Friday, March 29, 2013

Gospel Blog: Matthew 8:1-17

Note: See Introduction for context on this series on the Gospels.

Summary of Matthew 8:1-17
Jesus heals many people physically, including those with "evil spirits."

Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 8:1-17
I have to admit that even though I enjoyed reading and thinking about the Kingdom of God principles in Matt 5-7, I'm really struggling with this chapter. I feel like I'm missing needed context. Matthew (or whomever) wrote these words almost 2,000 years ago. Today, our society is vastly different than in Jesus' time; we know so much more about science and disease, for example. What meaning can be gleaned from a book with such a convuluted history of assembly and publication? This project has given me a new admiration for theologians who study not only the text (and often in the original language), but also consider the historical, cultural, and political contexts of the day. If anything, this project has sparked my interest in people who have studied and written on these topics before.

So I come to this text now feeling very unprepared, but also very skeptical. In the last verse of this particular passage (vs. 17), Matthew continues his major theme of attempting to prove that Jesus is the Jewish messiah.
"Just as the prophet Isaiah had said, 'He healed our diseases and made us well.'"
This verse is meant to be a bit of bombshell. Matthew sets it up in the previous verses by describing different times that Jesus healed people physically. Not only does he want his readers to be amazed at Jesus' miraculous deeds, he wants them to know that this is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy about the messiah.

In verses 1-4, Jesus heals a leper. He asks the leper not to tell anyone about the occurrence, but to present himself to the priest (along with a gift according to Moses' law) in order to be declared fit for society again. Two points stand out here:

  1. Not telling anyone of the healing is consistent with the theme of Jesus' teachings in the last few chapters (not boasting of your religiosity around town).
  2. Jesus gives the healed man very specific instructions in accordance with Jewish law. Matthew again seems to be forcing his major theme of Jewish messiah down the readers' throats.
The next healing anecdote told by Matthew has a bit more detail. An officer of the (Roman?) army asks Jesus to heal his servant. Matthew describes the officer as someone with great empathy for the pain his servant is experiencing. The officer also feels that he is unworthy for Jesus to come to his home, but asks Jesus to just "give the order" for healing and it will occur. (Matthew says that the servant was healed immediately.)

Jesus is suprised at the officer's great faith, and tells his followers that many people like the officer will come from far and wide to experience the kingdom of heaven. However, many who SHOULD have experienced it will be "thrown out into the dark. They will cry and grit their teeth in pain." I think Matthew is implying here that God's chosen people have rejected God's chosen messiah, and therefore have been rejected by God. Again, he is trying to convince his audience to accept Jesus as messiah. Perhaps that is also why he describes the character of the army officer in such glowing terms, as one who has absolute faith in the authority and power of Jesus--to goad his Jewish readers.

A side question: is Jesus referring to "hell" in verse 12? Here is where cultural context would be helpful. Was Matthew/Jesus using the terms, metaphors, and beliefs of the day? Or is he implying a literal truth? I don't know! Hope it's the first one!

Finally, Matthew briefly tells of Jesus healing Peter's mother-in-law, who then "got up and served Jesus a meal." Wow, how many sermons have been preached to women about THAT little anecdote! Then that evening, many people "with demons" came to Jesus and were healed by him. Assuming these miracles did take place, doesn't it seem more likely that the diseases the people had were natural diseases and not evil spirits? But frankly, evil spirits are mentioned quite a bit throughout the gospels. Jesus and the demons actually talk to each other sometimes.

Perhaps you can relate to my frustration and confusion with this passage, and with the Bible in general for that matter. I think many people tend to forget, including me, that the Bible is an ancient text. The customs, beliefs, politics, and understanding of the world were so much different back then. Filtering through all the biases and aims of the author, as well as the historical and culture context of the time, what are we left with? Right now, I'm just not sure.

No comments: