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Matthew 9 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Embracing Our Brokenness

When Jesus allows an impure woman to touch him and touches the hand of a corpse, he contracts ritual impurity under the law (Lev 15:19-33; Num 19:11-12). Of course we might argue that Jesus contracted no uncleanness in actuality; as in the case of his contact with sinners, the influence went from him to them rather than the reverse (Mt 9:11-13). Yet in the eyes of those present, he has assumed the status of uncleanness (see the fuller account in Mk 5:33, where Jesus even invites public attestation of the touch). He is willing to touch us in our brokenness that we might be made whole.

In a world where women were nearly always second-class citizens and where male authors who cited women as examples of heroism treated them as exceptions (as in Plut. Bravery of Women), the Gospels' greater balance is intriguing. Yet this balance fits the rest of Jesus' ministry and teaching: it was the socially powerless who most readily embraced him. Socially accepted Christians who are disturbed by something missing in their zeal should take note; we should humble ourselves and listen to Christians from socially marginalized groups. The point is not to insult those who are not marginalized, but that the broken and marginalized have much to teach us about humble and often desperate dependence on the grace of God.

Jesus Is Willing to Heal and Even Restore to Life (9:18-19)

Matthew wrote his Gospel to tell Christians more about the Lord they worshiped. We can show devotion to the Lord about whom we read by getting to know what he is like through these accounts and acknowledging his character as we praise him.

An Example of Scandalous Faith (9:20-21)

Because of this woman's continual flow of blood, she was not permitted to move about in crowds; anyone she touched or whose cloak she touched became unclean. Abbreviating as he often does, Matthew omits Mark's crowds (Mk 5:27) but retains the woman's intention: she is so desperate that she will touch the teacher, knowing full well that this will make him unclean under the law (Lev 15:25-27; m. Toharot 5:8).

Her condition is desperate both for medical reasons and because of its social consequences; her ostracism would extend even to her private life. Her ailment probably had kept her from marriage if it started at puberty, and almost surely would have led to divorce if it began after she was married (which would have been within a few years after puberty), since intercourse was prohibited under such circumstances (Lev 18:19) and childlessness normally led to divorce (Keener 1991a:75). Singleness is difficult for many people in Western society, but to be a unmarriageable woman in first-century Jewish Palestine must have often been terrifying. The stigma of childlessness (compare Lk 1:24-25; 1 Enoch 98:5), the pain of feeling "left over" and the dilemma of being unable to earn an income yet having neither husband nor children for long-term support would have made this woman's condition seem almost unbearable.

Yet her desperation also begets confidence that Jesus is an absolutely certain source of her healing. Desperation has driven many of us to a faith that refuses to be deterred. This woman was undoubtedly more desperate than most of us have been, and she pressed her way to Jesus with the determination of faith, regardless of the consequences.

Jesus Embraces Her Need (9:22)

Jesus acknowledged her act as an act of faith. By failing to offer a rebuke, he demonstrated both that the healing came by God's power and not automatic magic (Hooker 1983:61) and that he was unashamed to be identified with her uncleanness. In the times of our deepest pain, the assurance of God's presence can provide comfort commensurate with the pain. This is true because the One we claim as Lord embraced our ultimate humiliation and shame on the cross, refusing even a simple narcotic to deaden the pain (27:34).

Jesus Has Authority over Death Itself (9:23-26)

Death in childhood was a quite frequent occurrence. Because bodies decomposed rapidly, mourners had to gather quickly (for example, b. Sanhedrin 47a). Later texts probably reflect the earlier view of many religious people in regarding at least two or three mourners (two flutists and one professional mourning woman) as mandatory for the funeral of the poorest person (m. Ketubot 4:4), but a prominent local person like this ruler (v. 18) would probably be able to afford more. (His wealth and status set him in stark contrast to the ailing woman earlier in the story, but his grief has reduced him to the same position of dependence on Jesus.)

"Sleep" was a common euphemism for death in antiquity (like our "passed away"), but Jesus' contrast between sleep and death here suggests that he wished his hearers to understand that the child was not truly dead. If Jesus intended his assertion that the girl was merely asleep (v. 24) to keep word about her resuscitation from spreading, however, the tactic did not work (v. 26). Long-term professional mourners would recognize the difference (Harris 1986:309), so they seem not to have believed him.

Corpse-uncleanness was the most serious uncleanness anyone could contract, rendering a person unclean for seven days (Num 19:11). Because others could have thought that touching the girl would render him unclean, Jesus showed his exceptional kindness and willingness to get involved by taking the girl's hand when he raised her up.

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