The First Cycle
In the first lesson, I took the position that there are three cycles of miracle stories with two narratives about discipleship in this passage in Matthew. The text moves back and forth between miracles and discipleship. In this lesson we will examine the first cycle of miracle stories. Miracle stories are always exciting; discipleship stories can be painful and revealing. I hope you will stick around for both.
Matthew 8:1-4 Healing the Leper–Obedience to the Law
This first of the three miracle stories deals with a man afflicted with leprosy, a term that could encompass various kinds of skin diseases or afflictions that rendered the person unclean, a kind of living corpse that would cause others to become ceremonially unclean by contact. Instead of avoiding him, Jesus willingly touches him and heals him. Rather than Jesus becoming unclean by the contact, the leper is cleansed by Jesus’ touch! The only requirement comes after the healing: Go and obey the Law of Moses and present yourself to the authorities in the Temple.
What is interesting about this narrative is the leper’s request. He does not ask Jesus to pray for him but makes a request similar to the Syrian king’s petition to the King of Israel on Naaman’s behalf (2 Kings 5). The leper does not say, “If you ask [God],” but says, “If you want,” the assumption being that “Jesus is like God who can do as he wills and who has the power to cleanse him”(Garland 94).
Matthew 8:5-13 Healing for Gentiles–Humility and Faith
This second miracle narrative involves a Roman centurion, an officer in charge of a unit of 100 soldiers. The Greek text is unclear whether the person for whom he is concerned is his son or a young servant. Whatever the case, the centurion clearly loves the child and approaches Jesus for healing. Verse 7 in the Greek text is also vague. Should it be translated as though Jesus were incredulous that He should go to an unclean Gentile’s home and heal the boy (“You want me to go and heal him?!”) This would make Jesus’ response similar to the one He gave to the Canaanite woman in Matt. 15:21-28. Should Jesus’ response, on the other hand, be seen as enthusiastic eagerness to go? (“Yes, I will go and heal him!”) Because of the centurion’s remark in verse 8, I prefer the first view–that Jesus is incredulous that a Gentile should be asking Him to go with him to his home. (Remember, in Luke’s account of this narrative, religious leaders appeal to Jesus on behalf of the centurion, claiming that he has done many good works for the Jews, Luke 7:1-10. Matthew mentions nothing of the centurion’s good works.)
The humble response of the centurion, admitting his unworthiness while comparing Jesus’ authority to his own as a military officer, elicits Jesus’ surprise and His scandalous statement: “This Gentile has better and more sincere faith than those who are supposed to be the people of faith!” “For Matthew’s community, the saying in verses 11-12 is a sobering reminder that the kingdom is open to all but guaranteed to none. Only those who believe as the centurion believed will sit at table with Jesus and Abraham” (Gardner 147). Again, the point of this story is the exemplary faith of this complete outsider.
Matthew 8:14-17 Healing Peter’s Mother-in-Law–Service and the Testimony of Scripture
In this story, we learn of Peter’s family and the fever of his mother-in-law. Fever was a term describing almost any kind of sickness, something in that time period that was always linked to sin and God’s judgment. In this episode, Jesus does not wait for a plea for help but immediately touches the woman–on her hand, like a gentleman, with no hint of impropriety–and she is healed. After being healed, she rises and serves (Greek: diakoneo) Jesus, typifying the response of all who are restored by Jesus. In addition, many who are demon-possessed and sick are brought to Jesus, and He heals them all with a word, evidently the life-giving, creative, powerful Word of God!
The reference to Isaiah 53:4 was important to the ancient Hebrew mindset. Sin and sickness were integrally related in their thinking, and Jesus’ ability to overcome sickness also meant He was able to overcome sin! Notice something else here, as noted by Garland: “In Matthew, it is not the demons who first identify Jesus as the Holy One of God, as in Mark 1:24, or who recognize him as the Christ, as in Luke 4:41, but the authoritative Scripture” (96).
What powerful narratives: obedience, humility and faith, service and the witness of the Scriptures! No wonder the text takes us from miracle stories to discipleship stories. When your life has been so wonderfully touched by Jesus, your desires change; now you sense that the true life of faith always points you to service, obedience, and the Holy Scriptures.