Saturday, August 06, 2005

Friend of the Outcasts, Lord of the Faithful, Conqueror of Evil (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 11)

Matthew 8

After chapters five through seven of Matthew's Gospel, which recount a time of extended teaching by Jesus, we come to the markedly different chapter 8.

If the previous three chapters are Jesus' verbal portraits of life in the Kingdom of God, this chapter presents us with the kingdom in action as Jesus, God in the flesh, encounters one person after another.

Matthew 8:1-4: Here, Jesus meets a leper. Even today, in some parts of the world, leprosy is a tremendous problem, its victims sent to live in colonies away from society. In Jesus' day, people suffering from the disease were subject to all sorts of religious laws and social customs designed to keep them separated from others. They often lived together on the outskirts of towns and cities. Those not afflicted with leprosy certainly avoided touching those who were.

All of this makes Jesus' encounter with the leper especially remarkable. The leper kneels before Jesus and prays, in essence, "Your will be done." "Lord, if You choose, You can make me clean," he tells Jesus.

In response to the man's trusting prayer, Jesus reaches out, touches the leper, and says, "Be made clean!" "Immediately," we're told, the man's leprosy disappeared.

Given the taboos Jesus violates here, it's fair to ask: What is the biggest miracle in this encounter, the healing itself or the fact that Jesus touched the leprous man?

For the religious legalists, appalled by Jesus' message that God loves sinners and saves those who believe or trust in Him, the leper's healing is of secondary importance. For them, Jesus break with tradition gives proof that He really isn't from God.

Once again, we see Jesus' attitude about God's commands and religious laws. They're designed to help us live closely to God, not designed as impediments to be negotiated. When we use religious law to forego acting compassionately or lovingly toward others, we're ignoring the two great themes of all of God's law: loving God and loving neighbor.

Old Testament law proscribed that those no longer suffering from leprosy were to go to a priest at the temple in Jerusalem. His job in this situation was to certify that the leper had in fact been "cleansed" and could therefore resume a normal life at home and in the larger community. Jesus tells the man to go do this, prefaced with an admonition: "See that you say nothing to anyone..." What's up with that?

Jesus' miracles, such as this healing was, weren't meant to dazzle people or be seen as ends in themselves. They were what the New Testament Greek calls semeia, signs. Signs don't point to themselves. They point to something else. Jesus' signs were meant to point to the fact that He was the Messiah, the Lord's Anointed, the long-promised Savior of the world.

Jesus often told people not to tell others about His signs because, until His mission on earth was completed, they could easily form a wrong impression of Him. They could follow Him for the sake of His signs, rather than for the deeper deeds He came into the world to accomplish.

People did form misimpressions of Him. They saw Him as a mighty miracle-maker. As a powerful weapon to be used against the Romans. As someone who could call down the blessings of ease, wealth, and power for His countrymen.

But restoring people's physical health, feeding masses from a few scraps of fish and bread, or even bringing a person back from the dead--among the miracles Jesus performed--didn't address the fundamental human problem, Jesus pointed out. That problem, in a nutshell, was (and is) that human beings were and are sinners whose sin deserve death and everlasting separation from God.

Only after Jesus had gone to a cross, accepting our rightful punishment for sin, and had risen from the dead, certifying His power over sin and death, would His signs make sense. The signs pointed to Jesus' dominion over life, death, and eternity. They pointed to our need of turning from sin and completely depending on Him. But until His death and resurrection, people might be inclined to see His miracles as ends in themselves.

Many people today, like the Romans and Judeans who put Him to death two-thousand years ago, seem to want Jesus without His cross or tomb. Their attention is riveted to His signs. They want Jesus as their cosmic rabbit's foot, the God-Man Who will do their bidding.

But they don't want Jesus' Lordship over them.

They don't want to submit to humbly admitting their sins or their need of God.

They don't want everlasting dependence on God.

They don't want to be crucified with Christ--which is what happens when we turn from our sin.

They don't want the often psychologically, spiritually, and relationally painful "cross" of admitting their limitations and their desperate need of the help God provides through Jesus Christ.

By commanding the leper to defer telling anyone how he had been healed, Jesus was telling him, "There's no resurrection without the cross, no life without complete surrender to Me."

One of my favorite contemporay lyricists is a guy named Steve Taylor. In one song he writes, "Jesus is for losers, the self-made need not apply."

Matthew 8:5-13: From a leprous Jew of tentative faith, an outcast of His own people who wants to believe in Him, Jesus moves on to meet a foreigner of exemplary faith. The centurion was a commander of one-hundred Roman soldiers. The Romans, of course, were conquerors and occupiers of Jesus' homeland of Judea. Jesus' fellow Jews hated the Romans,

Yet, here is a Roman who is concerned about the well-being of his Jewish servant and presents a prayer request on the servant's behalf.

When Jesus offers to go to the servant in the home of the centurion, the centurion humbly demures. "Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof," he tells Jesus.

This is an interesting situation. Jesus' fellow Judeans would have deemed it improper for a Jew to enter the home of a Gentile, a non-Jew. If they did enter such a home, they would be required to undergo ritual cleansing before they could participate in any of the routine religious rites of the time. (This is why the religious leaders would later stand outside of the home of the Roman governor, Pilate, as they sought Jesus' execution.) Yet Jesus offers to go to the Roman's house.

What makes things even more interesting is that the centurion, a member of the army of the most powerful nation on earth, tells Jesus he isn't even worthy of welcoming Jesus, a poor, itinerant preacher, into his home.

The centurion goes on to explain to Jesus that as a military man, he knows how authority works. He knows that if Jesus just says the word, even from the spot on which He's standing, the servant will be healed.

One can almost imagine the mixture of excitement, admiration, and love with which Jesus hears the centurion's amazing confession of faith! "I've never seen a faith like this among all the descendants of Abraham, we children of Israel!" He says. Then, He turns to the centurion and tells him his prayers have been answered; the servant has been healed.

While the leper in the first few verses of this chapter may have been humbled into asking for Jesus' help, the centurion seems to have chosen humility before Jesus. That's remarkable!

Matthew 8:14-17: At Peter's house, Jesus finds Peter's mother-in-law ill. He touches her, violating yet another taboo--this one against men touching or speaking to women in public encounters--and relieves her of her fever.

One thing that cracks me up about this encounter is that after the woman is healed, "she got up and began to serve Him." She gets to feel better and then has to go to work!

Matthew 8:18-22: An 0ld hymn says, "I am but a stranger here, heaven is my home." Jesus encounters a man who wants to follow Him, but doesn't understand that doing that means traveling light. No matter what our profession, Jesus may ask us to move to places or circumstances in which we personally feel uncomfortable. But Jesus doesn't call us to be comfortable, only faithful.

Another follower says that he'll go with Jesus, but first he has to take care of his father's funeral. Jesus' response may seem cold. He says, "Let the dead bury the dead." To me, the underlying message is, "Don't get caught up in all the proprieities of life when they prevent you from following Me and doing My will."

These five verses are, for me, among the most challenging and difficult in the Bible!

Matthew 8:23-27: Here, Jesus, a landlubber from Nazareth, falls asleep in a boat during a fierce storm, while the seasoned boatmen who regularly fish these waters, become terrified.

When they finally are able to wake Jesus, He commands the winds and seas to be calm.

The question the disciples ask of themselves after Jesus does this is left unanswered, left for us to answer for ourselves. "What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?" The answer is obvious: The One Whose Spirit (spirit, wind, and breath are all the same word in both the Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek) moved over the stormy waters of primeval chaos and life came about. (Genesis 1:1-2)

Matthew 8:28-9:1: Pigs were considered filthy animals. Yet when Jesus cast a flock of demons into a herd of pigs, all of which madly flung themselves into the sea, the swineherds and all the people in town asked Jesus to leave. It won't be the first time in history that people choose commerce over Christ.

[Here are links to the first ten installments of this series:

Long-Awaited Savior

Scholars from the East

The Freedom to Be Weird

This is a Test

Trusting What You Can't See

The Theme Taken to Its Ultimate Expression


Explicating the Beatitudes...and More

Authenticity and Trust

Jesus' Radical Ethics]

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