Healing Is God's Business, and Business Is Good
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I wonder how you feel about authority. Ever since Generation X there has been a growing mistrust in institutional authority, which I don’t think is abating. This is not without reason. All the Gates. We grew up with Watergate. Iran-Contra. Tunagate closer to home. We came of age watching footage of Rodney King and the ensuing trial. A character in a show popular with Gen X’ers had a catch phrase when he became a deputy in his town – Respect my authority. Respect for authority has continued to erode. There is a lot of mistrust in authority figures. People have used authority for their own personal gain; for the exercise of self-serving power; for violence; for oppression; for the imposition of the will of one group of people onto another group of people; to divide; to subjugate; to exploit.
So what are we supposed to do with this? A couple of weeks ago we looked at how Matthew’s story ends, although I suppose it would be accurate to say where Matthew finishes – the story is ongoing. “All authority has been given to me,” says Jesus who’s once again on a mountain in Matthew 28. Today we’re going to be gathering around the Lord’s Table. To accept the invitation to the table is to count yourself as one who has accepted Jesus’ call to follow him. It is to count yourself as one who has submitted to Christ’s authority. The question I want us to consider today is this – “Why do you follow Jesus?” Or to put it another way – “By what authority does Jesus have any kind of claim on your life?” If you do not count yourself a follower of Jesus as you watch this, the question might be “By what authority does Jesus deserve or merit any claim on my life?”
How would we answer such questions? What might these stories from Matthew 8 have to say to us today as Jesus comes down from the mountain? Let’s ask God for help as we look at God’s word.
“What Sort of Man Is This?” is the question that we are looking through these weeks of Lent as we travel with Jesus to the cross. The question is put another way by some people to Jesus in chapter 21:23 – “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Hang on to that question and the whole matter of authority as we go here. As Jesus comes down from the mountain his words are about to become actions.
Matthew describes in 4:23 the miracles that Jesus was doing. “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and sickness among the people.” Here in chapters 8 and 9, we get into the actual story of some of these miracles. Ten miracles in all, in groups of 3, 3, and 4. Nine of them healing or restoring life. I encourage you to read through both chapters in one go. We’ve said Matthew likes to put things in groups and this is what we see here.
Jesus has talked about the importance of hearing his words, and not only hearing his words but doing them. Jesus is walking his own talk. Jesus is healing. Jesus is making whole. I’m going to put the answer to the question I asked about Jesus’ authority right out here before we get any deeper into this. Someone has put it like this – “Jesus’ authority is seen in his healing power, his healing power is connected to his serving and suffering.” So there’s the beginning of my own answer to the question I posed of us all earlier about what sort of authority Jesus has on my life. What kind of claim does Jesus have on my life that I want to come to this table again and again? Not only do I want to but I need to. I find that I can’t not come to this table. How can the command of a man who lived over 2,000 years ago have such a claim on what I do?
Because Jesus is the one who makes things whole. Jesus is the one who makes people whole. Jesus is the one who does something for us that we cannot do for ourselves. Sometimes our brokenness is quite obvious. This was very much the case here in the first episode, although all three healings here involve people who are outsiders, religiously or socially marginalized. The first case a leper. Someone with a skin condition that meant they had to exist outside of society (literally). Someone who was required to go around shouting “Unclean” as they went through the streets lest people got too close. Someone who was looked on as having contributed in some way to their condition by some wrong they had done. If you’re thinking it’s a good thing that kind of thing doesn’t happen today, ask how quick we are to blame individuals for things like poverty or addiction. Look at how quick we can be to wonder what someone must have done to contract COVID – they must have slipped upright?
This outcast is an example of saving, healing, whole-making faith. “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…” The same position the magi assumed when they met the little King. This man comes to Jesus boldly. He didn’t have to make sure he had things in order to approach Jesus. He knew the place from where his help would come. We don’t approach Jesus only after we’ve made ourselves right. I’ve said it before, the only claim we need to make of ourselves to follow Jesus is a recognition of our need for him. And so we sing “I Need Thee Every Hour” and “Lord I Need You.”
And so we say “Come to this table not because any goodness of your own gives you the right to come, but because you desire mercy and help.”
This man desired mercy and help and he had faith that Jesus was the one to give it. “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Lord if you will, as another translation puts it. Not “If you can” but “If you choose…”
“He stretched out his hand, and touched him.” There was no worry that what was wrong with this man would somehow contaminate Jesus, conventional wisdom notwithstanding. When it comes to Jesus, the clean flows our way. The clean flows his way the exact same way that the clean flows our way. Jesus stretches out his hand and touches the man, then we hear these wonderful words of Jesus – “I do choose. Be made clean!” This is what God does after all. God heals. God makes whole. Healing is my business, says God, and business is good!
- Note Jesus’ instructions to the man here to go present himself to the priest. There was a ritual whereby people who were cured of leprosy could be certified clean (it was quite an elaborate ritual). It meant the reintegration of the person into society. Jesus did not come to abolish laws that regulated social inclusion and interaction (which is an interesting thing to think about when we’re thinking about Public Health orders, mandates, requirements, and recommendations no?)
“I am the Lord who heals you.” Jesus comes to Capernaum. Home base. A centre of commerce on the north side of the lake. You can visit it today and see a 1st-century synagogue that’s been excavated. Jesus strolls into Capernaum and “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…’”
Another outsider. The enemy. A member of the occupying forces. Centurions were the backbone of the Roman army. Lifers. Like modern-day sergeant-majors. Representatives of the power of an empire. If the leper knew he was beyond his own ability to help himself, it might have been quite different for the centurion. The power of Rome behind him. His own competency, ability, strength, authority to rely on. Oftentimes for us, it’s our tendency to look to our own authority, our tendency to rely on our own competencies, that gets between us and Jesus. That authority may be in ourselves, a system of government, a new government, a new leader, the invisible hand, assets, how much wealth we can store up…
Whatever the case for this man, he’s at a point where those things can’t help. His servant is at home paralzyed. Maybe he’s had an accident. Centurions didn’t have families in terms of wives and children. This servant may have been like family to him. He doesn’t even ask Jesus to heal here, just tells Jesus what’s happening, which surely has something to tell us about how to pray. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon, “ cries a woman in Matthew 15, another outsider. “Lord help me,” she says from her knees, and you get that if you or someone you love has ever been in the grip of something beyond anyone’s control and if you haven’t known that, you will, and it might be enough to make you weep in despair if it weren’t for the next line…
“I’ll come and cure him,” says Jesus. We hear those words echoing – “I am the Lord who heals you.”
There are barriers. Of course, there are barriers. “I’m not worthy to have you come under my roof,” replies the centurion, because a Jewish rabbi going into the house of a Gentile was not kosher. “I also am a man under authority,” says the centurion. He’s recognising the authority that Jesus is under, the authority of his loving Father. His response is one of faith. “But only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.”
Jesus is amazed.
I often pray that God would be amazed by our faith. Wouldn’t that be an amazing thing? To amaze God? Jesus is amazed.
What do we mean by faith here? Someone has described it like this and I can’t put it in any plainer language – “The faith that Jesus praises, exemplified by the centurion, is that which trusts that Jesus is who he says he is and that he can do what he says he can do.” This is the response of repentance and faith that Matthew is urging his readers to and by extension us and anyone who hears the invitation.
It’s a choice that’s laid before us all. You’re not born into it. There’s no inheriting the kingdom. It’s not based on what group you belong to, what country you’re from, what language you speak, your socio-economic status, you so-called insider or outsider status. When it comes time for that banquet table toward which the communion table points, when the promise of many coming from east and west and north and south is finally fulfilled, there will be surprises. Even people who said “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” are going to be surprised, which suggests as someone has said that “much is at stake in how we do or do not respond to Jesus.”
“Only speak the word,” says the soldier. Just say the word. The words have been said. You know what the words were? Jesus spoke them from the cross. “It is finished.” Making whole is what God does and it is what God has done in Christ and it is what God is doing in the power of God’s Spirit in lives, including this one.
That’s the authority to which I bow. I’m a mistrustful Gen X’er too. I don’t mistrust God’s working to make me whole while God makes all things new.
Making whole starts at home. We’re introduced to Peter’s mother-in-law! I find this particularly touching maybe because my mother-in-law lives in my house too. She was lying in bed with a fever, which in those days could be deadly. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve him.
She was healed to serve. We are made whole to serve. Remember how the angels suddenly came to Jesus after his testing and waited on him? Same word as we use for deacon. Provided him with something to eat. Something to drink. The same word here. Diakoneo. Isn’t Matthew wonderful? She waited on him, she served him. Jesus provides us food and drink and we go from the table at which we give thanks for this and we go in order to serve.
The words have been spoken. It is finished. The invitation is an open one and the only thing we need to accept it is a recognition that we are in need of mercy. That Jesus is the one who makes us whole. That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons, and he cast out spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This doesn’t mean that every time we pray to be healed we are healed. It doesn’t mean that every time we pray for another’s healing, they are healed. It doesn’t mean that when physical healing doesn’t come that we lacked faith.
It means that in Christ we are made whole, not matter our physical condition. It means that in Christ we look forward to the day when all things are made new, including us, and we will sit around a banquet table. It means that in Christ we can say by the same faith of the leper, the centurion, and Peter’s dear mother-in-law and those in Peter’s household – “God has me and nothing can separate me from God’s love.”
May we be able to say the same thing. May those in our households be able to say the same thing. May we be bold to accept the invitation to come to this table in faith. May we make the same invitation to all with ears to hear it. May these things be true for us all. Amen