While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, “Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And the report of this spread throughout that district.
Matthew 9:18-26 (NRSV)
In this story sandwich from Matthew, both the bread and the filler center around a common theme: the faith of the sufferer leads to deliverance.
Matthew has a large number of stories like this. Someone is sick (or has a dead relative), but because of their implicit belief that Jesus can save them, they are made well or their loved one is restored to them. Why are these stories so important to Matthew?
In one sense, miracle stories are part and parcel of how you tell the story of a heroic figure in the ancient world. Cassius Dio, for instance, in telling the history of the Roman emperor Vespasian records stories of him being able to heal. Philostratus the Elder tells us the biography of Apollonius of Tyana and gives many miracle-working stories reasonably similar to some of the gospel stories of Jesus. If Matthew’s intent is to illustrate how powerful or unique or terrific Jesus is, it might be easy to just write these off as early historiographical practices and not think twice about them, or at the most acknowledge that it’s pretty special to be able to do things like that.
But for the Gospel writers in general and Matthew in specific, the miracles are signposts to Jesus being the hoped for Messiah. Jesus is about the work of liberating Israel and bringing the kingdom of God to fruition around himself. The sick are healed. The dead are raised. Sins are forgiven on earth by the Son of Man. These are all eschatological realities hoped for by the prophets on the day that God will overthrow Israel’s oppressors, forgive her sins, and restore her covenant and her fortunes.
Later in Matthew, an imprisoned John the Baptist will begin to lose heart that this day has come and will ask Jesus (by messenger) if he is the Messiah or if they should look for someone else. Jesus does not respond with elaborate portrayals of how his birth fulfills prophecy or anything like that. Instead, he responds this way:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Matthew 11:4-6 (NRSV)
That is Jesus’ proof that he is the Messiah that a John the Baptist who is awaiting his own execution should take hope in. The healings, the resurrections, the cleansings, and the good news for the poor.
In these stories, Matthew shows us that when people hear about Jesus and believe him, they receive (supernaturally, no less) the promises of the age the Messiah is supposed to usher in. Every healing Jesus does is apocalyptic. Every paralytic who can walk or every blind man who can see is an invasion of the kingdom of God into another dominion. It is a sign that deliverance has come in Jesus, and the prophetic expectations for Israel who has suffered so long are about to be fulfilled. Their sins will be forgiven and the curse will be lifted. These are concrete, historical realities that Israel is looking forward to, and Jesus delivers (no pun intended) on this expectation with healings and resurrections.
The point for Matthew’s readers is clear: it is this implicit faith in Jesus that will save you, and here’s the proof – not only the healings themselves, but the sign that Jesus is the Messiah we have hoped for and his reign is now.
We are long past that time in Israel’s history, but Jesus is still king and there is still a promised renewal of creation. We hear stories of miraculous healings, or perhaps you have witnessed one, or perhaps you have even experienced one. Perhaps these things continue to testify to this state of affairs. As the Church, we have to figure out what such a thing means for us and interpret it when it happens. I don’t know that we should assume such things should be happening regularly, and even less do I think that a lack of them represents a lack of faith.
But Matthew’s story challenges us to believe what God has done in Jesus Christ. It is by hearing this and believing it that we join in with God’s faithful people, become part of their project, enjoy their relationship with God, and share in their destiny in the ups and the downs but always with God’s promise. Do we believe Jesus was the promised Messiah? Do we believe the news of what God has done in him?
And beyond that, do we believe God is still keeping His promise? Do we believe a new world is possible, and are we working to bring that into realization around us? Supernaturally or not, every blow we strike against death, disease, and brokenness is a testimony in flesh and blood to our confession that Jesus is our Lord and God keeps His promises. Although the context may be different, we should be about the business of world renewal.
- Have you heard stories about, witnessed, or experienced a healing that is difficult to explain? What did that mean to you? What effect did that have on your faith?
- What are the ways in your own tiny piece of the world that could you be about restoring it?