Introducing Matthew 8-9: Healing a leper

We begin a new series through Matthew chapters 8 and 9. In our last look at Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 5), Jesus was saying a lot of stuff. Here, he’s doing a lot. It’s the walk that backs up the talk. We see healings, exorcisms, provocative encounters, and even someone raised from the dead. Although this might seem to be just a random collection of cool stories involving Jesus, there’s a very deliberate point being made by the Gospel author throughout these chapters. Our task will be to work out what that is.

In the meantime, we’ll look through the stories one-by-one, to build up a picture of what Matthew is telling us. Keep this quest for the big picture in mind, as any application we find in each story will mostly be secondary to this larger point being made.

We begin with a simple story about a healing:

 8:1-4 When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 

JesusHealsLeper

This is the first thing that Jesus does after finishing up the Sermon on the Mount. He’s followed down by a large crowd eager to see what he’ll do, having heard all that he’d said. And the first person to come up after the sermon and shake his hand is… well, he didn’t shake his hand as it probably would have come off. OK, that’s enough gratuitous leprosy jokes. Particularly because the word for “leprosy” in the New Testament covers a variety of skin diseases, not just what we’d call leprosy today.

Now it’s interesting that this is the first recorded miracle performed by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. For a first miracle it seems a bit lame (but that’s the second miracle, tomorrow). Leprosy was an uncomfortable skin condition, but not life-threatening. Of all the diseases Jesus could have started with – to make a statement about who he was, and what he came to do – leprosy, to us, doesn’t seem to be at the top of the list.

But leprosy in the first century was as much a social disease as it was a physical one. According to Old Testament rules, lepers weren’t allowed to live with the rest of the community and interact with people. This was so the disease didn’t spread, and therefore infect the entire community. This meant they couldn’t live with their family, or even work to support them. They had to beg for food on the outskirts of the villages. They were isolated and excluded.

If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, you can check out Lev 13-14. This has all the rules about being examined by the priests to work out whether you were clean – and therefore allowed to live in the general community – or unclean – and therefore excluded.

In short, lepers were the AIDS or STI sufferers of Jesus’ day, in terms of public perception. Not the ones who suffered heart attacks or cancer or something that any of us could get; but the ones with the mysterious, supposedly ‘dirty’ disease that left you thinking they must have done something wrong for God to inflict such a judgement. They were the outcasts.

This is why it’s so significant that Matthew records Jesus’ action: he touched him. No-one would have done that. Especially not a “holy man” like Jesus. In touching a leper you not only risked infection, it automatically made you ritually unclean, and therefore unable to enter the temple. So a devout Jew would avoid this at all costs. But not Jesus. He touched the man. Not because he needed to do so to heal him – tomorrow’s story will show how Jesus can also heal by remote-control. But because he wanted to show the man that he wasn’t unclean – wasn’t an outcast – in Jesus’ mind.

Max Lucado provides a first-person account of what it might have been like to be the leper healed by Jesus:

“For five years no one touched me. No one. Not one person. Not my wife. Not my child. Not my friends. No one touched me. They saw me. They spoke to me. I sensed love in their voices. I saw concern in their eyes. But I didn’t feel their touch. There was no touch. Not once. No one touched me.

What is common to you, I coveted. Handshakes. Warm embraces. A tap on the shoulder to get my attention. A kiss on the lips to steal a heart. Such moments were taken from my world. No one touched me. No one bumped into me. What I would have given to be bumped into, to be caught in a crowd, for my shoulder to brush against another’s. But for five years it has not happened. How could it? I was not allowed on the streets. Even the rabbis kept their distance from me. I was not permitted in my synagogue. Not even welcome in my own house.

I was untouchable. I was a leper. And no one touched me. Until today.”

And notice what the man asked. He didn’t say “If you are willing, you can heal me!” He said, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” What he wanted was to be clean in the eyes of God and his community. To resume the life he had with his family and neighbours. To be made whole again. Leprosy wasn’t so much about the physical suffering (although it was very unpleasant), but the social isolation.

So what was Jesus’ response to the man’s request? “I am willing. Be clean.” And immediately after Jesus made this rash pronouncement (sorry, scratch that one), the man was healed. Sort of. I mean, the disease was gone. But still, he’s unclean, until a priest declares him clean. Which is why Jesus tells him to go straight to the priest, and make the purification offering the Law required, in order to be declared clean. That’s when full healing took place.

(Why does Jesus tell him not to tell anyone? Jesus does this frequently. It’s probably Jesus’ attempt to keep his identity as Messiah being too widely-known too early, otherwise people would try to make him into the military leader they thought the Messiah ought to be. We see this in John 6:15, for example. Jesus needed time to refine people’s expectations of what kind of Messiah he was. At any rate often people ignore Jesus’ instructions about not telling anyone, out of a sense of social obligation to proclaim the honour of a great benefactor. This is a bigger theme in Mark’s gospel, and we’ll deal with it in a later series.)

So what can we learn from this story?

Perhaps we need a more wholistic understanding of what it means to bring people the message of the kingdom. If Jesus had thought like some well-meaning Christians today, he might have responded a bit differently. ‘Sorry, can’t do much about the leprosy, but that’s not the important thing. What you need to do is get right with God – your pain here on earth will seem like nothing in the light of the eternity in heaven that awaits you.’

But what about my wife and daughter now, the man would respond. Don’t you care about that?

Without minimising the supreme importance of eternal salvation (in most healing stories, Jesus does include that afterwards), we need to understand that the message of the kingdom involves meeting people’s needs in the here and now as well. This, in fact, is part of the big picture that Matthew builds for us in these two chapters.

We get a bit more of a hint in a short story – a healing summary, really – a few verses later:

8:14-17  When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him. When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.” 

What we learn here is that unless they’re really sick, mothers-in-law should wait on us. But as well as this rather obvious lesson, there’s something else going on here. We have one of Matthew’s “fulfilment quotations”, where he takes time out from the narrative to point out how Jesus is fulfilling or completing Scripture. His healings and exorcisms were to fulfil Isaiah 53:4. And not just that verse, but really the whole “servant figure” we find throughout the second half of Isaiah. This was part of how Jesus was defining his Messiahship: not a conquering king (that would be later), but a suffering-servant, who comes to heal disease and bear the punishment for sin. To deal with humanity’s needs in both this life and in the age to come.

To think about

What aspects of gospel ministry are you or your church involved in that goes beyond proclamation, and embodies the message of the kingdom in the here-and-now? What other things could you be involved in?

Think about the “ministry of touch.” When interacting with those who are unwell, particularly when in hospital or isolated by their illness for a long time, remember that a hand on the shoulder or the squeeze of a hand communicates something significant: they are not “unclean” in your eyes, and are still part of society.

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