Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, allowing space for God’s voice to be heard.
Read: Matthew 8:1-4
With the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s Gospel moves on to three cycles of stories concerning authority and discipleship. The first of these stories—our reading for today—subtly recalls the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (4:1-11). Echoing Jesus’ answer to the third temptation, “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only” (4:10), Jesus is approached by a leper who worships (prosekynei, literally meaning “knelt before”) him. The leper then asks Jesus a question beginning with “Lord, if you choose…”, echoing the tempter’s questioning of Jesus, “If you are the Son of God…” (4:4, 6). By recalling the temptation narrative in the story of Jesus cleaning the man with leprosy, then, Matthew invites us to compare Jesus’ response in the two stories.
At issue here, as in the temptation episode, is Jesus’ authority. In the temptation narrative, Satan questions Jesus’ authority as Son of God, asks him to prove his authority by exercising economic, social, and political dominance. The man with leprosy, on the other hand, assumes both Jesus’ authority (by calling him “Lord”), and his ability to cleanse him.
Jesus, who had rejected the tempter’s call to dominate others, responds to the plea for healing. He reaches out, touching the man—thus exposing himself to the leprosy—and cleanses him. Jesus then sends the man to the priest, in accordance with Leviticus 14:4, 10, in order that the man might be reintegrated back into the community. This is how Jesus will exercise his authority. Not to prove himself, but to respond to the faith of those in need of restoration. Not to dominate, but to bring healing.
- What resonates with you in this story?
- What ways of holding authority can you identify in your own life?
- In ways might we be challenged to use our authority for restorative purposes rather than dominating others?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, aware of God’s presence in a broken world.
Read: Matthew 8:5-13
The story in today’s reading defies easy explanation. At first appearances, it is a story of a Roman centurion who approaches Jesus to ask for healing for his servant. When Jesus responds positively, the centurion tells Jesus not to come to his house, but to heal the servant by simply giving the command from him to be healed. Jesus, seeing his faith, commends the servant and pronounces the healing. It is a story of the centurion’s faith and Jesus authority to heal.
Yet, the story also raises questions which sit uncomfortably with the ethos of Matthew’s Gospel. Does the Gospel, for example, condone slavery? Does Jesus give tacit approval to Roman occupying powers? Some of these questions might be left unanswered, at least for now. To understand what the story does say, however, we will need to dig a little deeper into the cultural environment into which it was first told.
In the first century C.E. Greco-Roman world, people related to others of unequal social status through the patron-client social system, whereby less powerful people (clients), usually the urban poor or rural peasants, would seek favors (perhaps a meal) from those with more power (patrons). By gaining a greater number of clients, a patron would gain honour, building up their social standing and political influence. In return, a client would implicitly place themselves under obligation to the patron, “whenever and however the patron determines.”1 They were to show loyalty (pistis—the same word usually translated as “faith” in the New Testament) to their patrons. While the patron-client system facilitated the meeting of needs for those who were lower on the social scale, it also had the effect of stripping the poor of dignity and reducing them to being “virtually a slave of the more powerful.”2
When the centurion approaches Jesus in today’s story, he addresses Jesus in the normal way a client would address a patron—by using the title “Lord.” Following Jesus response, the centurion proceeds to acknowledge that he is “not worthy” to have Jesus come to his home. In a patron-client culture, these actions would amount to placing himself under Jesus’ patronage and giving his honour to Jesus (Honour, like wealth, was considered in Greco-Roman culture a limited good—one person’s gain meant another person’s loss).3 That the centurion—a representative of the brutal colonising power of Rome—was climbing down the “social ladder,” placing himself under the patronage of a subjugated Jewish peasant is the shocking point of the story! His faith (loyalty owed to a patron) is radical, in that he has put aside his social status as a centurion of the Roman military and acknowledged the superior authority of Jesus.
The assumptions behind the centurion’s approach to Jesus pose some important questions for Matthew’s Gospel. Is the nature of Jesus’ authority the way that the centurion imagines in verses 8-9? In the centurion’s understanding, those addressed as “lords” wield authority by giving orders to those under their command. Jesus warns his disciples, however, not to be like the “rulers of the Gentiles” who “lord it over” others and “exercise authority over them” (Mt 20:25). The centurion, it seems is very much a part of the “domination system” that Jesus confronts.
Another question is raised by the identity of the one who is healed. If he is a slave, then why doesn’t Jesus challenge the centurion on his slavery?4 The text is uncomfortably silent. What Matthew does capture in this story is a picture of a representative of Roman military power who willingly cedes gives honour, superiority, and acknowledgment of authority to Jesus, a subjugated Jew. Jesus, on the other hand, uses his authority not to “lord it over” the centurion, but to restore the life and health of the paralysed servant.
- What strikes you in today’s reading? Is there anything that you find surprising or unusual?
- How do you think Matthew’s community would have felt about this story?
- In what ways does it challenge or encourage you?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
1. Bruce J. Malina, & Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), Kindle loc. 1135.
2. Sharon H. Ringe, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995),95.
3. Malina & Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary, Kindle loc. 1179.
4. There is some debate as to whether the person healed in the story, referred to by the unusual word “paȋs,” is a slave, a son, or even, as attested by Greco-Roman literature of the time, one with whom the centurion has a sexual relationship—whether of a dominating or mutual nature. See Theodore W Jennings and Tat-siong Benny Liew. “Mistaken Identities but Model Faith: Rereading the Centurion, the Chap, and the Christ in Matthew 8:5-13,” Journal of Biblical Literature 123 no. 3 (Fall 2004): 467-494.
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of repentance together, aware of our inadequacy and God’s grace.
Read: Matthew 8:14-17
In this third healing episode, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law who is struck down with fever, before exercising his healing activity amongst a crowd. In his activity of exorcising those who were “possessed with demons” and healing “all who were sick”, Jesus addresses the catastrophic effects of domination and subjugation. Sickness and disease were, and still are, a primary outcome of “malnutrition, results from an inadequate food supply and land resources, from the poor’s limited economic resources for land, seed, and animal improvement, from taxes and tributes, high food prices, overwork, and control of the market by elite merchants.”5 Moreover, socio-historical studies have shown the connection between the phenomena of demon possession and conditions of domination and colonisation—the very situation of the Galilean villagers and dislocated urban poor of the first century C.E. Paul Hollenbach notes,
“it was probably the very appearance of the cultural disruptions of the Hellenistic period that brought the demon symbolism into common parlance, beginning with the third century B.C.E. These included political and economic domination and exploitation and, particularly, the threatened erosion of long held traditional customs and beliefs.”6
These effects of domination and subjugation were what the author of Isaiah 53, writing at a time of exile under Babylon, experienced and understood, and this is what the people of Matthew’s community, who are exiles in their own land under the Roman Empire, know all too well. Jesus’ activity, however, show a God who is about bringing healing and restoration to a people on the underside. Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah 53:4, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” portray Jesus as operating in the paradigm of the Servant who is to bring liberation and restoration to “the survivors of Israel” and light to the other peoples (Isa 49:6). Jesus identifies with the people in their suffering, and he shows a way of liberation and restoration and in this way, he participates in the vocation of the Servant of Isaiah. And it is a vocation which we are invited to participate in too.
- Where do you see the effects of domination and subjugation in your world today?
- Take a moment to consider how God might be prompting you to participate in the vocation of healing and restoration. Share with a partner or the group.
- Pray for one another and the world.
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
5. Warren Carter, Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations (Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 2001), 80.
6. Paul W. Hollenbach, “Jesus, Demoniacs, and Public Authorities: A Socio-Historical Study.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 49 no. 4 (Dec 1981): 567-588.
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of gratitude together, giving thanks for the ways you’ve experienced God’s loving kindness.
This week’s Common Value: Covenanted Community
Read: Acts 2:42-47
- In what ways are you encouraged and challenged in living in covenanted community this week?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer