Sunday, August 16, 2009
Great Books: The Gospel According to Matthew (Part 3)
The first two parts of this essay can be read here and here.
After the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s gospel makes its third tonal shift, emphasizing Jesus as a worker of miracles. Though Matthew makes mention of Jesus’s abililty to heal the sick, it is not until Jesus came down from the mountain that we start getting specific examples of this happening. More importantly, each miracle that Matthew’s gospel covers in this section includes extra information that can shape our understanding of either who Jesus was or who the writer of the gospel wanted the reader to believe that he was. First, Matthew tells us, Jesus was approached by a leper who asks him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean” [8:2] and Jesus “touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean” but added that he should, “say nothing to any one; but go and show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to the people” [8:3,4].
There are three pieces of information that leap out of that account beyond the healing itself. First, lepers were among the lowest of the low in the ancient world, afflicted by a disease that none could cure or even contain. Thus, even speaking to a leper would have been a socially radical act. Secondly, fear of contagion, difficult to assess as recently as one hundred years ago, would have made these people the literal embodiment of the word ‘untouchable’. Yet, Jesus not only healed him but did so by touching him, though in other miracles he is able to effect the same cure by merely outstretching his hand. Without suggesting any kind of prurient subtext, Jesus touches many people whom the Law would have forbidden. From this, we get the impression that the human touch, the act of crossing those boundaries and physically touching someone was understood to be a cornerstone of Jesus’s ministry on Earth.
Last, Jesus commanded him to keep the news of his healing a secret (tough work for a leper) but then also told him to make a sacrifice in the Temple as remanded by the Law to thank not Jesus, but God for the miracle. This is another early emphasis of God as the miracle worker and Jesus as the conduit for that miracle, a theme that recedes as the Gospel winds forward. It is also indicative of a whisper campaign that Jesus was conducting. He didn't want to attract too much attention where he was (for reasons that will be revealed in his final miracle of this period) but he did want the Temple to be aware of what he was doing and saying.
The second miracle concerns a centurion (authorized by Rome but not necessarily of Roman descent) who asked Jesus to heal his slave. Though Jesus offered to travel to the man’s house, the centurion explains to him that “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word and my servant will be healed” [8:8]. Jesus commended the man’s faith, proclaiming that “’not even in Israel have I found such faith’” [8:10] and Matthew goes on to quote Jesus as saying that his eventual followers will be drawn from many nations and not just the children of Israel. It is impossible to ignore that this kind of clear endorsement of Gentiles as potential entrants into the kingdom of heaven could not have been part of the early Nazarene tradition or there would not have been such a fuss raised about it later when Paul defies the Judean branch of the church to do precisely that. Thus, without cross-checking this event against the book of Mark (which is widely supposed to be the earliest and least adorned Gospel), we can suspect if not assume that this passage was written well after the Gentile issue had been settled and probably after the martyrdom of Paul himself around 64 CE.
The third act is more like a mini-miracle as Jesus went to Peter’s house and, finding his mother-in-law sick with a fever, he (again) “touched her with his hand” [8:14] and she was healed. That evening, Matthew tells us, “they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick” [8:16]. This effectively adds a new item to Jesus’s roster of services, the casting out of demons, and it is the one that gets him into trouble the quickest and the most often. It, however, is only the first in a series of expansions of power that Matthew describes for, after the evening of teaching, healing, and exorcism, Jesus did something even more remarkable.
And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, “Save, Lord, we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” [8:23-27]
This passage (and its echo which appears later in the Gospel) is anomalous to some extent in relation to the well-defined parameters of Jesus’s established mission up to this point. It is fruitless to speculate on what specific metaphorical value that this story might have held as an additive myth to the believers of the time but its non sequitur quality feels like something authentic to the original tradition that somehow survived the narrative pruning of oral transmission.
The fifth miracle at Capernaum is also the final miracle at Capernaum. As Jesus traveled in the “country of the Gadarenes” he was confronted by two men, possessed by demons. Unlike Jesus’s earlier forays into the casting out of demons, which are listed as a matter of fact in a list of other things he did, these demons actually spoke to Jesus, saying, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God?” They begged him to cast them into a herd of swine nearby and when “they came out, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank and perished in the waters” [8:32]. When the herdsmen watching the sheep told the people of Capernaum what had happened, Matthew tells us that “all the city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood” [8:34].
This final miracle sticks out for two reasons. First, the demons recognized and identified Jesus as the “Son of God,” thus laying further claim in the narrative as to his special identity as the offspring of God above and beyond the child/parent relationship that all Israelites shared with the God of Abraham. Second, given the specific taboos against the eating of pork in the Jewish diet, it begs the question of who exactly this herd of pigs might have belonged to that their destruction would turn the city against Jesus. Was the destruction of this herd of pigs a social statement aimed at the non-Jews among them?
After Capernaum, Jesus, according to Matthew’s gospel, returned to “his own city” which we should probably assume is Nazareth. Unlike his miracles at Capernaum, Jesus’s healing and casting out of demons are met at every turn by critics, usually the Pharisees. It is also in Nazareth that Jesus called his next named disciple, Matthew the tax collector. As Jesus began to teach among Matthew’s peers, the Pharisees asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” [9:11]. Now, we can still understand why Jewish traditionalists would resent those among them who acted on behalf of Rome and the provincial authorities to collect taxes from them, but, who are these sinners to whom they refer? It could be a term to describe Gentiles living among them, but they already have a word for them: Gentiles. One can imagine that there might be an underclass of ethnically Jewish people who do not (or could not) follow the Law with its tradition of sacrifices for sheer want of money. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to appreciate how Jesus’s message of grace through forgiveness rather than through mediated sacrifice might have resonated through such a group of cultural dispossessed people.
Among the many miracles Jesus performed while being nagged by various nay-sayers, one, in particular, represents, again, an expansion of Jesus’s supernatural abilities. Matthew’s gospel recounts the story like this, saying:
While he was thus speaking to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand upon her, and she will live”…and when Jesus came to the ruler’s house, and saw the flute players and the crowd making a tumult, he said, “Depart; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose. [9:18,23-25]
While it is Lazarus who is most often remembered for being resurrected, it was in fact this ruler’s daughter who first receives this miracle. This lays the cornerstone for the Gospel’s most important miracle, Jesus’s own eventual resurrection after his crucifixion by the Romans. With this final tool in his carpenter’s belt of miracles, Jesus announced to his disciples that “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” And with that, Jesus launched his plan to go viral…1st century BCE style.