major narrative/discourse section – and then demonstrating that the kingdom that Jesus comes to bring is not the kingdom that people expected (which, as should be obvious, is part of the reason why people didn’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah).
Our passage today is the first part of the narrative section which includes chapters 8-9, and one of the themes that we’ll be seeing is the idea of authority. That is to say, the anticipated Messiah is a kingly figure. He is expected to deliver Israel out of suffering and lead them into a new era of prosperity as the chosen people of God.
So what we’ll see, I hope, is Matthew demonstrating how Jesus has authority from God to inaugurate this new kingdom.
Looking at our passage for today, what we see is essentially three stories of Jesus healing others, followed by a brief summary statement, which includes a scripture reference from Isaiah. We’ll take a brief look at each of these vignettes plus the Isaiah passage and then I’ll share with you some of my reflections on this.
So firstly, we get the story of Jesus healing the leper. The first thing to note is that leprosy is a contagious disease (just as an aside, it’s probably noteworthy that all three of these healing vignettes have to do with people who are on the outside in Jewish society – a leper, a Gentile, and a woman). It’s transmitted through physical contact and so Jesus’ touching of the leper in order to heal him is significant. It’s significant from the perspective of inclusion, but according to Craig Evans, it’s also significant because cleansing or purity flows from Jesus to the leper. (Think of, by way of analogy, the story in which the unclean woman touches Jesus’ cloak and Jesus comments that he knows power has gone out from him). In other words, Jesus reverses the contagion. In other words, Jesus spreads cleansing or purity.
Secondly, Jesus tells the leper not to tell anyone, but rather to tell the priest. This seems to be a reference to the requirement that the priest pronounce the person clean, and therefore fit to re-enter the community – i.e. he is no longer shunned. In other words, the healing has to do not merely with a physical ailment, but with being part of the people of God. Wholeness, in this case, has to do with community.
The second, and perhaps main, vignette has to do with Jesus healing the servant of a Roman centurion. Again, there are a couple of things to notice in this passage. The first has to do with authority. Here, we get an explicit statement, in the mouth of the centurion, that it is on the basis of authority that Jesus is able to heal. The centurion, as part of the military, understands the importance and significance of chain of command – of authority. He understands that a word, once given must be obeyed. And he believes that kind of authority to be embodied in Jesus.
The second thing to note about this vignette has to do with the distinction between Matthew’s account and the corresponding account in the gospel of Luke 7:1-10. In short, the Lukan account doesn’t include verses 11-12 from Matthew. And what we see in the these verses from Matthew is what might almost be considered a judgement against the people of Israel who fail to recognize the Messiah – who fail to recognize the authority found in Jesus. But more to the point, what Jesus seems to be pointing to is the notion that entrance into the kingdom – belonging in the kingdom – is being expanded beyond the borders of Israel. That in fact, merely being born into the ethnic group of Israel will no longer be the determining factor as to whether one is actually part of the kingdom of heaven.
Our third vignette has so little information (compared to the other two) that it’s difficult to say much about it. Perhaps the most that could be said is that it’s noteworthy that Jesus is healing a woman. This is probably not noteworthy in and of itself – after all, there are plenty of accounts of Jesus healing women – except that, when taken together with the other two vignettes, it seems as if Matthew is going out of his way to show Jesus healing those on the margins, even perhaps outcasts, of Jewish society.
Taken together with the remaining verses of our passage, I think we get a better picture. Verses 16-17 give us a kind of summary statement of these healing accounts – Jesus cast out demons and healed the sick. And Matthew wraps all this up with a reference to Isaiah 53:4.
The immediate context of Isaiah 53:4 says:
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.Isaiah 53:4-6
The Isaiah passage is one of the suffering servant passages. There’s more to the Isaianic texts and their interpretations of the suffering servant than we can get into today. However, the gist of it, for our purposes today, is that the servant (usually understood as more or less synonymous with the Messiah) takes on the sins of Israel in order to restore the nation to God.
Isaiah the prophet, speaks to the people of Israel in the midst of exile. They are a people who understand themselves as the chosen people of the one God. But they find themselves having lost their land, their nation, and their identity. Through the long history of Israel, some of which we have looked at, it becomes clear that this is because of their inability and unwillingness to be faithful to the God who called them – this is because of their sin. But the word of God to this unfaithful people is that God Himself will be faithful. He will deliver them and He will redeem them.
The healings that we see here, then, and that we will continue to see, are about more than just repairing physical ailments. They are about restoration of that which has gone wrong. And what we see is Jesus is the one who has the authority both to announce that God’s intentions are now being revealed in history, and that Jesus is the one who has the authority to bring those intentions to fruition.
One of the things you realize as you get older is that younger you was stupid. And one of the stupid things that younger me believed was that when I got older I would have things figured out. I was fairly bright as a young person (which only meant that I got good grades in school – which is actually a terrible metric, if not a useless one, for actually being smart) and I believed that as I got older and experienced more of life, I would figure things out as I went along.
Now that I am older, I realize how little I have figured out at all. But it’s not because I’m not smart enough to figure it out. It’s because life is chaotic. It’s because the world is unpredictable, life is unfair, and you can do everything right, do everything you’re supposed to do, and you still won’t necessarily get what you think you’re supposed to get.
And there’s a sense in which that’s okay. There’s a sense in which we need to have humility in how we live life. There’s a sense in which we must maintain an appreciation of the mystery of life.
But there’s also a sense in which we see the world around us that we simply know that this is not how things are supposed to be.
In recent months, we’ve witnessed the rise of the coronavirus spreading throughout the world. This has caused fear and panic in some parts of the world, and apathy in others, thinking that it could never happen to us. It may remind some people of the ebola scare, completely unaware that ebola is still, in fact, a serious problem.
In other parts of the world we’ve seen locusts destroying the security and livelihood of millions of people. But that has nothing to do with us.
There are tens of millions of refugees in the world, fleeing war, persecution, and violence who have nowhere to go because nobody wants them.
People are working hard for 40-50 years of their lives and don’t know if they will ever have enough money to retire. Meanwhile, there are CEO’s, billionaires who will make more money in one day than some people will make in their entire lives.
Now my point is not simply that life is hard, that life is difficult or unfair. My point is that, if there is no one in control, if there is no greater purpose or intention behind it all, that life is hard, chaotic, and unfair is all there is. I’m forced to believe that, if there is no God (and, I believe, if our God is not God), there is no greater truth than the chaos and randomness we see around us.
Certainly we can find a logic in life. We can understand that certain causes lead to certain effects. We can agree that certain elements lead to certain compounds, that 1+1=2, and that gravity governs the orbits of planets. We can understand that dopamine released in the brain leads to the feelings of pleasure and that certain activities increase that dopamine. We can grasp the concepts of macro and micro economics and use them to negotiate our financial responsibilities and goals.
If there is no God, we can still find a logic in life. But we cannot comprehend purpose; we cannot understand intent. At least we cannot find any purpose or intent or reason in life that is greater or means anything more than what we make up for ourselves.
What we see in the gospel of Matthew, what we see in the life and person of Jesus, what is evidenced in the stories of healing, is that this chaos that we see all around us, the uncertainty that we wrestle with daily is not the final word. What we see is Jesus bringing order to chaos, reason to randomness, and purpose to all of history, because He has authority over all of it.
As human beings, we try to impose our will upon creation, but what history tells us is that we are caught up in the fallenness of it all. Which isn’t to say that human beings haven’t had a profound impact on this world. We’ve built great things, explored the far corners of the planet and beyond, cured many diseases, and built up vast stores of knowledge.
But are we any better off? Have human beings managed to find a solution to the thing that truly ails us.
What Matthew, and the other gospel writers, and the whole of scripture tells us is that the thing that we are looking for, the thing that we are hoping for, has finally and only arrived in the person of Jesus. It is in Him that we find our hope; it is in Him that we find purpose and meaning and order; it is to Him that all authority has been given to redeem and restore this world to what it was meant to be.