A Leper, a Gentile, and a Woman
Chapter 8 begins a new section in the Book of Matthew. Matthew’s gospel is arranged around five sermons of Christ. Around each sermon are stories that illustrate what Christ taught in those sermons. We just finished the first sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. Now we are given a series of miracle accounts illustrating what was taught in that sermon.
When we compare Matthew 8 to the other gospels, we see that Matthew brings together three miracles accounts that occurred at different times. Matthew puts them together because he wants you to see the similar themes in these three miracles.
The common theme in these miracle accounts is that Jesus is not the kind of Messiah Israel expected. At this time, the Jews were expecting the Messiah to usher in the physical kingdom of God. The Jewish literature of the day described in great detail what this coming kingdom would look like. The Messiah would come in power and smite the Gentiles, gather the Jews to Israel, and begin the glorious era of blessings for the Jews.
But the Jews had misread the Old Testament. Yes, the Old Testament promised that the Messiah would come and conquer our enemies, but they failed to see that the Messiah would not conquer through political means, but he would conquer Satan by redeeming a people through the gospel. These miracle accounts show that Jesus was not going to do what most of the Jews expected.
Consider the three recipients of these miracles; a leper, a Gentile, and a woman. If you were to ask the average Israelite in that day who would benefit the most in God’s coming kingdom, he would not have responded, “a leper, a Gentile, and a woman.”
In vv. 2-5, Jesus heals a leper. In the OT, the Lord desired to give the Jews an illustration of sin, so he chose the disease known as leprosy. Leprosy was an incurable skin disease that was highly contagious and extremely ugly; incurable, contagious and ugly; sounds just like sin.
Under the Old Testament Law, lepers were cast out of the camp of Israel. When a leper was travelling near Israelites, the leper was to yell, “Unclean, Unclean” to warn others to back away. Lepers were required to always cover their mouths with garments so as never to sneeze or cough into the air and spread the disease.
Now remember, in God’s plan leprosy was to illustrate the sin all people possess. When a leper was cast out of Israel’s camp, the Jews were to be reminded of Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden. Because Adam was the father of us all, we are all lepers in God’s sight. The 19th century poet Tennyson understood the point when he wrote; “A moral leper, I, to whom none spoke.”
Unfortunately, most of the Israelites missed the whole point of the leprosy illustration. Instead of seeing leprosy as a picture of their sin before God, the Rabbis taught that certain people contracted leprosy because of particular sins they had committed.
As a result, the Jews considered lepers cursed of God, but they did not consider themselves cursed of God. In their minds, the leper illustration did not apply to them. If they had understood the illustration, they would have had compassion on lepers, for they were no better.
As a result of their pride the Israelites made life very difficult for lepers. For example, some rabbis boasted that they threw stones at lepers when lepers passed by. Rabbis even made laws forbidding lepers to wash their faces because lepers were to act as if they were always mourning at a funeral; their funeral. In other words, to most Israelites, lepers were already dead.
Now you can appreciate the contrast between how the Lord treated the leper, compared to the Israelites of his day. This leper heard the news that Jesus was performing miracles and preaching the kingdom of God. Would Jesus care to heal me? Could this kingdom have any room for a man like me cursed by God? When the leper came to the Lord, Jesus saw him, felt compassion for him, and healed him. This was not the type of person the Messiah was supposed to bless.
In the next miracle, Jesus heals a servant of a Roman centurion; a military leader. This centurion was a Gentile. According to Jewish expectation, the Messiah would come and punish the Gentiles. But not only does Jesus heal this Gentile’s servant, in v. 10 Jesus praises this Gentile’s faith, even above Israel’s faith! What were the Jews thinking when they heard this?
The centurion said to the Lord, “I am not worthy for you to come into my house.” According to the rabbis, Jews could not enter the homes of Gentiles, or they would be defiled. This did not offend the centurion. As a Gentile, he considered himself as an outsider. The centurion is saying, I agree with the Rabbis, I am a sinner, I do not deserve any good thing from God. Such humility was not yet found among the Israelites.
The centurion also revealed great faith in Christ’s authority. When he first heard the news of how Christ was healing diseases, he understood Jesus’ authority came from God. He considered his own authority as a centurion and came to the right conclusion. V. 9, I too am a man under authority, and when I say to those under me to do something, they do it at my word.
The centurion derived his authority from Caesar. Those under him obeyed him because Caesar stood behind him. In the same way Jesus derived his authority from God. If Jesus’ authority came from God, then Jesus just needs to speak the word and the centurion’s servant would be healed. Christ responded to his great faith and healed the centurion’s servant by his word. In the Jewish mind, Jesus was not supposed to come and bless Gentiles.
The third recipient of the miracle was a woman, Peter’s mother-in-law. In Israel, women were considered second-class citizens when it came to spiritual things. Rabbis were not allowed to talk spiritual truth with women, for women were considered too ignorant to understand.
But Jesus gives his care and attention to an elderly woman in the bedroom of Peter’s house.
So there you have it: a leper, a Gentile, and a woman. Remember the first words of the Sermon on the Mount; blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Here are three poor in spirit, and Christ comes and blesses them, challenging the expectations of the Jews.
Not only do the recipients of these miracles contrast the Jewish expectations, but also Jesus warns those with false expectations. After Christ heals the leper, he instructs him to tell no one about the miracle. That is a rather odd command. Did Jesus not come to gather a following? Why would he instruct the leper to remain quiet?
Well, we find out later that the Jews wanted Jesus to meet their selfish needs so badly that they would attempt to force him to be their king. Christ knew that most only wanted him to destroy the Romans and shower them with prosperity. The Lord was careful not to incite the passions of the crowds, so he instructed the leper to remain quiet. Again, you see that Jesus is not going to do for the Jews what they were expecting.
The second warning is even more explicit than the first. In v.v. 11&12, Jesus warns the Jews about who will be in that final kingdom of God. Many will come from the east and the west to dine with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness.
This is a shocking statement. The Jews believed that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob would rise again in the kingdom of God. Then Jews from all over the world would return and celebrate a great feast with them. There was no room for Gentiles at this feast.
But according to Jesus, the ones coming from the east and west to dine in heaven with the OT saints are you, believing Gentiles. The sons of the kingdom, referring to the unbelieving Jews, would be cast out of God’s presence, like lepers.
Finally, these three miracles challenged Jewish expectations by the Lord’s merciful and humble use of his power. The Jews expected the Messiah to use his power and authority to smite the Gentiles and force others to obey his laws.
Many people think of God only as a God of power. Islam is a religion where Allah is equated with power and forcing people into submission. As a result, societies following Allah are all about people having power over others and others bowing in submission to them.
If you primarily think of God in terms of power and authority, you will also think in terms of your own power and authority. But how does Jesus use his power and authority in these three miracles? He uses his power and authority for acts of love and mercy. The leper approached him and asked, “are you willing to make me clean?” Jesus responded, “yes, I want to make you clean.” This is how Jesus wants to use his power: to cleanse a leper. This outer healing is but a picture of how God cleanses us from sin through the gospel.
Jesus commanded the leper to show himself to the priest. Why does Jesus command this? Well, according to the Mosaic Law, the only way the leper would be accepted back into society is if a priest pronounced him cured. Jesus was using his authority to help the leper, to serve the leper.
And why did Jesus touch the leper? According to the OT Law, if you touched a leper you became unclean. So why did Jesus touch him? Look at v. 17. He came to take on our sins onto himself. In this touch you see a foretaste of the cross. On the cross Jesus would become unclean for spiritual lepers around the world. At the cross, Jesus was cast out of God’s presence as a leper so you could be accepted into his presence.
The Centurion came to Jesus and asked him to heal his servant. Jesus responded; I want to come and heal him. I am willing to step into a Gentile’s house and be criticized by all the Jews to help you.
Jesus entered a home and found a sick elderly woman. Jesus cared for her, touched her hand and healed her. As a result she becomes his disciple. She arises and waits upon him. Matthew added this fact so you would emulate this woman. Now that Jesus has come and healed you of your sin problem, you are to rise up and gladly serve the Lord.
Think about this. Jesus comes to earth with all the power and authority of God the Father at his disposal, and what does he do? He reaches out to sinners and serves them. He shows mercy to lepers and Gentiles. Christ loves to use his power and authority to show mercy and to serve; to help you; to love people.
The Jews were not the only ones who failed to understand Christ’s kingdom. The world does not understand the kingdom of Christ. They look for prosperity, we rejoice in forgiveness of sin. They seek to dominate others, we seek to serve others. They expect a god who forces obedience out of fear; we serve a God out of love for what he has done for us.
You were leprous in his sight, an outsider, and Jesus came and touched you with his gospel. Now, when you think of the spiritual lepers out there, do not think in terms of how Christ wants to punish them. Think in terms of how Christ desires to show mercy to them. The Gentile, the woman, the leper, they are all around you. Be like Christ and be kind and merciful to them.
May you not be those with sinful expectations of what you want from God. May you be those who delight in God, who delight in the forgiveness of sins and the incomparable love of Christ for his people. May you delight in being like your Savior and showing kindness and mercy toward others. As you do this you prove that you truly understand the kingdom of God. Amen.