He cured them all

Anthony Zimmerman
For Catholicmind
Aug. 20,2004
Reproduced with Permission

That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, "He took our infirmities and bore our diseases" (Matt 8:16-17).

When medical doctors hang out their shingles they advertise their specialties for which they have studied and obtained a license: pediatrician, ophthalmologist, orthopedics, gynecologist, neurologist, and down the line. Jesus had never attended medical school, yet He took on every patient they brought and cured all, without drugs, without surgery, also without charge. As fast as they could lay the patients before Him, He touched, or commanded, or did both, and they stood up hale and hearty and went their way. There was no need for a time of convalescence and of rehabilitation exercises.

If there was a line of demarcation between those who were assumed to be physically ill without demonic intervention, it was not very clear in the popular mind. "Demon possession covered any recurring involuntary psychic or physical reactions believed to be caused by spiritual forces other than God. These spirits are cast out with a word, recalling the centurion's statement of faith and the Isaian references to God's saving "word" that accomplishes what God purposes" (International Bible Commentary 1283). Sickness was also assumed to be inflicted on people by God for their sins. For example, when the disciples met a man who had been blind from birth they asked Jesus: "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him" (John 9:2-3). With that reply, we ought not judge rashly that people are being punished for sins when they fall ill. Rather, like Jesus, like Pope John Paul II, we ought always show special sympathy and solidarity with the sick and suffering.

That evening Jesus healed a great number of people, and all with their own kinds of illnesses. Chrysostom speaks in wonder: "But mark, I pray thee, how great a multitude of persons healed the evangelists pass quickly over, not mentioning one by one, and giving us an account of them, but in one word traversing an unspeakable sea of miracles."

Matthew now cites Isaiah: "Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured" (Is 53:4). Chrysostom comments that this appears rather to be a reference to Christ taking our sins upon Himself, and then adds that many of our sicknesses and sufferings arise from our sins. Christ did not simply do away with the sins and sufferings, He took them upon Himself and healed us by His paying our debts. Surely we see the great kindness of Christ here, who came all the way down from heaven to become man and then heal us of sins and infirmities by His Divine-Human goodness. His goodness as well as His power shines through the multitude of miracles that He worked on the memorable evening in Capernaum.

But was it all that easy for Jesus to heal all those illnesses, and was it without effort on His part? Surely it was not without effort. He made the effort to look at each one and to give personal love to the person, and offer His future passion and death for them, to forgive their sins. Jesus was the new Moses, and I think it is not wrong to think that He sometimes tired of His mission which required much effort. Moses, when overburdened with all the work the Lord gave him to do once complained in this manner:

So Moses said to the LORD, "Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,' to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, 'Give us meat to eat!' I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once -- if I have found favor in your sight--and do not let me see my misery." So the LORD said to Moses, "Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself (Numbers 11:11-17).

Christ, too, was a Man who could feel the weight of the burden on Himself of taking away the sins of the world. For it was by the passion of His body that He absorbed all human sin and weakness. It is a consolation for Him, then, to have the assistance of bishops and priests today, who help Him to carry the burden of the Church. And it is a consolation for Him when each and every one of us offers, if possible with a smile, our sufferings and inconveniences in order to fill up in our bodies what is wanting to the sufferings of Christ. Such was the mind of St. Paul who wrote: "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Col 1:24).

Matthew next relates how Jesus responded to also-want-to-be-disciples, but whose motives did not match up with the actual requirements:

Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Matt 8:19-20).

Here we see that Jesus refers to Himself for the first time in Matthew's Gospel as "the Son of Man." He surely foresaw the difficulty that future believers would experience in accepting the belief that He was at the same time the almighty Person who could work miracles and yet also believe that He was human, born flesh and blood from the Theotokos, the Virgin Mother Mary. By using this title, He assured us that He was indeed human like ourselves, and at the same time God who existed from eternity.

Why did Jesus decide to leave the place just when this great crowd was encircling Him? Perhaps He judged that the words He had spoken, and the miracles that He had performed were enough for the time being to start the ferment of the kingdom to work in the hearts and minds of this area. He must budget His time to sow the seeds of the kingdom elsewhere. But Chrysostom reflects that Jesus did this to teach us to free ourselves from vain glory and adulation. Jesus was being loved and admired so greatly here and now by all the people that He decided to show us that He had no need to cleave to vain glory:

Seest thou again His freedom from ostentation? in that as the others say, "He charged the devils not to say it was He," so this writer saith, He repels the multitudes from Him. Now in so doing, He was at once both training us to be moderate, and at the same time allaying the envy of the Jews, and teaching us to do nothing for display. For He was not, we know, a healer to bodies only, but a curer also of the soul, and a teacher of self-restraint; by both disclosing Himself, both by putting away their diseases, and by doing nought for display. Because they indeed were cleaving unto Him, loving Him, and marveling at Him, and desiring to took upon Him. For who would depart from one who was doing such miracles? Who would not long, were it only to see the face, and the mouth that was uttering such words? (Sermon 27, Logos CD.).

Evidently a young scribe was caught up in the enthusiasm for Jesus that fired up the crowds to such an extent that he made a snap decision to leave all else behind and to follow Jesus. Why did Jesus not accept him? From the response of Jesus: "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" we can conclude that the scribe did not really know what he was asking for. The scribe would naturally believe, as was common belief at the time, that the kingdom that Christ was establishing was a messianic and political kingdom, where life would be comfortable, secure and glorious, whereas the reality was going to be a crucifixion and the founding of the Church. The scribe had an entirely different idea about following Jesus than the realities of life that His true disciples were experiencing. It was surely not an easy life for the small band of apostles who were following Him, with no regular home, no prepared sleeping quarters, with meals on the run. "Against the background of the sections against worrying about physical sustenance one must see the uncertainties of the disciples' life with Jesus as a constant practice of reliance on the heavenly Father" (The International Bible Commentary, 1283).

Another of his disciples said to him, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead." And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him (Matt 8:21-23).

What, we ask, does Jesus not even allow this man to bury his father before joining the band of disciples? A learned biblical scholar once told me that we cannot take this sentence literally, since Jesus is not the type of Person who does not respect duties of family concerns. The scholar had once been my student in the seminary, but now had advanced to higher learning. Still I contradicted him: "This is what Jesus said, and this is what He meant," was my response to him. Jesus was teaching us by this extreme example that discipleship must be a total commitment so that not even father and mother stand between the disciple and Jesus. Whether this changed his mind I cannot say, but I am inclined to doubt it.

Jesus' response, which appears shocking, is really no more than the requirement for one who has taken a Nazirite vow (Num 6:6-7) or for a chief priest (Lev 21:11). Jesus is saying that the urgency of the kingdom takes precedence over family traditions (10:35-39; 12:46-50; 19:29) and so it becomes the prime commitment. The dead who bury their own dead are those not spiritually alive to the urgency of the kingdom, non-disciples (International Bible Commentary, 1284).

In this situation, Jesus was about to get into the boat and depart to the other side of the lake, and there was no time to wait for the man who wanted to bury his father. The burial itself would take time, then also the mourning and the discussions about the execution of the will. The man had therefore to decide one way or the other: to carry out his duties toward his father, or to leave all that behind and follow Jesus immediately. Chrysostom explained that Christ taught the important lesson that when God calls, it is for us to drop everything else, for God comes first and last and forever.

For this same cause He said elsewhere also, "No man having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of Heaven." And surely it is far better to proclaim the kingdom, and draw back others from death, than to bury the dead body, that is nothing advantaged thereby; and especially, when there are some to fulfill all these duties. . . . Nothing else then do we learn hereby, but that we must not wantonly lose any, no not the smallest time, though there be ten thousand things to press on us; but to set what is spiritual before all, even the most indispensable matters, and to know both what is life, and what is death.

Chrysostom also explains that burying the father before following Christ was not so simple and short a task as may seem at first sight. Jesus was about to move on, and if the disciple would not follow immediately, he would lose his chance of entering the elite group of apostles:

This saying does not condemn natural affection to our parents, but shows that nothing ought to be more binding on us than the business of heaven; that to this we ought to will apply ourselves with all our endeavors, and not to be slack, however necessary or urgent are the things that draw us aside. For what could be more necessary than to bury a father? What more easy? For it could not need much time. But in this the Lord rescued him from much evil, weeping, and mourning, and from the pains of expectation. For after the funeral there must come examination of the will, division of the inheritance, and other things of the same sort; and thus trouble following trouble, like the waves, would have borne him far from the port of truth (Copied from Harmony Media, Inc. CD St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew).

Matthew then closes the section stating that "when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him." Apparently the scribe and the one who first wanted to bury his father did not get into the boat. Jesus does not call everyone to the stricter life of the group of apostles who would also be ordained to the priesthood, live the life of celibacy, and serve as ministers in His Church. The twelve received a special calling, but they were not forced to get into the boat. They did so of their own accord. We thank Jesus once more for teaching us precious truths of the faith and for living among us as "the Son of Man."