Friday, October 2, 2009

Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean

When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’

When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralysed, in terrible distress.’ And he said to him, ‘I will come and cure him.’ The centurion answered, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.’ And the servant was healed in that hour.

When Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his 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 serve him. That evening they brought to him many who were possessed by demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’

- Matthew 8:1-17

After all the lessons of the great Sermon on the Mount (covered over the past twelve commentaries, beginning with The Beatitudes), Jesus comes down from the mountain and begins an active healing ministry. We have seen this emphasis on healing in the other gospels (especially Luke), and we recall again that Jesus' teaching and healing are one: just as he physically heals, so his teachings heal us spiritually. As we are now reading Matthew, we must remember Matthew's theme: Immanuel, or "God with us." Matthew was writing with an understanding of a Jewish perspective, and so his gospel has so far stressed the fulfillment of prophecy and the fulfillment of the Law in Jesus.

First, Jesus heals a leper. The leper approaches Jesus and tells him, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ It's important to understand that leprosy was considered a direct punishment for sins. A note in my study bible says that the biblical law concerning leprosy is found in Lev. 13 & 14. Deuteronomy 24:8 describes the purification of lepers and leprous houses, which was a duty entrusted to the priests. Lepers were considered unclean because of the perspective on affliction for having sinned; therefore lepers were not allowed to live in community, including by worshiping God in the temple and synagogues. Under Mosaic Law (Lev. 7:21) touching the unclean was forbidden. Therefore, Jesus' touching of this leper demonstrates several things about this ministry in which so much is seen as fulfilled. As fulfillment of the Law, Jesus demonstrates his own authority, just as he has taught with authority. "He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’" This is also an expression of his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, which has come just before this passage in Matthew. He is healing with compassion (again, the fulfillment of the law). By touching the leper and healing him, Jesus demonstrates that "to the clean, there is nothing unclean." He is using good judgment about what it is that defiles a person. His compassion and desire to heal overrides every other consideration.

Next there is the story of the centurion, who comes to Jesus because his servant is ill. As with the cleansing of the leper, this story also appears in other gospels. Again, there is the question of healing those who are outside of the Law. The centurion is a Roman legion commander, with 100 men under him. He is a Gentile. Many Greek language scholars actually read Jesus' answer, "I will come ..." as a question, "Shall I come and cure him?" Either way, Jesus is ready to help this Gentile who has compassion for his servant. In Luke, we are told not only of his love for his servant, but also that this centurion was a great helper to the Jews in his community, even having built the synagogue. Also in Luke, the centurion initially asks the Elders to make this request to Jesus, showing great humility. But Matthew chooses to demonstrate only the centurion's great faith. As a man of power, he is used to commanding others to do his will. So, he also understands Jesus' authority and power. Again, we are given to know the direct authority, not given by "the world," that Jesus' audience senses in his immediate presence. So, too, this man of power and authority perceives Jesus. As both fulfillment of the Law, and as Lord to all - both Gentile and Jew - Jesus heals the centurion's servant. Entering into the house of the centurion is another act which would have been considered to make Jesus unclean in the perspective of the Law.

Twice in the gospels it is written that Jesus "marveled." The first is at the unbelief he encounters in his hometown and his rejection in Nazareth. The second is here, at the belief of the centurion that Jesus can simply give a command and heal. By praising the and marveling at the quality of faith displayed by the centurion, Jesus is putting his teachings together that it is faith that builds sonship. We are seeing Jesus practicing the extension and fulfillment of the Law that he has just exposited in the Sermon on the Mount. No one is unclean. The law is fulfilled by the measure we give, which is the measure we will receive. As we express our faith, so our sonship as children of the Father is built by adoption. Not only does the centurion exhibit his care for his servant, but also his faith in Jesus. As he gives, so he receives. By adoption, he too becomes a son through active practice of faith. ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' According to my study bible, "outer darkness" and "weeping and gnashing of teeth" are expressions of the state of unrighteous dead recorded in Jewish tradition (Enoch and Parables of Enoch). They are common expressions in Matthew and Luke. They illustrate the critical importance of choice; and that Jesus' teachings are important for all people. As he has taught in the Sermon on the Mount, it is not our external face before others that is important: the new law values the inner person, the true state of one's heart of faith, the choices we make and what we do in secret.

These active forms of healing ministry are illustrations and further fulfillment of the teachings we have just received in the Sermon on the Mount. As expansion and fulfillment of the Law, we recognize the importance of faith in creating sonship. We recognize the authority of Jesus which is not granted "of men" but of himself. We see the laws of compassion and mercy at work. We understand that according to the measure of our own mercy and righteousness, so we will receive. It is the inner person that counts, not the external appearance before others, nor the "praise of men." All are welcome in this kingdom that is extended through adoption. Most of all, we must come to recognize that healing is the essential quality of ministry. All of Jesus' teachings - whether he is preaching or curing illness or casting out demons - are expressions of healing. We need his spiritual healing in these teachings now as much as ever.

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