When the gospels abbreviate Jesus’ work, they include healing diseased people as a constituent aspect. Jesus healed, often, regularly, purposefully. It is not only an act of compassion on his part. It becomes evidence that his proclamation of God’s kingdom breaking into human experience has credibility.
In the light of this consistency of activity, each of the three snapshots of human healing that Matthews sews together is remarkable for its idiosyncrasy.
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.’
The leper’s euphoria is tempered by Jesus’ unanticipated emphasis on process. Jesus insists that the man subject the joy he must have felt to the religious and social mechanics of the community’s equilibrium.
The experience of healing is undeniably about him. Yet, at the same time, it is not.
This, at least, is the plausible comment that routinely comes to this passage. It may be entirely adequate. One wonders, however, whether Jesus also glimpsed an opportunity shape the man’s persona in a way that pivoted not on personal suffering or ostracism but rather on the wider health of his people.
In this light, the generic observation that Jesus heals falls short of the particular touch that he brings to each of his counterparts.
When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, 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.
Here the interplay between Jesus’ generic project of healing and his particular attention to the unique contour of a human being’s life takes shape as a variation upon a developing theme.
The centurion’s analogy—I trust you to heal, Jesus, for I understand both authorship and agency—claims Jesus’ attention. The man who might have exercised a barely ornamental function in the vignette comes vocally to the center. Not only does the man come to be visibly admired by Jesus. He is also designated a model of faith and a precursor of a worldwide family of followers of Jesus who respond to Israel’s Messiah as he has. Though Bible readers do not know his name, they rehearse his story to this day, and try to find trust like his.
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 with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’ (Matthew 8:1–17 NRSV)
One hesitates in a gender-obsessed day to make the simple observation that many women—not least in traditional societies that have not known strong winds of change—find deep honor in serving domestically and in hosting. It would not surprise that Peter’s mother-in-law should fit this pattern.
Yet she is bed-ridden and fevered, unable to lift a hand when Peter’s master and his entourage turn up at her door.
Jesus heals her, as we might expect a serial healer to do.
Yet Matthew captures the detail which the reader trained by his text might now come almost to expect: she becomes in the story an individual, active, fulfilled, and contributing to a cause larger than and beyond her self.
Jesus heals, yes. But the gospel wants more from us than generic observation and much more than sloganeering.
Matthew presses hard with his lines: Jesus heals this one. That one. And me.
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