Sermon on the Mount, The Emmaus View

Appendix S. Cleanliness links in Matthew 8 (Version 1.5)

Following the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s Gospel seeks to emphasise Jesus ability to deal with uncleanliness and its place within the Healings and miracles take place in the evening (Matt 8:16), time when the unclean are restored (e.g. Lev 11:39-40). Then, Matthew:8: 17 alludes to the fulfilment of Isaiah 53:4, whose taking of infirmities and baring of sickness introduce a section in which the Lord’s servant is revealed as the one to usher in a period of grace.

After deciding to depart to the other side, Jesus draws on Isaiah 43’s image of god allotting homes for unclean animals within a new Eden (Matt 8:19, Isa 34:13-17)1, whilst contrasting their experience with his own; Like God, naturally homeless (Isa 66:1), yet excluded from the one place he might call home amongst his people because of its uncleanliness (cf. Ps 132:13-14, Mic 2:10). The mention of new birth and creation in Isaiah 66 (Isa 66:8-9, 22) resonates with the idea of the unclean birds and foxes fulfilling the purposes allotted them at the creation. Isaiah 66 finished with its focus on those who, like the parent’s of Joshua’s generation, fail to enter because of rebellion (Isa 66:24). Their dead bodies lie unburied, abhorrent to all mankind and an unclean blight on the land. This thought would seem to anticipate Jesus answer to the man who wants to bury his father (Matt 8:21-22) - let the dead bury their dead.

It is easy to focus on the miraculous calming of the storm (Matt 8:23-27) and miss the subtle echoes of the account of Jonah (Jon 1:4-6, 15-16), prophet to an unclean nation. In both cases we have: a prophet fleeing from facing a multitude; ships crossing over open water rather than coast hugging; a crew of despairing men caught in a storm that is overwhelming their boat; a prophet who is fast asleep through it all and has to be woken; a sea that becomes calm at the prophet’s intervention; men who are amazed as a result; both then preach to violent gentiles who repent (Jon 3:8).

In Jesus case, the people he comes to in the country of the Gergesenes are the epitome of uncleanliness. They resemble those described by Isaiah in one of the few old testament passages that directly mention swine.

God in Isaiah (Isa 65:1-5a)

Jesus in Matthew (Matt 8:28-8:34)

God has reached out to a rebellious people who have not sought him

Jesus arrives although the demoniacs don’t see what they have to do with him

These people follow their own imaginations

The demoniacs are not in their right mind

They offer sacrifices in gardens and remain amongst graves

They live among the tombs

They eat swine’s flesh

Their community employs swineherds (probably to produce swine for the pot)

They say “keep away, we are too sacred for you”

Their community pleads with Jesus to leave that region

Isaiah assures such people that there will be recompense for their acts as he measures their former acts into their own bosom (Isa 65:5b-7). Then he gives the promise that they will not all be destroyed but a remnant will experience restoration (Isa 65:8-10).

Out of the community that Jesus comes to it is only the most unlikely and unpromising individuals, the unclean animals if you like, that become the ‘remnant’ who benefit from Jesus ministry as the Lord drives out a thousand for each one (cf. Josh 23:9-10).

The next section, concerning the healing of a paralytic, is abbreviated in comparison with the parallel passages in the other synoptic accounts. The focus then returns to cleanliness, with the call of Matthew (Matt 9:1-17 ) with its restitution of an unclean tax collector. Finally Jesus’ defies the uncleanliness of both a dead daughter and a woman with an abnormally protracted issue of blood (Matt 9:18-25) in order to heal them.

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1 Both foxes and birds of the air eat carrion and were therefore unclean (Ps 63:10 in LXX, Ps 79:2, Lev 11:13-19, cf. Acts 10:12-15)