The healing work of the Messiah is now illustrated by three quite unexpected examples. There is the healing of a leper, the healing of the servant of a foreigner who was an officer of the oppressive Roman army, and the healing of large numbers of demon possessed people in a respectable Jewish city.
8:1-2 Until the new leprosy drugs became available a few years ago there was no cure for the common type of leprosy. In Jewish law the priests were responsible for identifying and isolating leprosy and other kinds of skin disease (Leviticus 13 and 14). In many ancient cultures lepers were forced to leave home, and cry out "unclean" (Leviticus 13:46; Numbers 5:2) so people could keep away from them. Other kinds of disease were being healed by the Messiah (4:23-24) but this seems to be the first case of a leper coming to kneel at the feet of Jesus.
8:3-4 Jesus takes the unthinkable step of touching the leper, but he also tells him to go to a priest to be examined and declared ritually clean. This seems a good reason in our present Messianic ministry to touch the sick and pray for their healing in Jesus' name, but also to insist on them going to a doctor to be examined and pronounced healed.
8:5-6 As in all countries occupied by foreigners, the military that enforce the people's submission are hated. And the Roman occupation of the land was particularly brutal. So it was astonishing that a tough army captain, who had certainly done his share of killing Jews, comes to ask the Messiah to heal his batman.
8:7-10 It was even more surprising, even to Jesus, that the Centurion recognized Jesus' authority as Messiah to command healing from a distance as easily as by physically touching a leper.
8:11-12 This is the first of a series of predictions of people from all nations coming into the kingdom, the Son of God coming to destroy Jerusalem and its temple, and the Jews who refused to recognize their Messiah being excluded (13:40-42; 16:27-28; 19:28; 21:31-32, 41, 43; 22:7-10; 23:33-36; 24:2, 14, 30-31). Matthew has obviously collected these carefully to explain the end of the Jerusalem religious establishment in that generation, and the world-wide growth of Gentile churches.
The metaphor of being thrown into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth is used three times in the Gospel (8:12; 22:13; 25:30). It seems to be a picture of being excluded from the light and joy of serving in the Messianic kingdom. It does not follow that such people are consigned to eternal damnation. And some may at first refuse to serve, and then change their mind (21:28-32, as did Paul the persecutor who later became an apostle). In any case nothing is more anti-Semitic than to use 8:12 to suggest that all Jews deserve to go to hell.
8:13 Faith is a very important feature of Matthew's Gospel. But it is not a decision of faith but the direction of faith that is important (as in 8:10; 9:2, 22, 29; 15:28; 17:20).
8:14-15 The healing of Peter's mother-in-law takes place in her home, and she is immediately able to cook a meal for the guests.
8:16 Demoniacs were healed among others in 4:24. All nations have people who seem to be overpowered and possessed by forces that derange and destroy them. Matthew obviously wants his readers to know that such persons are not beyond the power of the Messiah to heal them.
8:17 The section ends with a quote from the Messianic suffering servant passage in Isaiah: "Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases" (53:4). Instead of using this quotation from Isaiah 53 in the account of the Messiah's crucifixion, Matthew uses it here to refer it to healing the sick and possessed. It suggests that the Messiah heals by loving to the point of feeling the pain of our disease. This is one of the substitutions of love, and many who have engaged in the ministry of healing have felt in their own body the pain of the one they have prayed for. The presence of someone who feels the pain at one's bedside is often experienced as a powerful healing force.
But in a far more cosmic sense the text from Isaiah suggests that the Messiah absorbs the pervasive sin of the world in his own body. And Matthew suggests that this not only assures our forgiveness but it also effects our healing. Elsewhere in the New Testament we can see how healing occurs to some extent in this life but there will be the final total healing that we will need for the perfection of heaven (1 Corinthians 15:44; 2 Corinthians 4:16; 5:1-5; 12:7-10; Revelation 21:4).
It is often assumed that the sacrifice for the disease and sin of the world (Isaiah 53:4-6) was offered in a few brief hours in one place outside the walls of Jerusalem. But Matthew gives the impression that this was already occurring as the Messiah healed, even before the crucifixion. This suggests that the sacrifice on the cross is the visible expression in space-time of the loving sacrifice of the eternal Son of God. Whenever and wherever people are forgiven and healed the Messiah Son of God is absorbing the sin and disease of the world.
Isaiah made the connection between our diseases and human sin (Isaiah 53:4-5), but this does not mean that an individual's suffering is due to his or her sin. A large part of human pain and sickness is due to the pervasive sin of the world around us. War, for example, is caused by human sinfulness, but it is not those who fire the guns or those who are maimed in the fighting who are the direct cause. The real causes lie much deeper back in the chain of human sinfulness.
On the one hand a disciple is a learner enrolled to learn God's kind of loving (see comment on 4:18-23). But the learning is on the job and involves going with the Messiah in the service of the kingdom. And that may include perilous situations in the wind and the waves (as it did for Paul in Acts 27; 2 Corinthians 11:25-26).
8:18-20 A scribe was what we would call a Professor of Theology, or perhaps a theological student. Jesus had to point out to him that learning with the Messiah would not be in the comfort of a seminary. It might involve getting one's sleep on the deck of a boat in a storm (8:24).
8:21-22 Another wanted the option of staying at home till the death of his father. Jesus' metaphor suggests that service in the kingdom, as in any army, cannot wait till our family responsibilities have been performed. This does not mean that others who do not engage in sacrificial service are rejected from the love of God. As we will see in 10:38-39, taking up one's cross is dangerous and costly, but no one is conscripted or forced into Messianic service. The love of God is free, but the service of God by volunteers in the kingdom is a privilege not a means of earning our salvation.
8:23-26 Having heard this, the disciples almost immediately find themselves swamped by a storm on the Sea of Galilee. They wake Jesus and his answer suggests that when they are serving with him they are to trust him to take care of the wind and the waves.
8:27 The conclusion is that nobody should enroll for service in the Messianic kingdom without faith in the personal presence and power of the Messiah. But as Paul found, this kind of service is open to those who feel their own terrible weakness (2 Corinthians 11:23-30; 12:8-10).
Earlier in the Gospel demoniacs have been healed without a suggestion that exorcised demons need to enter a herd of pigs (4:24 and 8:16). The point of including this event in connection with the cost of serving the kingdom is that disciples should not expect to be welcomed in their mission. Many deranged people resist being healed, and many apparently normal people prefer to be undisturbed with their own possessions rather than experience the healing power of the Messiah in their community.
8:28-29 In the parallel passage in Mark and Luke (Mark 5:1-20, Luke 8:26-39) the one demoniac is singled out, who after being healed wanted to accompany Jesus. Here Matthew mentions both demoniacs, but he makes no comment about their faith after the exorcism.
8:30-32 Since we have no way of understanding possession by demons, or their eventual torment, or the possibility of entering animals, it seems wiser to stick to the facts observed by the herders. Everybody had been terrified by the two demoniacs who were so deranged that they lived in the cave tombs of a cemetery (8:28). Jesus healed the two men, and the herders saw their two thousand pigs (Mark 2:13) go rushing down to drown in the Sea of Galilee.
8:33-34 The swineherds had to report the huge loss of pigs in their charge. The pigs probably belonged to different owners, and the whole town came and found to their horror that the pigs were drowned. Jesus was with the two men who were now obviously in their right mind. For the two men the rush of pigs was a dramatic sign of being freed from a legion of demons, but for the people of this town concern about the loss of the pigs was obviously more important than the healing of the two men. They asked the Messiah and his disciples to leave at once.
As the disciples would discover in their missionary journeys (10:5-8), there would often be a bad reception (10:17-18) where economic interests were more important than spiritual health.