Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The True Ruler of Israel

As they were going away, behold! a demon-oppressed man who was deaf-mute was brought to him. And when the demon had been cast out, the deaf-mute man spoke. And the crowds marveled, saying, "Never was anything like this seen in Israel."  But the Pharisees said, "He casts out demons by the prince of demons."  (Matt. 9:32-34)

Finally, we have arrived at miracle number ten, the final miracle in the long list which began in chapter eight. And from the looks of things, Matthew doesn't seem to dwell upon this final miracle too long, which means that at first glance, we might be tempted to think that there isn't much to be said about it. But in actuality, there is a lot which can be gleaned from this final miraculous narrative, especially when we compare it with the previous nine miracles.

Perhaps the first noteworthy aspect of this miraculous story is how Matthew first grabs our attention with another alarming "behold!"  This definitely isn't the first time Matthew has said this, and it certainly won't be the last time he says it in his gospel. But it is intentionally inserted into the narrative to get our attention. After our attention is grabbed, we expect something noteworthy, perhaps even something alarming or surprising to occur. And what we find in this brief narrative is actually the opposite. What we find is something extremely ordinary. What we find is another person being brought to Jesus for healing.

If we've been paying attention to the larger narrative of chapters eight and nine as whole unit, it shouldn't surprise us to find one more person who needs healing. What then is so noteworthy about this tenth miracle?  

Well, as I suggested in the last post (or perhaps I should say, as Matthew suggested in the last miracle story), Jesus is finally being portrayed as one who is burdened for Israel. In the last miracle story Jesus has been followed a long way back to Matthew's own house by two blind men, and after they enter the house we find, for the first time, Jesus questioning someone's faith. He asked them, "Do you believe I am able to do this?" They affirmed their belief in his ability and Jesus healed them. Then Jesus "sternly warned" them not to let anyone know that he healed them (9:30). But in their excitement -- and it's very easy to empathize with their excitement -- they go and "spread his fame through all that district" (9:31). It was "as they were going away" -- the blind men leaving to spread Jesus' fame -- that "behold! a demon-oppressed man who was deaf-mute was brought to him" (9:32). In this context, it's not terribly difficult to empathize with Jesus either.  Jesus just "sternly warned" the two blind men to keep their mouths shut about him because the burden he has already been bearing for Israel is great and heavy, and if that burden is going to increase he's going to need some rest, and even some more help from his disciples. But the two blind men go and spread his fame anyway! They're too excited by their new eyesight that they don't care about Jesus' stern warning. All they can think about is the fact that Jesus healed them. And so, the picture which Matthew is painting at the beginning of this tenth miracle seems to be a never-ending and constantly increasing burden for Jesus to bear. One more "demon-oppressed man who was deaf-mute" was just the cherry on top. 

Because this final miracle story is like the "cherry on top," I find it peculiarly odd that so few details about this miracle are actually described by Matthew. In fact, so little of the miracle is actually mentioned that it can't possibly be the faith of the deaf-mute man or his friends that are being highlighted in this story. Instead, what Matthew seems to be doing is highlighting the faith of the crowds and comparing their increasing faith in Jesus with the decreasing faith of Israel's leaders.  In case there is any doubt about this, let's look closer at the details of Matthew's story.

The explicit mention of someone being "brought to" Jesus is our first clue. This should remind us of the last and only other time this has happened elsewhere within chapters eight and nine. The last and only time this happened was when the paralyzed man was brought to Jesus by his friends, and Jesus spoke words of great comfort to him which, consequently, sparked a controversy between Jesus and the Scribes who were listening in on the conversation (Matt. 9:1-3). 

As we reflect upon that story, we might expect something similar to happen here with the deaf-mute man as well. Right at the point where we might expect Jesus to say something comforting to the deaf-mute man (like he did with the paralyzed man), we don't find Jesus saying anything. Even if we were merely expecting to learn about the faith of the demon-oppressed man or his friends, we don't find that either. All Matthew tells us is that when the man was healed, he spoke. It is only after this that we learn the main purpose of mentioning the tenth miracle at all. After the deaf-mute man spoke, we learn that "the crowds marveled" while the Pharisees ridiculed Jesus. Clearly, the contrast of faith between the crowds and Pharisees is Matthew's primary concern in this final narrative. Just as the story about the paralyzed man was not really about the faith of the man himself or his friends, but rather a commentary upon the blasphemous faith of the Scribes, that too is a similar attribute of this last miracle. Here in this last miracle, where we might expect to learn about the faith of the one healed, we find a commentary upon the blasphemous faith of the Pharisees instead. 

But notice again that the crowds are said to have "marveled." In the original Greek text, the word for marveled is thaumazo. This isn't the first time someone in Matthew's gospel has marveled (thaumazo). When Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee, his disciples "marveled (thaumazo), saying 'What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?'" (8:27). The individual disciples had marveled because they had never seen anything like that in all their lives. 

But there's another account of marveling which Matthew is more likely to be echoing when he mentions the crowds marveling. Back in the beginning of chapter eight where we find the first triad of miracles (8:1-17), we find a Gentile Centurion whose faith is so great it makes Jesus marvel (8:5-13). Notice carefully what Jesus says about the faith of that Gentile:

When Jesus heard [the faith of the Centurion], he marveled and said to those who followed him, "Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith!"  (Matt. 8:10)
Sound familiar? It should. It should because in this very last miracle of chapter nine -- immediately after the deaf-mute man is healed -- we find the crowds also marveling and saying: "Never was anything like this seen in Israel."  When Jesus marveled, it was because the faith of a Gentile ruler was greater than Israel's own rulers, the Scribes and Pharisees. Here at the end of all ten miraculous stories we find the crowds marveling, the implication of which is that they seem to be siding with Jesus and not with the established rulers of Israel, the Scribes and Pharisees. Matthew makes this contrast even more explicit by mentioning what the attitude of the Pharisees has been all this while. Notice the translation of the ESV in the following verse:
But the Pharisees said, "He casts out demons by the prince of demons."
In the ESV translation we find a simple past tense, whereas in the original Greek text Matthew seems to be expressing more than just a simple past tense. In Greek, Matthew uses the imperfect verb tense (which always refers to the past), but he does so in contrast with the timing of what the Pharisees said. In other words, the crowds marveled, "saying" (present tense), "Never was anything like this seen in Israel"; whereas the Pharisees "said" (imperfect tense), "He casts out demons by the prince of demons." Matthew's use of the imperfect tense is likely expressing what the Pharisees had been saying about Jesus all along. The Pharisees had been saying, "He casts out demons by the prince of demons." 

The ESV seems to have made another translational oversight in this verse which doesn't help the reader pick up on Matthew's literary design as easily. Notice carefully what the Pharisees had been saying about Jesus all along. They had been accusing him of casting out demons by the prince (archon) of demons.  The last time this word archon (i.e. "prince") was mentioned was at the beginning of this last triad of miracles, within Matthew's house. As you may recall, Jesus was feasting within Matthew's house when he was suddenly interrupted by a Jewish "ruler." In Greek, the word translated as "ruler" is this same Greek word, archon. It was the house of the Jewish ruler (archon) that Jesus traveled to after leaving the feast in Matthew's house. It was at the house of the ruler (archon) that Jesus raised a dead daughter of Israel to life again. It was at the house of the ruler (archon) where Jesus found a faith among the "flute players" which ridiculed him. It was the house of the ruler (archon) which Jesus left as the two blind men followed him back to Matthew's house. And now, back within the confines of Matthew's house where Jesus heals a deaf-mute man, we learn that the leaders of Israel have been conjuring up accusations against Jesus all along, accusations of conspiring with the "prince" (archon) of demons. 

There is great irony concerning these false accusations of the Pharisees too. The kind of faith which the one Jewish ruler understands as he kneels before Jesus, the Pharisees don't understand at all. What the two blind men see as they follow Jesus, the Pharisees can't see. What the deaf-mute hear and proclaim and the crowds marvel about, the Pharisees reject as a matter of faith. The Pharisees won't bow the knee to Jesus or marvel at his words or works because they're spiritually dumb. Their lack of faith is something to truly marvel about. 

Matthew is showing us that in the days of Jesus' ministry, Israel is really given two choices. They could worship God by following Jesus or they could continue to trust in the established leadership of Israel. Israel is in a state of wilderness wandering, and the people are becoming increasingly aware that the established leadership of Israel is the problem, not the solution. Jesus has "compassion for them" because the people of Israel "were being harassed1 and helpless like sheep without a shepherd" (Matt. 9:36).  Therefore we shouldn't be surprised to find a choice between two types of disciples. Keep in mind that between each triad of miracles within chapters eight and nine, Matthew inserts a narrative interlude describing two types of disciples. Here in the end of the chapter nine, Matthew concludes by giving his readers the impression that these two types of disciples are even more obvious now than they were before. In Israel, there are those who marvel at the authority of Jesus and those who ridicule his authority. The crowds who once questioned his authority now marvel, whereas the Scribes & Pharisees have their own disciples who continue to ridicule Jesus. Clearly the leadership of Israel is losing respect in the eyes of the people of Israel. While the Scribes and Pharisees ridicule Jesus, the crowds are becoming increasingly persuaded that Jesus is exactly who he claims to be: the true archon of Israel. 

1.  In Greek, the verb for "harassed" is in the perfect tense, signifying not only that they were harassed once-upon-a-time, but also that they were being harassed regularly.

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