Join the party

by Scott Grant

Matthew 9:9-34

Noses against the window

David Milch, co-creator and executive producer of TV's "NYPD Blue," said in an interview, "The thing about someone who is as unstable as I am is, you feel like your nose is up against the window of normal life all the time. And you kind of ache for that." Jesus came for those of us whose noses are up against the window of normal life, who ache for something that looks and feels like normalcy. Who among us doesn't feel that way at some level, that there is some kind of party on the other side of the window that we are unable to share in? Jesus came to bring joy to those whose noses are pressed up against the window of normal life.

In Matthew 9:9-34, Jesus not only comes for outcasts, he comes to heal them. The five people healed in this story - a bleeding woman, a dead girl, two blind men and a dumb man - are all outcasts. The dead girl was something more than outcast, of course, but even her deadness made her unclean. Physical handicaps, such as those of the blind men and the dumb man, were considered attributable to sin (John 9:2). When Jesus heals, these outcasts, then, he restores them to the community. Such restoration is cause for great joy.

The narrative begins with two questions put to Jesus that he answers (9:10-17). The first question concerns Jesus' association with "sinners" - societal outcasts. The second concerns Jesus and his disciples' choice not to fast, which in this text symbolizes mourning. Jesus answers each question: 1) He came for sinners. 2) Joy, not mourning, is the proper response in his presence. The narrative then illustrates Jesus' answers by showing that Jesus brings joy to the lives of sinners (9:18-34).

The narrative includes four stories of healing. The healings happen in different ways. In two cases, people come to Jesus for healing (9:20, 28); in the two other cases, people come to Jesus that he might heal others (9:18, 32). In one case, Jesus follows a man (9:19); in another case, two men follow him (9:27). In one case, Jesus comes into a house to heal a girl (9:23); in another case, two men come into a house to be healed by Jesus (9:28). In one case, a woman touches him (9:20); in two other cases, he touches others (9:25, 29). In two cases, he speaks with those seeking healing, although he says different things to them (9:22, 28-29); in the other two cases, he speaks neither to those who asked that he heal others nor to the ones he is healing (9:25, 33).

We can deduce from these accounts that there is no formula for getting healed by Jesus. Although we all might long for a formula, God gives us something much greater than a list of principles by which we can be healed. He gives us Jesus, who knows us each as individuals, and knows what each of us needs. So there is a formula, but it's a personal formula for each of us, and only Jesus knows what it is. He knows how to approach us, or how to get us to approach him.

There is no general formula, but every healing in this narrative involves faith. In two cases, the faith of those healed is mentioned (9:22, 29); in the two other cases, faith of some kind was necessary for people to request healing on behalf of another (9:18, 32). What, specifically, is faith? The Gospel of Matthew heralds the arrival of the king. The healings of Jesus, and Matthew's report, are selective. The scriptures foretold these kinds of healings (Isaiah 35:5-6, Ezekiel 37:12-14, Matthew 11:4-5). Faith, then, has something to do with the belief in Jesus, that the long-awaited kingdom of God is finally breaking in, that he is the one who brings healing with him in the new age.

In these stories, Jesus heals people on his way to doing something else. No one is too insignificant for Jesus. Perhaps some of us have the feeling that God doesn't notice us, that our little problems aren't of concern to him, or that our "uncleanness" keeps him from acting on our behalf. These stories shatter that image of God.

Jesus comes for outcasts (9:9-13)

Matthew 9:9-13:

(9) And as Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man, called Matthew, sitting in the tax office; and He said to him, "Follow Me!" And he rose, and followed Him.
(10) And it happened that as He was reclining at the table in the house, behold many tax-gatherers and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. (11) And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, "Why is your Teacher eating with the tax-gatherers and sinners?" (12) But when He heard this, He said, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. (13) But go and learn what this means, 'I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,' for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

Having demonstrated his authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9:1-8), Jesus calls a "sinner," Matthew the tax-gatherer. Jewish tax-gatherers worked for the Romans and were considered traitors and "unclean" for their contact with Gentiles. The calling of Matthew sets forth the disposition of "sinners," which the narrative treats through verse 34.

Isaiah predicted that the Lord would prepare "a lavish banquet for all peoples" (Isaiah 25:6-9). In Matthew 8:11, Jesus said that "many shall come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." Already in Matthew 9:10, "many" people "come" and "recline" to eat with Jesus. This is intimate fellowship with God that was prophesied for the messianic age and which will continue forever (Revelation 19:9).

The only problem was that Jesus was feasting with all the wrong people - the tax-gatherers and sinners. It's difficult to know what is precisely meant by the term "sinners," but at the least they would seem to be those who didn't conform their lives to Jewish laws and/or expectations. They were therefore considered outcasts. The Pharisees took umbrage. Their question regarding Jesus' eating with outcasts was directed not to Jesus but to his disciples. It is not so much a question as it is an accusation, and perhaps an attempt to dissuade his disciples.

Jesus answers with an illustration, saying the healthy don't need a physician, but the sick do. Then he instructs the Pharisees to learn the meaning of Hosea 6:6, where the Lord says to faithless Israel, "I desire compassion, and not sacrifice." In the Hebrew text of Hosea, the word is the one used for covenant love and faithfulness (hesed). The Israelites sacrificed to the Lord, but there was no meaning behind it, because they were not being faithful to the Lord. Love for - and faithfulness to - the Lord produce compassion, or mercy, a trait the Pharisees quite obviously were not demonstrating, particularly toward the "sinners." The "ill" that Jesus came to call are the "sinners." The "healthy" that he came not to call are the "righteous," the Pharisees among them. Of course, Jesus didn't really see the Pharisees as healthy and righteous (Matthew 5:20, Matthew 23), though they likely saw themselves as such. Jesus' point here is not to say who's in and who's out; it's to correct the Pharisees' image of the Messiah. The Pharisees were expecting a Messiah who would not only exclude the sinners but crush them. Jesus is saying that the opposite is true.

Jesus comes to bring joy (9:14-17)

Matthew 9:14-17:

(14) Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?" (15) And Jesus said to them, "The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. (16) But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. (17) "Nor do men put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out, and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved."

In contrast to the Pharisees, the disciples of John seem to be seeking an answer, not casting an accusation. Their question is directed to Jesus. Their question concerns fasting. The Pharisees and John's disciples fast, but Jesus' disciples do not fast. What is the purpose of fasting in this case? The law only prescribed fasting once a year, on the Day of Atonement. But this is obviously something additional and more frequent. It is likely to be connected with mourning over the state of Israel (Zechariah 7:5, 8:19). The fasting, then, concerned Israel's exile. Although Israel has long since returned from exile, the nation still has not been restored to anything approaching prophetic expectations. So they still mourn their state. The exile really hasn't ended, they think.
When Jesus answers their question about fasting, he first speaks of mourning (verse 15). The fasting here is symbolic of mourning. He gives three illustrations to show that for his disciples, fasting is not appropriate.

The first illustration is that of a wedding celebration. The attendants of the bridegroom celebrate with him. It is not a time to mourn; it is a time to celebrate. Jesus intends his listeners to understand that he is the bridegroom and that the appropriate response of his disciples, his attendants, is one of joy. He is further saying that it is no longer appropriate to mourn for the state of Israel, because he has come to set things right. He has come to bring the people back from exile. The presence of Jesus brings joy. The disciples of Jesus "cannot" mourn. There is so much joy in the presence of Jesus that seemingly it is not even possible to mourn.

There will come a time when the disciples will fast, however, when Jesus is taken away from them. This could be a reference to mourning that the disciples no doubt endured between the crucifixion and the resurrection. Jesus is not opposed to fasting (Matthew 6:16-18), just fasting that recognizes an exile that is coming to a close. Later, disciples are seen as fasting in the book of Acts for special, non-regular purposes, but they are not mourning the exile (Acts 9:9, 13:3, 14:23, 27:9).

The final two illustrations both concern something old being unable to adapt to something new. A new piece of cloth, when it shrinks, causes an old garment to tear; and new wine causes old wineskins to burst. In each case the new forces some kind of movement to which the old cannot adjust.

How are we to understand these two illustrations? By recognizing that they constitute an answer to the question concerning why the disciples do not fast. Jesus is saying something new is here. He is here, the bridegroom. This calls for rejoicing, not mourning. The old way is mourning the exile. The presence of Jesus means the exile is over and brings an end to mourning. If one continues mourning, it's a self-defeating proposition. Jesus brings so much joy that he obliterates the sad old garments and wineskins.

The presence of Jesus tells us that the exile is over, that God has returned. In Jesus, God restores us to him. If we understand this, where we have been, exiled from God, and that Jesus brings us back to him, the appropriate response is joy. If we truly understand what has taken place, a response of joy is not only appropriate but unavoidable. The attendants of the bridegroom "cannot" mourn. They can't help but rejoice. Whoever drinks of Jesus becomes "a well of water springing up to eternal life" (John 4:14). "From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water" (John 7:38). The springs and the rivers of joy that Jesus create burst the banks of our melancholy. Certainly, there is a time to mourn. But look at what we have in Jesus, who has brought us back to the Father. He is our source of joy, and truly seeing and understanding his presence in our lives releases the joy.

This is precisely what happens for people who come in contact with Jesus in Matthew 9:18-34.

Jesus heals two daughters (9:18-26)

Matthew 9:18-26:

(18) While He was saying these things to them, behold, there came a synagogue official, and bowed down before Him, saying, "My daughter has just died; but come and lay Your hand on her, and she will live." (19) And Jesus rose and began to follow him, and so did His disciples. (20) And behold, a woman who had been suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years, came up behind Him and touched the fringe of His cloak; (21) for she was saying to herself, "If I only touch His garment, I shall get well." (22) But Jesus turning and seeing her said, "Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well." And at once the woman was made well. (23) And when Jesus came into the official's house, and saw the flute-players, and the crowd in noisy disorder, (24) He began to say, "Depart; for the girl has not died, but is asleep." And they began laughing at Him. (25) But when the crowd had been put out, He entered and took her by the hand; and the girl arose. (26) And this news went out into all that land.

Verse 18 begins with the words, "While he was saying these things ... " "These things" are those things that Jesus was saying in response to the two questions put to him. The narrative connects the two questions, then, with the healings that follow. Jesus answered the two questions with words, and the narrative shows that he also answered them with actions. Why does Jesus hang out with outcasts? Because he came for outcasts, and now he heals them, restoring them to the community. Why don't his disciples mourn? Because Jesus came to bring joy, particularly joy to the outcasts.

This section shows that Jesus cares for people in all levels of society, from the high to the low. He heals the daughter of the synagogue official, who would have occupied a high place, but on the way to help him, he heals a bleeding woman, a societal outcast. In fact, the story gives priority to the woman, because Jesus interrupts his trip to the official's house in order to heal the woman.
Literally, "one" official came to him - only one. Israelites in power in the gospels generally don't submit to Jesus, but this official recognizes his need, which leads him to faith. The official, or "ruler," "bows down" to one he recognizes as a greater ruler. He's ready for new wine.

The woman would have been considered "unclean" (Leviticus 15:25-33). She no doubt has heard that Jesus used touch to heal people, but she knows that if he touches her, he becomes unclean as well. So she sneaks up behind him and just touches the fringe of his garment, hoping to be healed without being noticed. The synagogue official wanted Jesus to touch his daughter, but the woman herself touches Jesus.

Jesus "turns" and "sees" the woman. She is afraid of being seen, but Jesus intentionally looks at her so that she may know that being seen by him is liberating, not punishing.

What does he see when he turns? He sees not an outcast but a "daughter," not her uncleanness but her "faith." He says, "Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well." She is a daughter of the kingdom, not an outcast. Jesus was on the way to see the daughter of a synagogue official, but on the way, he stops to recognize a daughter of the kingdom who can only dream that maybe someday she can join the community. But after meeting Jesus, she can now "take courage," being a true member of the community, not one who has to keep her distance in shame. She can also take courage in the fact that Jesus will not condemn her, though she has now been found out. Jesus wants her to know that it's her faith in him that has healed her, not some magic formula that involves touch.

You may feel that there is some "uncleanness" in you - that there is something that keeps you on the fringe of life. You may want to get well, so to speak; you may want to join the party and you may have some concept that Jesus can help, but perhaps you think your uncleanness will not allow you to get close to him. But what did the woman do? She reached out. She had faith, enough faith to risk condemnation and touch just the fringe of his garment. If you do the same, Jesus will turn and look to you as well, and he will not condemn you for your uncleanness. Your faith in him will overwhelm your uncleanness. And when he turns and sees you, he'll see not the filth but the faith. He'll call you "daughter"; he'll call you "son." He will reward that faith. He will envelop you in his kingdom, and restore you to the community of God. What does Jesus see when he turns and sees an unclean outcast with faith in him? He sees a daughter. He sees a son.
Jesus resumes his trip to the synagogue official's house, which is filled with flute players and a crowd in noisy disorder. These are the mourners who have been called in (Jeremiah 9:17-18, Mark 5:38). Jesus tells the mourners to "depart," and they are "put out," or, more literally, "cast out," Why? They are mourning. The bridegroom is here; it isn't a time for mourning. What's more, their mourning is insincere, evidenced by their laughter when Jesus says that the girl is only asleep. God desires mercy and compassion from a sincere heart, not the sacrifice of fake mourning. The word translated "put out" is the same one translated "cast out," in reference to a demon, in verse 33. In the presence of Jesus, demons must depart, and so must mourning.
What Jesus sees in the mourners is not what he's looking for. He's looking for faith. He saw it in the synagogue official. He saw it in the woman. He sees in the mourners people who refuse to get in touch with who he his, who find faith laughable. He casts them out. For now, at least, they are outside the kingdom.

Jesus enters the house and takes the girl by the hand. A dead person, like the bleeding woman, would be considered "unclean," and one who touched a dead person would require cleansing (Numbers 19:11-19). But Jesus enters into the sphere of the unclean and touches its very soul. His touch, rather than defiling him, raises the girl to life. Earlier, the woman touched Jesus, and she was healed. This girl has no ability to touch Jesus. So he touches her.

The report went out into "all that land" - that land, which had been longing for a national restoration so great that it would be like a national resurrection (Ezekiel 37:12-14). What was expected for the nation happened for an individual. It was a little hint of the greater restoration that is being brought about through Jesus, and word spread through the waiting land.

Perhaps some of you are like the dead girl. Perhaps your fears have paralyzed you; your uncleanness feels like deadness to you. You have not even the confidence to let your uncleanness get within shouting distance of Jesus. You have no ability to reach out to him. So what does Jesus do? He reaches out to you. The woman, with her uncleanness, walked into the sphere of Jesus. In this case, Jesus walks right into the sphere of the girl's uncleanness. He "entered" the house and "took her by the hand." He enters the abode of your uncleanness, your fears, your deadness. And what does he do? He takes you by the hand! He imparts life. He raises you up.

Perhaps some of you are like the synagogue official. Something important to you is dead. There is a dead part of your life. Perhaps you haven't felt anything there in years, or perhaps you've never felt anything there. Jesus enters that house of death and gently touches that tender area and raises it to life.

Jesus heals two blind men (9:27-31)

(27) And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed Him, crying out, and saying, "Have mercy on us, Son of David!" (28) And after He had come into the house, the blind men came up to Him, and Jesus said to them, "Do you believe that I am able to do this?" They said to Him, "Yes, Lord." (29) Then He touched their eyes, saying, "Be it done to you according to your faith." (30) And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, saying, "See here, let no one know about this!" (31) But they went out, and spread the news about Him in all that land.

The two blind men tell Jesus, "Have mercy on us ... " God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Matthew 9:13). Jesus responds.

The men call Jesus "Son of David." This is a messianic title, a recognition that Jesus is the promised king in the Davidic line (Matthew 1:1). If he is the promised one, and if the long-anticipated kingdom is breaking in, then "the eyes of the blind will be opened" (Isaiah 35:6). The faith of these two men, then, is faith that Jesus is the Messiah who has come to bring in the kingdom, which involves sight for the blind.

Two blind men see what the rulers of Israel can't. Their need leads them to see something that others can't, even though they are blind. Their weakness becomes their strength.
Jesus asks them, "Do you believe that I am able to do this?" He has heard them call him the "Son of David." The question is, do they really believe that he is the Son of David, the Messiah, that he is able to heal? The question is one of identity. The men believed what they had heard about Jesus, specifically, the royal proclamation, that the king is here. They answer, "Yes, Lord," submitting to his authority.

Once again, Jesus initiates touch. He touches not them in general, but their eyes in specific. He touches the very place where they needed healing. Just as with the bleeding woman, Jesus connects his healing with the faith of those who are healed. When Jesus touches their eyes and speaks to them, the text says, "their eyes were opened," language reminiscent of Isaiah 35:5.
After they are healed, Jesus warns them, saying, literally, "See, let no one know about this." The first thing the formerly blind men must do is "see" that they must follow Jesus. Jesus doesn't want word to spread to "all that land," because that land had an incorrect concept of what the Messiah was to do. However, the two blind men spread the news to the land - the land which was waiting for something like this, based on prophecies such as Isaiah 35:5.

Perhaps some of you are like these blind men. Perhaps you have the sense that God's creation, even in its fallen state, is more beautiful than you know. Perhaps you see only the shadows of life and not its rich hues, but you know the rich hues are there to be seen if you could only open your eyes. Perhaps you know that the world of people and relationships and Jesus is more beautiful than you understand, but you want to understand. Like the revolutionaries in "Les Miserables," beyond the barricade there is a world you long to see. But something is keeping you from opening your eyes. Jesus, with the touch of his tender hands, opens your eyes to behold the stunning beauty of what he has created for you.

Jesus heals a dumb man (9:32-33a)

Matthew 9:32-33a:

(32) And as they were going out, behold, a dumb man, demon-possessed, was brought to Him. (33a) And after the demon was cast out, the dumb man spoke.

There is something different in the way Jesus and this man are brought together. The woman and the blind man came to Jesus. Jesus came to the dead girl. This time, some people bring a man to Jesus. The word for "dumb" here is often associated with deafness. It is possible that this man was deaf and dumb. Although the blind men could hear that Jesus was passing and could speak out, this man, even if he could hear about Jesus, could not speak to him or even communicate that he wanted to see Jesus. On his own, he is unable to reach Jesus, or perhaps even to know of his existence.

We don't really know about the faith of the man; the text doesn't tell us. Those who brought him, though, had a certain faith, and perhaps they recognized that if Jesus healed the blind man, according to Isaiah 35:5, perhaps he'd heal a dumb man, according to Isaiah 35:6 ("And the tongue of the dumb will shout for joy").

Something additional is mentioned in connection with this man's affliction. He was demon-possessed, or, literally, "demonized." As we have seen in Matthew, Jesus came to take on the true enemy of Israel, Satan (Matthew 4:1). He came to cast the demons out of Israel, to "destroy the works of the devil" (1 John 3:8). The battle with the serpent would be the ultimate battle for Jesus, the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15).

Jesus said that his power over Satan meant that "the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Matthew 12:28). When Jesus casts out the demon, evidenced by the speech of the dumb man, the message is clear: He is the king, the Son of David, the Messiah who brings in the kingdom.
This man couldn't speak. He couldn't relate. Perhaps some of you are like this man. Deep down there are things you want to say. You want to communicate. You want to relate. But something is holding you back. Something ties your tongue in a knot. You're afraid to say what you think or what you feel. You're afraid to relax around other people. If you'd relax, you'd speak, and speak well, and relate well, because the real you would emerge - freely and spontaneously. But feeling the constraint of what you perceive to be expectations, you hold your tongue. Or, being so self-conscious, when you do speak, you speak all the wrong things with no concern for the one to whom you're speaking. Jesus loosens your tongue. More importantly, Jesus loosens your heart, which controls your tongue. He liberates you to communicate and enjoy rich, meaningful relationships.

Perhaps you're like the dumb man, and you need other people to bring you into the presence of Jesus. That's what the church of Jesus is for. That's what we're here for. Perhaps you want to be like those who brought the man to Jesus; perhaps you want to bring people in need into the healing presence of Jesus.

The multitudes marvel; the Pharisees grumble (9:33b-34)

Matthew 9:33b-34:

(33b) And the multitudes marveled, saying, "Nothing like this was ever seen in Israel." (34) But the Pharisees were saying, "He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons."

The crowd marvels, probably in reaction to all four healings. Literally, they say, "Nothing thus was ever seen in Israel," which could imply a plurality of events. The force of all four healings, not just the last one, has impressed them. The text is very particular about the sphere of sight: Nothing like these things has ever been seen "in Israel." It is Israel that is waiting for its king. These events, in fulfillment of the scriptures, show Israel that its king is here. They show us that our king is here.

The Pharisees have a different reaction. They don't marvel, and they refuse to entertain the notion that Jesus is the Messiah. Why? Because his kingdom includes all the wrong people - the tax-collectors, the sinners, the unclean women, the blind, the dumb, the cursed, even the dead. His kingdom includes all the outcasts - all those whom the Pharisees have cast out - and brings joy to their lives by healing them and restoring them to community. Unwilling to recognize Jesus as their Messiah, despite evidence to the contrary, the Pharisees come up with an alternative explanation, attributing his authority to demonic forces.

An invitation to a party

Jesus is throwing a lavish banquet, a party. You may feel that somehow, you're not a part of it. You may feel that you are on the outside looking in. But your nose is pressed up against the window, and you ache to join the party. What's keeping you outside? Do you think there is something "wrong" with you? There was something "wrong" with each of the people that Jesus healed, but their faith in Jesus canceled out their wrongness. There's something wrong with all of us, but faith in Jesus cancels out our wrongness. As it turns out, the party is for all the wrong people, anyway. Do you understand the message of Matthew 9? Matthew 9 is an invitation. Jesus invites you to join the party.

- SCG, 2-22-98