Main Themes in Matthew 8-12

Matthew 4:23-25 and 9:35 form an inclusio, a frame around the Sermon on the Mount (ch. 5-7) and the authority/miracle stories (ch. 8-9), forming a major unit in the Gospel of Matthew. (Click here for an index of all Sermon on the Mount posts.) At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the people are amazed because Jesus teaches with authority. In Matthew 9:35, they are amazed at Jesus because he does things with authority.

After collecting Jesus’s teaching on the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew collects ten miracles (nine healings) to demonstrate that Jesus is the Servant from Isaiah 53:4. In the Septuagint the servant “carries our sins and suffers pain for us, and we regarded him as one who is in difficulty, misfortune, and affliction” (LES2). These themes are clear in Matthew 8-9, Jesus heals people who are on the fringes of society because their illnesses are associated with uncleanliness and sin. Similar to the blindman in John 9, someone might have asked what the leprous man did to deserve such a painful punishment. Jesus disconnects sin and illness in these stories. This is clear in Matthew 9:1-8 when Jesus forgives a man’s sin without healing him first; the teachers of the Law consider this blasphemous since only God can forgive sin and false because the man was still paralyzed.

Interspersed into this collection of miracle stories are sayings of Jesus and reactions from crowds, the disciples, teachers of the law and Pharisees. In most cases, people who should not understand who Jesus do (a centurion, 8:9-9; demons 8:28; tax-collectors, 9:9-13; blind men, 9:27). Those who should recognize his healings as signs the messianic age has come do not understand Jesus (anyone in Israel, 8:10-12; the disciples, 8:23-27; teachers of the law, 9:3; John the Baptist’s disciples, 9:14; Pharisees, 9:34).

These reactions to Jesus anticipate a series of conflict stories that follow in Matthew 10-12. People begin to react to Jesus as the Messiah in various ways, but the climax ins the Pharisees rejecting Jesus and declare he is working his miracles under the power of Beelzebub. Jesus says this rejection is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, a sin that will not be forgiven int his age or the age to come (Matt 12:32). Matthew 12 ends with Jesus’s family asking to speak with him (12:46-50). In Mark 3:20-21 his family wants to take him home because they think he has lost his mind, although that detail is omitted in Matthew 12.

For example, in this first section of Matthew 8-9, a leper, a gentile, and a woman with a fever, people who are unclean with respect to ritual purity under the Law, are healed. Jesus touches a leper, speaks with a Gentile, and touches a woman. All three actions would render Jesus unclean by the standards of the Pharisees, who lived as much as possible in a state of perpetual ritual purity.

Just as the Sermon on the Mount subverts expectations about the Law and how one lives out their lives as Jews in the Second Temple Period, Jesus will challenge the beliefs of other teachers (especially the Pharisees) with respect to discipleship (who can be a follower of Jesus looks much different than who can be a follower of the Pharisees!) He declares that “many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” while the “sons of the kingdom” will be thrown in the outer darkness where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Those who think they belong in the kingdom of Heaven (sitting at the head table with Abraham) will not enter the kingdom at all, while those who should not be in the kingdom (lepers, Gentiles and a women with a suspicious disease) will not only get in, but they will be the honored guests!

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