This is the third (of seven) brief overviews from a study I’m leading at my church on Matthew’s gospel. It is a literary analysis that focuses on how the story is put together, while still touching on individual passages at times.
Jesus finishes the Sermon on the Mount in 7.27 and then walks back down the hillside and begins performing a series of miracles. There are two summary transition statements (4.23 and 9.35) that bracket the narrative that takes place between these verses, both of which mention two primary activities of Jesus: teaching and healing. Thus, the Sermon (5-7) reveals what Jesus taught and the miracles (8-9) reveal what Jesus did.
The narrative in chapters 8-9 is structured around three sets of three miracle stories (8.2-17; 8.23-9.7; 9.18-34) that are set apart by two dialogues (8.18-22; 9.9-17) about what it means (and costs) to be Jesus’ disciples. Both of the dialogues about discipleship repeat Jesus’ radical demand from 4.18-22, and require a radical obedience in response. It is no coincidence that a storm narrative (8.23-27) directly follows the first of these dialogues (8.18-22); it signals the disciples’ struggle to follow Jesus no matter the cost.
The first set of miracles (8.1-17) is about healing physical maladies: cleansing a leper in 8.1-4; healing a paralyzed man in 8.5-13; and healing Peter’s mother-in-law who has a fever in 8.14-17. These were all conditions that made a person “unclean” and in certain circumstances would require them to live “outside the camp,” outside the bounds of normal communal activities. These designations are not about sin, but about wholeness and normalcy, and thus the categories reflect social concerns to avoid anything that seems different or “out of place” or that might harm the entire community. “Clean” versus “unclean” was a matter of maintaining the social order, and so, anyone who crossed the boundaries that maintained order and normalcy was perceived as a threat. The Levitical priests maintained these boundaries (social order), by deciding who should remain “inside” and who should go “outside” the community. Thus, Jesus claims priestly authority here by going out to the “unclean” and by restoring them to life in the community and redefining the social order. We who have received our life back from Jesus are called to take up this same mission (symbolized in vv 14-17 where Peter’s mother-in-law has received community and then opens their home to mediate this community to others).
The second set of miracles (8.23-9.8) is about healing spiritual maladies: faith and bias in 8.23-27; demonic possession in 8.28-34; and false perceptions in 9.2-8. The spiritual nature of the final two miracles should be clear. Jesus frees a man from demon possession and then challenges the erroneous idea that sin is the cause of disease and illness. The first miracle, however, may be a bit more ambiguous. On the way to the region of the Gadarenes, Jesus and the disciples encounter a storm, but have smooth sailing on the return trip. As mentioned above, the narrative context suggests that the storm reveals the difficulty of following Jesus’ radical demand (8.18-22). I believe it also symbolizes the disciples’ bias against the Gentiles (the Gadarenes is a largely non-Jewish region). Jesus calms the storm—he helps the disciples respond to his radical demand and he heals their bias against non-Jews.
The final set of miracles (9.18-34) is about metaphorical healing. In verses 18-26 we find two healing stories that are interlaced—Jesus raises a little girl from the dead and heals a woman whose physical illness had made her unclean (and, thus, separate from her community). These verses are about finding new and renewed life. Being made well, made whole. In verses 27-31 Jesus heals two blind men. This is about receiving new vision, a new way of seeing the world. No longer do they grope about in the darkness trying to find their way. Once they encounter Jesus their eyes are opened and they can see. Finally, in verses 32-34 Jesus heals a mute man. This is about receiving a voice, a new message to proclaim. No longer does this man stand silent, unable to speak. Once he encounters Jesus his mouth is opened and he has something to say.
These are metaphors of redemption. Those who encounter Jesus and choose to respond to his radical demand with an equally radical obedience are given new life, a renewed energy that opens their eyes to see the world as it could be and should be. Jesus also provides them with a message to proclaim—the good news of God’s reign that is found in the character-shaping righteousness proclaimed by Jesus and the life redeeming actions that result from this ethic. This final series of healings offers a beautiful metaphor of the redemption–of the renewal, the re-creation that Jesus brings. Jesus’ disciples have been given new life (vv 18-26), new vision (vv 27-31) and a new message (vv 32-34) before being sent out in chapter 10.
In the “Mission Sermon” (10.5-42) Jesus gives his disciples final instructions before sending them out. The sermon reveals the mission (vv 5-8); the ways and means of carrying out the mission (vv 9-15); the persecution of the disciples while on mission (vv 16-25); a proper perspective on the persecution (vv 26-33); the reason for the persecution (vv 34-39) and the conflation of the disciples with Jesus (vv 40-42).