The Third Cycle
In this second cycle of three miracle stories (in 8:1-9:34), Matthew is highlighting Jesus’ authority over the power of chaos in creation and the demonic, and His authority to forgive sin. You will recall the first cycle of three miracle stories had to do with healing. This second cycle of three miracle stories focuses on Jesus’ God-like authority. The question of Matt. 8:27–“What kind of man is this?”–is meant by Matthew to be a clue to readers/listeners that they will need to answer at least as well as the demons in 8:29–“Son of God”! The context of the story involves a boat trip across the Sea of Galilee to Gentile territory and back.
Matthew 8:23-27 Authority Over the Power of Chaos in Creation–God Keeps His Own
Garland notes that “rest is a divine prerogative (cf.11:28) and sleeping is a symbol of divine rule in Ancient Near Eastern literature” (Matthew commentary on 8:24; read Isaiah 51:9-10). The Greek word for the storm is seismos, which usually refers to an earthquake. The storm represents the powerful forces of chaos that threaten the safety and life of the disciples. Jesus rebukes the seismos as though it were a demon. The forces of chaos are tamed, and peace or calmness prevails. It sounds like God’s word in creation bringing order out of the chaos of darkness and emptiness in the pre-creation earth. The response of the disciples to the storm–“Lord save us, we are perishing!”–has a liturgical ring to it; true believers know on whom they should call in life’s difficulties. The second response of the disciples in relation to the calming of the sea–“What manner of man is this?”–has the flavor of an invitation to decision. Garland has said, “By now, readers are able to answer the disciples’ question. This is God with us. The real question is, however, will the answer govern their faith?” (Matthew commentary on 8:27). After all, if you will note Matt. 8:23, the disciples “followed him” into the boat. Following Jesus may take people through storms and difficulties. Will these followers shrink back in cowardice, or will they believe that their Lord has mastery over demonic and chaotic powers?
Matthew 8:28-34 Authority Over the Demonic–God Protects His Own
There are significant differences in Matthew’s account of this story and those found in Mark (5:1-20) and Luke (8:26-39). We have already discussed Matthew’s purpose in his gospel narrative: to emphasize the essence of the narrative without a lot of dialogue or corollary details. The emphasis of Matthew’s story is the confrontation with demons, and what better place to confront them than on the unholy ground of a foreign land, indicated by the presence of pigs. “Jewish traditions assumed that demons were free to operate as they wished until the day of consummation . . . The Gadarene demons may have assumed the same, but their timetable is wrong. Jesus’ presence means that the time of reckoning has arrived. The demons get no answer from Jesus to their question so they beg Jesus (to be sent into the pigs). They are clearly at the mercy of Jesus’ power and are felled by one little word, ‘Go!'”(Garland). Perhaps some of you remember the third stanza of Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”:
And though this world, with devils filled, The prince of darkness grim, Should threaten to undo us, We tremble not for him; We will not fear, for God has willed, His rage we can endure, His truth to triumph through us. For lo! His doom is sure, One little word shall fell him. Besides the amazing miracle of the exorcism, there is also the amazing response of the people of the region. They ask Jesus to leave! How ironic! They are better able to deal with a demon-possessed man than with a power they cannot comprehend. Garland has said about this, “It is easier for Jesus to deal with ungovernable demons than with unwilling humans” (Matthew commentary on 8:34).
Matthew 9:1-8 The Authority to Forgive Sin–God Forgives His Own
This story may be a bit difficult for us because it deals with a common belief in the believing community then, and, in certain cases, even now. This belief is that sin and sickness are linked, so that the paralytic’s affliction is directly linked to his sin. If sin and sickness are related, then so are forgiveness and healing. The focus here is not so much on the healing as it is on the forgiveness. That is why Jesus “proves” His ability to forgive by also healing the man (c.f. James 5:15-16; note also the story of the blind man in John 9. There are many exceptions.). The miracle stories teach us that God keeps, protects, and forgives His own. But such stories of miracles are not ends in themselves; they lead us to discipleship. I cannot enjoy all the blessings of God without also remembering the responsibilities that come with belonging to God. True disciples never forget to serve faithfully the One who has miraculously saved them.