Why Jesus does not heal. Anyone who takes time to compare the four Gospels, especially the first three, the Synoptic Gospels, will notice two things about their arrangement of material. First, there is a rough chronological order. Each tells about Jesus’ baptism by John somewhere at the beginning; proceeds with accounts of Christ’s public teaching and miracles; continues with His arrest by the Jerusalem authorities, His trial, and crucifixion; and ends with an account of Jesus’ resurrection. Second, in what seems to be a contradiction to the chronology, the ordering of material varies at places. In these sections the accounts seem to be arranged by topics.
This is what we find in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 – a collection of the kind of teaching Jesus was doing in Galilee during these early days of ministry. Now, in chapters 8 and 9, we have a collection of miracle stories in which Matthew records evidence of Jesus’ authority over disease from this same period. The section ends with Jesus imparting some of his authority to the apostles, after which they are dispersed to teach others as he has taught them.
This pattern was announced earlier at the end of chapter four, where we are told that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.”
Matthew records nine works of Jesus, broken up by two stories about the calling of disciples. In the first group of miracles, Jesus heals: a leper, a centurion’s servant, and Peter’s mother-in-law. This is followed by a discussion of discipleship. The second group of miracles contains: the calming of a storm, the healing of two demon-possessed men, and the healing of a paralytic. In the break following these miracles, Matthew records his own call to discipleship followed by a discussion about fasting. Then there are three final miracles: a composite story about the healing of a sick woman and the raising of a dead girl, the healing of two blind men, and the deliverance of a third demon-possessed man – followed by Jesus’ teaching about the need for Christian workers.
This arrangement encourages us to look for the spiritual meanings that led Matthew to include the stories he did and order them as he has, rather than be content merely with their narrative value.
The first three healings include, the healing of a man who had leprosy, the healing of the servant of a Roman centurion, and the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, who was sick with a fever. The last account adds that many more were healed at this time, which itself suggests the stories we have are selective.
In the ancient world, leprosy was the most terrible of all diseases. There was no medical treatment, and the disease caused the body to rot away, leading to an inevitable death. Most people considered lepers virtually dead already. Moreover, leprosy had social implications. It separated the victim from other human beings since he or she had to go about calling out, “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn any who were near to keep away. No one dared to touch a leper. In Israel it was illegal even to greet a leper. Lepers were not allowed to share in the services of the synagogue or worship at the temple in Jerusalem. In fact, lepers were barred from Jerusalem, as from all walled towns. William Barclay says, “There never has been any disease which so separated a man from his fellow-men as leprosy did.”
Separated from other human beings, yes, but not from God! For here, in this first of the miracle stories in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus not only heals the leper, but does so by reaching out and touching him, as no one in that day would have done. Verse three says, “Jesus reached out His hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ He said. ‘Be clean!’” This was so striking an action that each of the Synoptic Gospels records that Jesus touched him.
What is the point of this miracle then, assuming, as is` suggested, that the miracles are grouped together to make theological points and not merely for their narrative value? The first thing to understand, as any Jewish reader would have understood instinctively, is that leprosy rendered a person “spiritually unclean” and therefore cursed by God. The clearest biblical example is the judgment on Miriam, Moses’ sister, who was stricken with leprosy for speaking against Moses when he married a woman from Ethiopia and who had to remain outside the camp until God healed her. The reason the law did not allow a person to touch a leper was not only because leprosy was thought to be spread by contact but also because the touch made the one who touched the leper unclean and therefore cursed by God also.
But notice this! When Jesus touched the leper, His touch, rather than contaminating Jesus, cured the leper. It is a spectacular demonstration of what Jesus’ coming does in respect to human sin. Jesus did not become sinful by becoming one of us; rather, He made it possible for us to be cleansed from sin by His contact.
Why did Jesus instruct the healed man to tell no one? The answer to that question, while a bit aside from our main purpose, is that Jesus probably did not want to draw attention to Himself as a miracle worker. Mark 1, which provides further information about what was going on at this stage of Jesus’ ministry, gives us an idea of what might have happened if Jesus had received more attention. It tells us that Jesus was healing many people, but He did not want a desire for healings to hinder His more important work of preaching the Gospel, which is why He says He had come.