Matthew 8:18-34

Jimmy JoMatthew, SermonsLeave a Comment

Read the passage here.

Last week’s passage was selected because we had three vignettes, all having to do with episodes of healing. 

In today’s passage, we are also looking at three vignettes.  Structurally, we might have also included next week’s passage, Matthew 9:1-8, which deals with Jesus healing a paralyzed man.  But I’ve separated that off into a separate sermon for reasons which I hope will become clearer next week. 

However, in short, what we have is a structure to these verses that looks something like this: 

  • Matthew 8:1-4 (Jesus heals the leper)
  • Matthew 8:5-13 (Jesus heals the centurion’s servant)
  • Matthew 8:14-17 (Jesus heals Peter’s Mother-in-law (and other healings))
    • Matthew 8:18-22 (Following Jesus)
  • Matthew 8:23-27 (Jesus calms the Storm)
  • Matthew 8:28-34 (Jesus casts out demons)
  • Matthew 9:1-8 (Jesus heals the paralyzed man)

What we’ve said was that last week, we were seeing stories about Jesus’ authority.  What I want to say is that we’re continuing to see that, and in particular, that we’re seeing an increase in the scope of Jesus’ authority.  Therefore,

  • Matthew 8:1-17 (Jesus’ authority over sickness – i.e. chaos, brokenness
    • Matthew 8:18-22 (Response to Jesus authority)
  • Matthew 8:23—9:8 (Jesus’ authority over the natural world, supernatural world, sin)

So, as I said, I think we could include Matthew 9:1-8 in our discussion today, but I thought we’d leave it for next week, to look at as a topic on its own. 

So to our passage today, let’s take a quick look at each vignette.  Firstly, Matthew 8:18-22

Here, we have Jesus encountering two individuals who want to be followers or disciples of Jesus.  What we see is Jesus’ popularity growing and people becoming intrigued and even enchanted.  Two individuals’ requests to follow Jesus and in each case, Jesus gives kind of a cryptic response.

In the first case, the person tells Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” To which Jesus replies, ““Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”  So, what does that mean? 

Presumably this is a reference to the fact that Jesus’ ministry is an itinerant one – that is, Jesus travels from place to place ministering to the people.  But more precisely, it is probably pointing to the fact that, geographically and spiritually, to follow Jesus means to leave behind the comfort and stability that the scribe has previously known.  In other words, Jesus may be saying something along the lines of, “are you really ready to leave behind everything that you have in order to follow me?” 

But I think it also points to the fact that what Jesus is doing in his ministry, in pronouncing the kingdom of God which is coming and which is here, is distinctly counter-cultural.  In other words, there’s a sense in which the Kingdom of God will never fit in in the world as we understand it.  Therefore, to be a follower of Jesus, to be a kingdom person, is to always somehow not belong. 

In the second case, the request is to allow the person to go back and bury his father before following Jesus.  And Jesus’ response seems less cryptic than it seems almost heartless:  “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

Really quickly, in the culture of Jesus’ time, the responsibility of the son regarding burial rites for the father would be an extremely serious one.  Thus Jesus’ disregarding of these responsibilities might seem shocking.  If the father had recently died, it would have been unacceptable for the son to ignore them in order to follow Jesus. 

However, according to those same customs, if the father had just died, it would have been inconceivable that the son would have been at one of Jesus’ gathering at all.  Therefore, it is more likely (according to both R.T. France and Leon Morris) that the man is referring to general responsibilities to the father (i.e. responsibilities of the son) rather than immediate responsibilities dealing with death. 

The “let the dead bury their own dead” statement, therefore, seems to mean something like, “You cannot be preoccupied with matters of dying (or avoiding dying).  Rather, get on with the business of (kingdom) living.”  And this has something of the force of, “the kingdom life is not something you can put off.”  To use our (Grace) vernacular, you can either enter into kingdom-life or keep on doing not-life – but you can’t do both. 

The second vignette shows Jesus and the disciples on a lake in the midst of a storm.  There isn’t too much to say about this except that some commentators see a link between the Matthew account and the story of Jonah – this is partly because of the scene itself, and partly because of some of the language used. 

Accepting the possibility of this Jonah link, it becomes noteworthy that in the Jonah story, the storm is calmed once Jonah is thrown overboard – a kind of sacrifice.  In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is indeed the atonement sacrifice for all the people, but the storm is calmed purely because of his word.  In the Jonah story, God sends the storm as judgment over Jonah’s unfaithfulness – because of sin.  In the Matthew account, Jesus, who takes away the sin of the world, shows his authority over the storm.

The third vignette for today has to do with Jesus casting out demons.  The same account is included in Mark’s gospel (Mark 5:1-20) and Luke’s (Luke 8:26-39).  In both Mark and Luke’s account, there is only one man and the demon(s) is named Legion.  In Matthew’s account, there are two demon-possessed men and no name is given to the demon. 

Of note in this passage is that the demons acknowledge Jesus as, “Son of God.”  Whether or not this is meant as a messianic designation (even less a trinitarian one), it is a recognition of Jesus’ honoured place and, especially, his authority. And once again, Jesus commands the demons to leave the men with nothing more than a word. 

So we’ve gone through those episodes extremely quickly and this is because I want to pay less attention to the details of each vignette, and more attention to how they function together – i.e. why does Matthew present them together as he does? 

Well, as we’ve already said, with this section of narrative, Matthew seems especially concerned with demonstrating that Jesus has a unique kind of authority.  As I said earlier, the three vignettes that we looked at last week all had to do with healing.  And, if it wasn’t obvious, one of the points I was making is that sickness is a result of the brokenness and fallenness in the world – it’s a result of sin.  And that brokenness and fallenness results in all sorts of manifestations of the world not-as-it-was-meant-to-be.  And Jesus, in his healing, demonstrates his authority over that fallen world. 

And following the verses with the two erstwhile disciples, we get three more vignettes – one of which we’ll look at next week.  And we get one story of Jesus’ authority over the natural world (the storm), one story of Jesus over the supernatural world (demons – principalities and powers), and then (with apologies for the spoilers) next week we’ll see that Jesus has authority over sin. 

So once again, this series of stories looks something like this:

  • Matthew 8:1-17 (Jesus’ authority over sickness – i.e. chaos, brokenness
    • Matthew 8:18-22 (Response to Jesus authority)
  • Matthew 8:23—9:8 (Jesus’ authority over the natural world, supernatural world, sin)

We can see, then, this whole series of stories might be a chiasm.  Three accounts of authority on either side with this short vignette in the center. 

Interestingly, the middle story in each of the two sets of vignettes includes an explicit statement/recognition of Jesus’ unique authority – first by the centurion, then by the demon(s). 

So, with these considerations of literary convention and structure, we might consider that this whole sequence of stories boils down to something like, “Jesus has shown that he has unique, divine authority (or, Matthew has shown that Jesus has unique, divine authority) – how now will we respond?” 

Will we be like the scribe who said, “I am willing to follow you Jesus, so long as I don’t have to change anything”?  Or will we be like the disciple who said, “I am willing to follow you Jesus – now is just not a great time”? 

We’ve talked before about how, in our present age, the notion of authority is severely challenged.  We live in a highly individualistic, subjective age where the final authority often rests in oneself.  And anything that challenges or impinges on that autonomy is subject to suspicion, rebellion, or fear. 

We think that those in power are only concerned with maintaining or increasing their power (over us).  We think that those who are more educated or those who are experts are somehow hiding something from us – that they’re somehow keeping the real truth from the masses. 

In an age of liberal humanism, where we’re constantly told that the most important thing is subjective experience, where we’re taught to believe that you can do anything you set your mind to, where the biggest sin is to doubt your own self-worth, your own value, what do we need with experts?  What good is authority except to tell you what you can’t do or what you have to do? 

(Now there’s nothing wrong with self-confidence, self-esteem, or believing in yourself.  But when we become our own measure of reality and truth, that may be a problem). 

But the authority of Jesus doesn’t have to do with what you have to do or what you are not allowed to do.  The authority of Jesus has to do with who is the king?

Last week we talked about the chaos, the brokenness, and the randomness of a fallen world.  And we talked about Jesus demonstrating his authority that brokenness through the healings.  Today, we see Jesus demonstrating his authority over the natural and the supernatural world; and next week, we will see Jesus’s authority over sin itself. 

And Jesus’ demonstrating his authority over these things is not just about the demonstration of power.  It’s a pronouncement that, in the midst of this sinful world, breaking into history and humanity is the very kingdom of God. 

God, who created the world good and very good, who entrusted to human beings the care and nurturing of the world, and against whom human beings rebelled, choosing to make the world in their own image instead of honouring and proclaiming the image of God – God who has been at work through all of human history to restore and redeem that which was lost – God is now bringing to fulfillment His restoration plan through the person of Jesus Christ, who is Himself God.  God is announcing that the kingdom of heaven is here.  And God is announcing, this Jesus, here is your king. 

So, what will we do? 

The thing is, we all follow something.  We all believe in something; put our trust in something.  Something, or some things, claims authority in the lives of everyone.  It might be money, it might be power, it might be love.  It might be more subtle than that – something like liberal humanism; some idea of social justice; it might be scientific progress; it might even be nihilism.  But each of us makes sense of life and our lives, and thus each of us lives, according to some authority or authorities. 

But if Jesus Christ has the actual authority – and this is what Matthew is demonstrating – then we cannot, like the scribe or the disciple, merely follow Him when and how it suits us. 

Not that any of us do this perfectly or even do it well.  We depend on the grace of God.  The good news is that Christ has done the real work for us – and the Holy Spirit continues to work.  And the good news is that to fall upon the authority of Jesus means, not limiting ourselves, but opening ourselves up to what life actually is meant to be. 

But in order to really take hold of us, we have to ask the hard questions – just like Jesus did with those who claimed to want to follow Him.  We allow the Holy Spirit to search us and reveal to us where we really need work – where we really need Him to work in us.  We can name those things which have power over us, that claim authority in our lives, and turn them over to the authority of Jesus. 

Because the King has come, and the King is coming, and the King has made a way for us to be part of His kingdom.  So, wherever He leads us, let us walk with Him. 

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