For Whom Does Freedom’s Bell Toll – Matthew 8, 9

In Matthew 4 we are introduced to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (starting with the imprisonment of John the Baptist).  From that point, Jesus begins to ‘preach that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’ and to heal and deliver the sick and oppressed.  The Kingdom’s arrival is both proclaimed and demonstrated.  Matthew then unpacks the two-pronged ministry in chapters 5-9.   In chapters 5-7 we have a summary of how Jesus’ declared the arrival of the Kingdom, then the following narrative block (ch 8,9) illustrates Jesus’ demonstration of the Kingdom’s arrival with ten mighty deeds.

That there are 10 mighty deeds listed is no coincidence.  Matthew is illustrating the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry by placing it within the context of his people’s story (the story of Israel).  Here, Matthew takes Jesus, who just gave a ‘new law’ on a mountain (like Moses on Sinai), and makes another Mosaic connection.  In Exodus, God at Moses command, gives 10 signs that are designed to illustrate both to Pharaoh AND Israel that Yahweh truly is Israel’s deliverer.  In similar manner Jesus shows his credentials as the newly reconstituted Israel’s (the one including faithful Gentiles) true deliverer.  What follows are several healings (a leper 8:1-4, a servant from long distance 8:5-13, Peter’s mother-in-law along with others 8:14-17, a paralytic 9:1-8, a chronically ill woman 9:20-22, two blind men 9:27-31, and a mute man 9:32-34), deliverances from demonic oppression (8:28-34), a resurrection (9:18-26), and a truly amazing demonstration of divinity (calming the storm 8:23-27).  Many of these signs become the very things that Jesus both commissions His followers to perform in ch 10 and uses to validate His identity to the imprisoned (and likely disillusioned) John (ch 11).  Given that Matthew has gone to great lengths to structure his gospel in a particular way (these aren’t a random list of actions), what is it that he is trying to say about Jesus and the Kingdom He is ushering in?

  • Lepers were an ostracized group – quarantined from the rest of the community.  Their disease was used as a metaphor for pride and usually viewed as an act of divine punishment, facts that shouldn’t be overlooked.  Lepers were forbidden contact with the community – no physical contact with a non-leper was permitted, to include family.  Should lepers have to leave their quarantined colony, they needed to announce their presence to others by shouting ‘unclean’ in order to prevent accidental contact with the ‘clean’ – an utterly dehumanizing – though necessary process.  The only modern malady with a similar level of emotional and social stigma is AIDS.  That Matthew uses THIS class of people as the first group for whom the Kingdom is demonstrated should be instructive.  THE WAY in which Jesus demonstrates the Kingdom for the lepers is also important.  He could have simply kept his distance and spoken.  Instead, He touches (embraces?) the man (acknowledging his worth while still infirmed) and then declares his healing.  What is more important – maintaining ritual purity or extending dignity to a fellow person?
  • That Jesus heals a man’s servant isn’t too amazing except for a couple small details.  First, servants are rather low on the social ladder – even in Jesus’ day – not exactly the  kind of person one would think to highlight when recommending the arrival of a new kingdom.  Second, he is the servant of a Roman military official – the enemy, an occupying force that wouldn’t seem to be in keeping some visions of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Yet, when approached by the Centurion, Jesus doesn’t hesitate.  He immediately prepares to go to the Centurion’s home when the Centurion suddenly humbles himself before Jesus.  When coupled with the declaration Jesus makes in 8:10-12, Matthew makes a powerful statement about whom this new Kingdom is for.  Once again we have an implied contrast with the Pharisees, scribes, and other national leaders – the kinds of people one would have assumed to be on the leading edge of the Kingdom.  Hmmmm…
  • It’s interesting that 3 of the people for whom the new Kingdom is specifically demonstrated are women (Peter’s mother-in-law, the woman with the 12 year issue of blood, and the synagogue leader’s dying (deceased) daughter).  This (along with the previously mentioned servant) harken back to Joel’s prophecy concerning the coming Kingdom and the outpouring of God’s Spirit (later repeated in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2).  Often in the face of the mores of the day, Jesus’ Gospel writers go to great lengths to demonstrate the equality of women within the new order of the Kingdom.  It may well be instructive to note the symbolism of the account of the hemorrhaging woman and its position relative to the raising of the dead girl.  Not only would the woman’s condition have left her barren, the condition was endured for 12 years – an interesting number with respect to Israel’s story.  As for the dead girl, resurrection was the prophetic motif used for the restoration of Israel from exile – an event many still awaited even though many Jews had returned to their ancestral home.  The fact that it was a child that was raised might also shed light into the new shape of the Kingdom that was at hand.
  • The mute, blind, and lame were all classes of people whose disabilities denied them access to the temple and priesthood (whether by law or custom).
  • In Israel’s story there is a military force drowned in the sea – Pharaoh’s forces that followed Israel out of Egypt.  One might even say that the Egyptian forces were driven to their deaths by the ‘demonic’ obsession of Pharaoh who stood in the way of Israel’s deliverance.  Now, the demonic forces that oppressed these two Jews on the outskirts of the land are sent into a herd of swine which are then driven into the sea.  Only now it is the region’s citizens who take on the role of the Egyptian aristocracy as they lament the loss of revenue (vis-a-vis Egypt’s cheap labor source).
  • The most revealing mighty deed that Jesus performs is found in 8:23-27 – the famous passage where Jesus calms the raging storm.  At first blush, a neat trick – except for the undertones.  Again, Matthew is not simply telling us what Jesus said and did – he’s investing it with meaning by putting it into context with Israel’s story.  In Israel’s story, there is only ONE person who commands the raging waters and forces them to submit – and it’s not Moses.  It is Yahweh Himself, commanding the waters of chaos in Genesis 1 into submission.  This was more than the disciples in the boat could wrap their minds around at the moment.  There’s no ‘low Christology’ here.  Matthew is coming straight out and saying that this Jesus is none other than Israel’s God, and the world’s Creator, in the flesh.

– Pastor Jim Kushner

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