Sunday, 14 May 2017

Jesus in Capernaum (Matthew 8:14-22)

We might be prone to assume that Matthew is being a bit sporadic here as he details three individuals whom Jesus helped as well as a large number of cases of whom no details are given. But he is not being sporadic. Instead he wants his readers to realise that Jesus is the promised Messiah and then come to a decision about Jesus for themselves, and in order to bring this about he refers to two individuals whom Jesus did not help. So there is a contrast here between people as well as a challenge to us about what we think of Jesus.

So far in this section of his Gospel, Matthew has mentioned a leper and a Gentile proselyte. Now he mentions a woman who is suffering from an illness. While such descriptions may not make us sit up and wonder, they would have been like bombshells to many of his first readers. He shows that Jesus is willing to help the outcasts and those on the outside in one way or another. Being a woman was bad enough, but to be a sick woman was worse!

Jesus and Peter’s mother-in-law
I assume this verse causes some problems for Roman Catholic writers since they don’t think popes should be married and they imagine that Peter was the first Pope. But since Peter was never a pope, the problem is one based on adding requirements to the Bible that the Bible does not require. Peter would have been appalled if someone had told him that such claims would later be made about him. Other references tell us that his wife travelled with him wherever he went to spread the gospel of Jesus.

As we know, the four Gospel writers, when they are describing the same event, sometimes mention details not found in the other accounts. Mark tells us that those in the house told Jesus about the mother-in-law’s fever. Luke says that Jesus healed her by rebuking the fever. Matthew, under the leading of the Spirit, stresses the eyes and the touch of Jesus.

Referring to the eyes draw attention to the mind of a person, to what he is thinking when he sees something. I wonder what Jesus thought as he saw his friend’s mother lying ill. He would be sad, he would see the effects of sin (all diseases exist because of our original sin), and he would see one of his people whom he eternally loved. Then he touched her, which informs us of his willingness to identify with needy people, as well as helping her sense his sympathy as well as his power.

Matthew mentions the response of the woman, which was that she began to serve Jesus. I assume she did some work in the home that day. Matthew highlights that she served Jesus whereas other accounts say that she served Jesus and his disciples. Why did Matthew write in such a way? Probably the answer is that the unnamed mother-in-law did what everyone whom Jesus helps should do. So she becomes a model disciple and we should thank God that there are countless such disciples scattered around the world who serve Jesus out of gratitude. And she is a contrast to the two would-be disciples mentioned later.

Jesus and the crowd
In the incident with Peter’s mother-in-law, we see the compassion and competency of Jesus. But Matthew does not want to leave the story there, wonderful though it is. So he mentions in roughly the same amount of words that Jesus showed the same compassion and competency for a large number of people. It is obvious from Matthew’s description that no trouble was too difficult for Jesus to deal with.

We should observe the location of this large display of grace. It happened outside Peter’s house, or even inside it. I suppose we see in this reality a couple of lessons. One is that when Jesus rescues us from a trouble he expects us to make our assets available for his service. The other is that we have no idea what Jesus can do with our assets.

One detail mentioned by Luke but which is not so clear in Matthew’s account is that Jesus dealt with each of the crowd individually – he laid hands on each. We know that Jesus could have healed all of them simultaneously, but he chose to help each of them individually.

Matthew’s description of the work of Jesus is twofold. He says that Jesus dealt with two different problems. One was demon oppression and the other was physical illness. What is demon oppression? It must refer to attacks by the devil’s kingdom on people and I suppose this could show itself in a variety of ways. In whatever ways it showed itself here, Jesus was able to deal with it and reveal that he was more powerful than the devil. The other problem was physical illness and Jesus was able to cure all the sufferers, which is a reminder that he is the re-creator of people.

Matthew mentions that this activity of Jesus was a fulfilment of prophecy. The text is from Isaiah 53:4, which says that the Servant has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Matthew has translated the Hebrew and therefore we can see what the verse means. The griefs and the sorrows arise from devilish influences, illnesses and diseases. It is not difficult for us to see how such sufferings would be very sorrowful for those afflicted by them.

What does Matthew mean by this? Does he only mean that some people would be cured by Jesus at one time in their lives? There is no suggestion that those healed by him would never be ill again. Therefore, I would say that we should regard those healings as signs pointing to what Jesus would ultimately do. He came to destroy the works of the devil, which he did at the cross and will yet do when all of the devil’s influences will be removed from the earth.

The intention of Jesus was not only to remove the consequences of sin, but also to deal with the cause of sufferings, which ultimately is sin. So we could regard his miracles as signs pointing to what will happen to people after Jesus pays the penalty for their sin. At some stage, those who trust in him will be restored physically and spiritually and be delivered from the grip of the devil. Ultimately this will happen at the future resurrection and renewal of all things.

The priority of following Jesus
Jesus decides that he and his disciples should go over to the other side of the sea of Galilee. This simple activity tested the people to see whether they would continue to follow Jesus. Matthew records the responses of two individuals at that time.

The scribe – too eager
The first comes from a scribe who stated that he would follow Jesus everywhere. No doubt, some of the disciples would have been impressed by the possibility of a distinguished persons like a scribe joint their number. What did Jesus have to say to him?

Jesus mentioned two details in his response. One of the details concerned his name and the other his present possessions. The use of the name ‘Son of man’ may be in response to the name that the scribe gave to him, which was only ‘Teacher.’ Could it be that the scribe had too low an opinion of Jesus? Maybe all he was saying was that Jesus was the best teacher he had heard. After all, the title ‘Son of man’ is a reference to the prophecy in Daniel about God’s chosen Ruler who would have universal power. It is true that a real disciple must have a true understanding of who Jesus is.

The Saviour wants us to appreciate who he truly is. As the Son of man, he is the King of kings, the one who received glory from God because of his amazing work on the cross. He has now been highly exalted and given the name of Lord. Our Master is much more than a teacher, although he is the best Teacher.

The scribe also seemed to have a wrong perception of the benefits of religion. As a scribe, he would have known that the position of religious teacher was a lucrative one, with many social and financial benefits. He may have imagined that Jesus would make a successful career from his abilities and that there would be other benefits for those who followed him. He must have been very surprised to hear Jesus say that following him would not bring riches in this life.

We are not to imagine that Jesus did not have places to stay at times. When he went to Jerusalem, he often stayed with his friends in Bethany. Yet it seems that he also would spend nights in the Garden of Gethsemane – after all, that is how Judas knew where to find Jesus when he was betrayed. The family home was in Capernaum, and probably Jesus could stay there. What we should see Jesus telling this man is that following him was not always a path to worldly promotion and prosperity. A disciple of Jesus should not expect too much from this world and be prepared to wait until the next for the rewards of serving Jesus.

The scribe probably imagined that he was adding to the prestige of Jesus by offering to follow him. This would not be too surprising since he had no conception of the greatness of Jesus. The scribe had no real conception that Jesus came to deliver from sin and to enable people to live a life of holiness. We have no idea whether or not this scribe ever became a real disciple of Jesus.

The son – not eager enough
The second would-be disciple had to learn about priorities. There are various suggestions as to what he meant. It is unlikely that his father had just died, because if he had, his son would be with the family mourning the loss of his father and therefore not with Jesus. When a person died in that part of the world, they were usually buried quickly, on the day itself or the next.

There are two options as to what he meant. One option is that the father was still alive, but aged and drawing near the end of life, with likelihood that his end was near. The other option concerns the custom that a son would transfer the bones of his dead father to an ossuary a year after his death. In this option, the father may have died a few weeks or months previously and the son was asking to wait a few more months to carry out this task. It looks as if the man wanted to fulfil family responsibilities and then he would follow Jesus. He was putting cultural expectations, the assumptions that others would expect him to make, above the requirements of Jesus.

The reply of Jesus dealt with this reluctance of the disciple to put Jesus first. His words could suggest that while the spiritually dead can wait around in order to bury the physical dead, his disciples have to serve the kingdom of God immediately. A real disciple will not use long-term family responsibilities as a reason for not serving Jesus. The list of options in this kind of outlook is endless. We can say to Jesus that we will do something after such an event or development happens. His reply and challenge is to get involved in the work of the kingdom now.

We cannot deduce from this statement that Jesus wants his disciples to ignore family responsibilities. After all, he had just healed Peter’s mother-in-law. The difference was that Peter and his family were putting Jesus first whereas this man had a different attitude.

This would-be disciple had to learn that he could not lay out the terms of true discipleship. Only Jesus has the authority to do so. This disciple was actually using legitimate concerns as a reason not to become a wholehearted follower of Jesus. But Jesus has the authority to claim first place over every area of life.

So as we come to the close of the ministry of Jesus in Capernaum at that time, we need to ask what kind of disciple are we. Are we like the healed leper, doing our own will rather than what Jesus said? Are we like the centurion who recognised the greatness of Jesus and honoured him? Are we like Peter’s mother-in-law who quietly served Jesus out of gratitude? Are we like the scribe with good words that meant little? Are we like the son who was not prepared to put Jesus first? Each of us knows the answer to that question.

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