Preached January 30, 2011
St. Matthew 8:1–13
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we see the continuing revelation of the glory of God in His Son Christ Jesus our Lord as the great healer of the sick, both those sick in body and in sin. The Epiphany season presents a series of miracles, but we need to understand that they are not simply for our entertainment, but rather to teach us about God. We are not simply to be amused by what we see, but we should be increasing in our understanding of the nature and power and glory of the Lord.
A miracle is, of course, a sign, a wonder, and a source of awe for us. The healing miracles are wonders because they show God acting outside of our understanding, exercising His power over nature to change the course of nature directly. In each case, Christ speaks, and Christ acts. The two are always coupled, so that it is the word in action that performs the miracle in each case.
Let us look now at the two miracles in today’s lesson in some detail because they are each quite distinct. The whole thing follows the great teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount, and begins with Matthew 8:1 When he was come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him.
Jesus is approached by a leper, a fellow Jew, but one afflicted with the disease of leprosy and thus an outcast from the nation of Israel. Lepers were still recognized as part of the chosen people, but because of their contagion, they were no longer accepted within the nation itself and were forced to wander in the wilderness, giving warning whenever they approached. Matthew8:2 And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. The leper expresses complete certainty about the power of Christ, but also indicates considerable uncertainty about his own status when he says if thou wilt. This all springs from his uncertain position within Israel, but Jesus responds with Matthew 8:3 And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. He is immediately reassured by the fact that Jesus reached out to touch him, an indication that he is accepted by Jesus even before he hears the words that cure him. Then Jesus speaks the words of healing power that remove the man’s leprosy, making him clean immediately.
This healing occurred within the confines of the Judaism, so that Christ next sends the healed leper to the priest in accordance with Jewish Law, Matthew 8:4 And Jesus saith unto him, See thou tell no man; but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them. Whatever Christ begins under the Law for the Jewish people, He completes under the Law for them that they may see that He is the complete fulfillment of the Law.
There is evidently some small time lapse before the next miracle as our text says Matthew 8:5 And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, Thus Jesus has continued on his journey to the point of arriving at Capernaum when the centurion comes to Him. This centurion is probably from the Roman garrison at Capernaum, and would have been by birth a heathen. He like another of the same rank in Acts 10:1, like the eunuch under the Candace in Acts 8:27, like Lydia in Acts 16:14 and others were all feeling the emptiness of their polytheistic religions, and had come to attach themselves in some degree to the nation of Israel. Thus they had come to worship the one true God of Israel and finding there some of the answers for their souls. He is one among the many who are distinguished from the seed of Abraham, and are described as “fearing God,” or as “worshipping God.” These are the proselytes that the providence of God had prepared in all of the great Greek and Roman cities that would later serve as the link between Jews and Gentiles as the Christian Church began.
Such a man as the centurion would have learned from his interaction with the Jews that all Gentiles, anyone not of the Chosen People, would have to keep their distance, they could not get too close to God. The Temple in Jerusalem had an outer courtyard known as the Court of the Gentiles specifically to keep them in their place with respect to the God of Israel.
When the centurion approaches, we have a very simple, direct exchange: Matthew 8:6-7 And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. The centurion states the facts of the situation which really includes an implied request for help, and Jesus right away says that He will come and heal the sick man. But that is when it gets interesting!
Matthew 8:8-9 The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. Look at the first words out of the centurion’s mouth, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof. The centurion’s own sense of unworthiness, his sense of sin, his sense of inadequacy to host the Lord of the universe in his home — it is much more than just that we did not get the floors swept this morning. He is aware of who Jesus is, and who he is, and he realizes his own total unworthiness. It is simply ridiculous that the Son of God should be running an errand for someone so insignificant — so insignificant as any of us!
But he goes on to explain in the only terms that are familiar to him, military terms. He talks about the command structure of the Roman army, who gives orders and who executes those orders. But the key element is, but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. He understands the power of the word of command when it is backed up by real authority, and he recognizes that Jesus Christ is AUTHORITY.
Matthew 8:10 When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. Notice the very human side of Christ revealed at this point: he marvelled. For those who are always focused on the divinity of Christ, take note. The divine nature would not have been surprised at all, but it is the human nature that marvels. This is a profound warning to the Jewish readers to whom St. Matthew was primarily writing that others might supplant the Jews in salvation. This is because the ultimate key to salvation is faith, not in having Abraham as their forefather. This is carried further in the next verse, Matthew 8:11 And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. It is quite clear that He is saying that the Jews will not be excluded from salvation, but rather that they will share it with all the rest of humanity from the four corners of the earth. This, of course, is not an idea that goes down very well with the Jews even to this day. The next verse warns that many Jews will ultimately be damned because they will finally reject salvation, but that is certainly between them and God; we have no role there but to pray for their conversion.
Matthew 8:13 And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour. Jesus sends the centurion on his way with this benediction, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. Because the centurion had faith, he received everything he wanted. Had he not had faith, he would have received nothing at all. There is definitely power in the words of Jesus Christ, but He often chooses to make He miracles contingent upon us, upon our faith. Thus, in a sense, we take part in the miracles of Christ. I think you will find that is true. Miracles do not happen to those who do not believe, but they do happen, at times, for those who do believe.
In these two miracles we have seen Jesus work both within the community of Israel and outside the bounds of Israel. We have seen in both cases the power of the words of Christ followed by His action. And in both cases, the faith of the recipient of the miracle is evident. Thus we can understand that He is come not to the Jews only, but to all men, despite the fact that His public ministry appears to be almost entirely to the Jews. We must always remember that the miracles are primarily to show the nature and power of God through His Son Jesus Christ. Let us continue to be looking for miracles in our present day.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.