Matthew 9:9-34, Grace for Those Lost in Sin

[May 20, 2012] We come now to the third cycle of stories that precede and prepare us for the “Missionary Discourse” in chapter 10. The Sermon on the Mount was the first lengthy discourse in the Gospel according to Matthew. The Missionary Discourse is the second. The Seven Parables in chapter 13 will be the third. Each discourse is preceded by a narrative subsection that introduces the discourse and of which the discourse in some way is the conclusion. Chapters 8—9 relate a series of incidents, most of which tell of a healing, exorcism or other work of power, such as calming the storm at sea, and all of which convey a point of instruction. They are also parabolic or analogical of the dispensation—distribution, administration, or economy—of grace ushered in by the Gospel, that is, by the coming of Jesus. As such, they are arranged in three cycles, each of which begins with the present grace to Jew and Gentile in the church and move on to the fulfillment of the hope of Israel and the consequent blessing of the nations at the coming again of our Lord Jesus.

In the entire ancient world—east and west—people’s thinking was more associative than logical. People saw analogies and metaphors in everything and often drew conclusions based on such comparative analyses rather than on the cause and effect thinking of modern times. Once need only think, for example, of Ayurveda or Medical Qigong. This applies just as well to the reading and writing of texts. The prophets and psalmists often spoke of contemporary events in analogy with the events related in the Torah. This becomes clearer in the New Testament—since the writings preserved by the scribes (what became pretty much our Old Testament) had become fairly stable by that time. Jesus and the apostles easily and constantly refer to images in the Old Testament as analogies of the truths they wanted to convey. The apostles and evangelists also wrote this way, coloring their stories with allusions and implicit comparisons to figures, events and images in the Old Testament. This way of reading and writing was so natural to the ancients that they often did it unconsciously. To discover analogies in the stories that we are considering now is not as farfetched as most modern readers might assume. Modern readers, in their approach to texts, tend to be far more literal than their predecessors.

On the other hand, a modern reader will probably be aware of subjective and causal connections in the text—often of a psychological or social nature—that ancient readers sometimes overlook and that may have gotten into the narrative without the writer’s deliberate or conscious intention.

It seems to me legitimate for the interpretation of texts to take on both approaches as a way of accessing the underlying meaning that was intended, not just by the individual writer but by the community that he or she sought to represent, and in fact represented often unconsciously. We also believe that behind the existence of this particular community and what gives the writer their authority as a witness is the spiritual revelation of who Jesus Christ is. The reality of Jesus was revealed in their spirit and is conveyed through their personalities in their communication with each other. In the case of the Biblical texts, the authors are intentionally trying to convey this revelation to others. It is the best hermeneutical approach, in my belief, to seek out this revelation, to dig it up out of the texts, until it becomes that which we see when we hear the texts, and all the other considerations no longer distract from this goal but instead contribute to it. This approach is legitimate if the presupposition is true that the author has the kind of authority as a witness that we are ascribing to him or her.

The Calling of Sinners (Matthew 9:9-17)

The present cycle in 9:9-34 consists of several pieces. In the first, Jesus calls a tax collector, a notorious sinner, who then follows Jesus. He throws a feast and invites his fellow sinners, Jesus and Jesus’ disciples, and they commune together—to the offense of the Pharisees. Next the disciples of John the Baptist question Jesus about why His disciples do not fast, and Jesus speaks of the presence of the eschatological Bridegroom, and then tells a parable about what happens when you mix new and old cloth (new cloth will shrink and pull away from the old), or mismatch old and new wine with old and new wineskins (new wine will ferment and burst old leather bottles).

Several things are going on here, but it is also clear that all of this is connected. Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees who question Him, after He tells them that He is the Physician of sinners, is that “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” The language of “I came not” says that He has a special mission or purpose, and could imply His being sent. To the believing auditor of the gospel, it refers to His anointing—His messianic mission (as the Christ)—and even to His being the Son (come from the Father). The disciples of John question Jesus about fasting when they see Jesus and His disciples feasting with sinners. Jesus says that He is the Bridegroom—implying something new is going on here. Obviously His being the Physician, the Messianic Son and the Bridegroom are the thing that is utterly new that is breaking in on the succession of history. That would be surprising enough to the people of the first century (we unfortunately take it for granted; but Jesus’ words are audacious: we ought to try to recapture some of their surprise). But what is also surprising is the mode of His coming. He comes feasting with sinners. They—the sinners—are celebrating His coming and His attention and companionship, and that He has called one of them—perhaps all of them—to follow Him. What a privilege! They can hardly believe it, and so they must feast and celebrate. What this describes is the church.

Try to imagine this: a Galilean town in the time of Jesus, a Jewish town, not one of the Greek towns. Most people are pious, observing the Torah. A few people, the “sinners,” do not. We might compare it to a town in Puritan New England. The sinners are not necessarily what we would consider “bad” people, though some of them are (like the tax collectors). They just are not “religious” in the acceptable sense. The Messiah comes and, while He calls “ordinary” folk, He also wines and dines with these sinners, and calls them to follow Him. He even gives consideration to Gentiles, like the centurion of the occupying Romans (even offering to go into his home), which would be mighty cosmopolitan of Him, considering the probable provincialism of small town Galileans who more than likely did not travel and who only dealt with Gentiles in business transactions. I might be overstating the case, for the Galileans might not have been all that provincial, since trade routes passed through their land and they regularly—three times a year in fact—made the trip to “metropolitan” Jerusalem, the destiny of many international travelers, and did business with neighboring Gentile towns. Still, the Galileans were a conservative folk, more so than the Judeans (even if the Judeans did not give them this credit), and Jesus’ behavior was shocking.

Now consider when the church began to spread into foreign lands. In the nearer Mediterranean cities and the larger ports further west there were always the good folks in the synagogues, even if they could not speak the language of Israel. They still felt very connected to the Land. There were even Gentile converts to Judaism, men who underwent the rite of circumcision and their families, and independent women. There were also unconverted Gentiles who attended the synagogues (called ‘God-fearers”). They still paid their respect to family and civic gods, but they honored the God of Israel and listened to the Scripture readings and the teaching. (But you would never go into their unclean homes and eat with them without knowing that you would also be defiled and have to go through purification rites and a period of isolation afterwards.) Israel was to be a light to the nations, and so it was. But the folks who believed that Jesus is the Messiah we have all been waiting for, they not only shared this good news with the Jews and Gentile converts and with the God-fearing Gentiles who attended the synagogue, but they even shared this news with the idol-worshiping pagans who knew nothing of the God of Israel. Not only did they share this news with them, but they went into their homes and ate and drank with them; and when these pagans received the good news that the Messiah was also calling them to Himself, the Messianic Jews treated them as equals—without their even converting to Judaism! All they did was come to Jesus, bypassing Moses (though they were required to give up idolatry), and these Messianic Jews treated the pagans as if they were one of them. It was incredible, and it was offensive.

The Messiah needed a new garment to sew His new “patches”; He needed a new wineskin to put this new wine. It is not that He was rejecting the old garment or the old wineskin; it was just that it was not capable on its own of handling this kind of change. There needed to be something new: a new garment, a new wineskin, in addition to the old, something that can handle Gentiles coming to the Messiah of Israel. For the Messiah as foretold by Isaiah calls to Himself the Gentiles as such, without requiring that they first become Jews. Both the Jews and the Gentiles who come to Him come on the basis of His gratuitous call, nothing else. The new garment and wineskin is the church. The Jewish believers in Jesus, and indeed the Gentile God-fearers, were expected to continue attending the synagogue—though the days of the Temple would soon be over—but they were not to forsake their own assembling together as the Messiah’s own people, for not all Israel would believe or accept Him as the Messiah. And perhaps the days would come—Jesus predicted as much—when they would no longer be welcomed in the common synagogue, and Israel and the church would have to go their separate—though parallel—ways, until His coming again.

The new wineskins, the church in which Jews sat at meal in a fellowship of equals with sinners and Gentiles and celebrated the love of God and the grace of the Lord Jesus in the communion of the Holy Spirit, was like the Tabernacle of David, in which the Ark of the Covenant was housed while the Tabernacle of Moses with its services of worship remained in Shiloh: the church and the synagogue. David organized choirs to celebrate and worship before the Ark of the Covenant. The church, more than anything else, needs to celebrate the Gospel—the coming of Jesus and the attention that Jesus has paid to them in redeeming and calling them, reconciling them to God, and beginning the work of salvation in them.

One day Solomon would build a Temple where the Tabernacle of David and the Tabernacle of Moses would come together again in one House: Israel and the church would be united in the Messiah. That day is not now, but when the revelation of Jesus the Messiah is manifested, it will happen. The next few stories in this chapter of Matthew’s gospel allude to this by analogy.

The Ruler of the Synagogue’s Daughter and the Hemorrhaging Woman (9:18-26)

Here the ruler of the synagogue’s (twelve-year-old daughter) and a woman suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years are both restored, and their stories are intertwined. In the one case, the synagogue ruler appeals to Jesus to raise his dead daughter and Jesus sets out on His way but does not raise the daughter from afar. In the other case, it is while Jesus is en route to the house of the ruler of the synagogue that the hemorrhaging woman is healed. By the time Jesus arrives at the house of the ruler of the synagogue, the people are in mourning, but Jesus refuses to acknowledge that the child is dead. She is only sleeping, He says. Then He takes her by the hand and raises her up, and the report spreads across the land.

The ruler of the synagogue represents all those Jews like Simeon in Luke 2:25 who was “righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel,” or like Anna (Hannah) in Luke 2:38 who was “waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” The daughter alludes to the “Daughter of Zion,” the people of Israel. They longed, in other words, for the promise of God spoken of by the prophets. The promise (the “consolation of Israel,” see Isaiah 40:1) refers to the coming of the Messiah, the restoration of Israel to the Land, the blessing and elevation of the people, and their becoming the heart of the Gentile nations who in that day will come to worship the God of Israel. Israel to this day prays for the coming of the Messiah to heal (or raise) their “daughter,” the Daughter of Zion who is mourning while in exile from her homeland. Though a portion of Israel may be in their homeland, that land does not yet have the blessing of God on it (though when the Messiah comes, it will, when He gathers all Israel to it, Matthew 24:31).

The ruler of the synagogue represents not only the Jews of the synagogue but Jewish Christians as well, who also long for the coming (again) of the Messiah for the sake of Israel. The apostle Paul swore concerning his own “great grief and unceasing pain in my heart … for my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, whose are the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Torah and the priestly service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and out of whom is the Messiah” (Romans 9:1-5). I believe, however, that Christians need to acknowledge that the Jews of the synagogue also continually have this longing. It is not a different longing, however different its expression, for in both church and synagogue it is inspired by the same Holy Spirit.

Jesus is abroad (Matthew 25:15), and has for a long time been on His way back—for Israel (as well as for the church). By the time He arrives, people will be saying that the (dying) Daughter of Zion has died. She is nothing but a valley of dry bones. But Jesus will take her by His hand—this refers to His physical bodily presence to them, as in the days of His humiliation, though now it is in glory—and He will raise her up. Israel will mourn for their unfaithfulness and will say to Him, Welcome, in those words: “Blessèd is He who comes in the name of THE LORD” (Matthew 23:39). In that day the whole world will know that THE LORD is God.

Just as the number twelve is particularly associated with Israel in the case of the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue (Matthew, however, does not give her age, but see Luke 8:42 Mark 5:42), so also in the case of the woman suffering from the hemorrhage. She too represents the Daughter of Zion, but she is not so young, and her soul (“the soul is in the blood”) has been bleeding away for long centuries. She, however, recognizes Jesus as He is en route. Not only does she know that He can heal her (He is the Savior) but she recognizes His piety as the Faithful One of Israel, for she touches the tassels on the hem of His garment. She decides she does not have to wait until He touches her; she can touch Him. She can touch Him while He is en route to raise the “Daughter of Zion.” When she does, she is healed. “Take courage,” Jesus says to her, for courage is what she will need, “your faith has healed you.” Not her faith as a psychological descriptor, but her faith in the God of Israel, and her faith in Jesus as the Savior. By so doing, she anticipates the future faith of Israel; she is an Israelite who believes in the Messiah before His coming in glory (Ephesians 1:12).

Like the leper in chapter 8, she can make Jesus unclean on contact by her own uncleanness. Yet she touches Him boldly, knowing—believing—that by doing so she will be clean. Our faith also ought to have this active and bold quality to it. We do not have to wait to take hold of Jesus, to receive what is in Him for us. There is much in Himself that He can and wants to give us now before the resurrection the dead. He even wants to give us an anticipatory taste of the resurrection—in our spirits, souls and bodies (see Romans 8:11)—and does through the Holy Spirit within us.

This woman, then, represents all the Jews who believe in Jesus as the Messiah in the present time, while the Messiah is en route, before His coming again. She is the Jewish Christian (though the term “Christian” originally referred to the Gentile believer in the Messiah of Israel; it was a Latinized legal term)—or rather believer in Christ—within the church.

Jesus goes to the house of Israel, meaning the Land, and raises the Daughter of Zion. Israel is given a heart of flesh to replace its heart of stone.

The Two Blind Men and the Dumb Man (9:27-31, 32-34)

Likewise, when the two blind men cry out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” they represent the blindness of Israel (for Paul says, “whenever Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart,” 2 Corinthians 3:15). Jesus again enters the house, meaning the Land of Israel, and—like the hemorrhaging woman—opens their eyes “according to your faith.” This means that their spiritual blindness is cured and with unveiled face, they behold the glory of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18). A new heart is followed by new eyes.

Following this, Jesus casts a demon out of a dumb man, symbolizing the loosing of Israel’s tongue to proclaim to the Gentiles the ways of the Lord. “Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.” This mention of Israel again alludes, like the two blind men in the house, to this happening in the Land to which the Twelve Tribes have been restored.

The Pharisees, who questioned Jesus when He forgave the sins of the paralytic and thought Him blasphemous, and were shocked by Jesus’ keeping company with sinners, go a step further and accuse Jesus of liberating people from Satan by the power of Satan, the ruler of the demons. This escalation serves a dramatic purpose, preparing us for the more serious opposition that erupts in chapter 12. The crowds, we are told, “marveled, saying, ‘Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.’ But the Pharisees said …” They reacted quite otherwise. Matthew sets up a contrast between the crowds, who admire Jesus because He awes and serves them but are still ambivalent about His message, and the Pharisees who try to poison their minds against Jesus.

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