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Matthew 8:15

Keith Warrington

"He (Jesus) touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and served him."

This healing of Peter's mother-in-law by Jesus is recorded in each of the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and each says that Jesus touched her. In healing people, Jesus often used his hands (Matt. 8:3,15; 9:29; 17:7; 20:34; Mark 5:41; 7:33; 10:46-52; 9:29; Luke 7:14; 13:13; 22:51; John 9:6), and this is significant for a number of reasons:

A sign of compassion

The element of compassion was undoubtedly an important aspect in the use of touch (Matt. 14:14; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 5:19; Luke 7:13), though it was not the prime motivation in the healings of Jesus. Matthew refers to it in only two cases (14:14 and 20:34); Mark, possibly, once (1:41); Luke, once (7:13); and John, never. If it could be shown that compassion was the major motive for Jesus' ministry of healing, or even a significantly important one, it would be appropriate to ask why Jesus did not heal all the sick in the region. In John 5:3-5, Jesus chose not to heal all, but only one. Other reasons are identified by the authors of the gospels to indicate his uniquely exalted nature and mission.

Nevertheless, to receive a touch from a fellow member of humanity, let alone from one who bore the hallmarks of being God himself, provided a powerful message to the sick. Generally, the perception of the people was that the gods were uncaring; the unfulfilled desire of many was for a benevolent deity. Jesus Christ provided such a deity. Luke (18:15) particularly demonstrates this feature when he recalls Jesus touching children who came to him. However, although this account is also recorded in Matthew and Mark, Luke informs his readers that Jesus touches babies/infants. Jesus is presented as having time, not just for children, but also for those who may be so young that they have no concept of who he is, too young to be able to tell. Jesus is recorded as having time for those who may not be able to respond to him or even know how to respond; this reveals the character of the one who desires to give more than to receive.

A demonstration of the authority of Jesus

The use of hands in healing is more likely to correspond to the authority of Jesus. The general assumption of the Jews was that sickness was the result of the sin of those who were suffering or of their parents (John 9:2). Since God had sanctioned suffering as a punishment for personal sin, it was assumed that only God could remove it. The person concerned was deemed to be ceremonially sick, as demonstrated by his/her sickness. For centuries before the time of Jesus, the Jews had looked forward to an era when sickness would be removed, though the prospect of suffering being removed prior to the end-times was an infrequent hope (1 Enoch 10:10f; 102:4; 104:2). This great hope began to be fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus.

Jesus - who could not be contaminated by sickness, ceremonially or otherwise - touched the sick whilst at the same time transmitting his wholeness to them. Readers were reminded of references in the Hebrew scriptures to the powerful hand/arm of God (Num. 11:23; 1 Sam. 5:7; 1 Chron. 29:12; Job 5:18; Isa. 1:25). The hand of God, according to gospel narratives, is now in evidence in the hand of Jesus. Such a healing practice and the authority vested in it serves to emphasize the authority of Jesus.

A determination to include the marginalized

The fact that Jesus is regularly presented as touching those who are sick indicates a radical departure from normative Jewish practice for in touching those who were ill, Jesus was touching those who were ceremonially unclean. The Jews believed that God sent sickness to test them or frequently, as a result of their sin, to chastise or discipline them (Gen 32:32; Ex. 15:26; Lev. 26:14ff; Deut. 7:12ff). Thus, those who were ill were often deemed to be impure (for example, Lev. 13:14), and a stigma was associated with them (Ps. 38:11, 12; John 9:2). To touch those who assumed that the hand of God was against them, as demonstrated in sickness, was a precocious act.

Consequently, people who were ill often led lonely lives. This was due, in part, to their inability to function as normal members of the community in contrast to their able-bodied colleagues. In addition, it was based on a belief that personal sin had caused the illness, the latter having been sent by God as a form of chastisement. Social ostracism often resulted, or at least a form of marginalization from others in the community. If God had punished individuals, it was difficult for the community to be seen to be undermining that divine action by accepting the afflicted persons into society as if nothing had happened to them.

The majority of those healed were drawn from the poor sectors of society, including beggars, women and children; such people could not afford the fees relating to medical care. In healing them, Jesus dissolved the social barriers that separated people from each other and introduced them to the possibility that God was not as far from them as they may have feared.

Matthew records Jesus' healing ministry as being directed to people on the margins of society (8:1-13; 9:1-7, 27-30; 14:14; 15:22) as does Mark, including the healing of non-Jews (7:24-30; 5:1-20; 7:31-37) and the ritually impure (1:40-45; 5:25-34). Similarly, Luke (4:16-30) records Jesus' sermon in Nazareth in which Jesus declares that he has come to minister to those on the perimeter of society, Jesus being presented as healing gentiles (7:1-10; 17:11-19) and those excluded from society (5:12-16; 8:26-39; 19:1-10).

The significance of this is not simply to illustrate that Jesus had compassion on those rejected by society so much as to demonstrate his authority to incorporate them back into society as fully contributing members, with the new revelation that God had not rejected them, for their illnesses had been removed. In this regard, Jesus is presented as fulfilling the prophecies concerning a new age in which God's mercy would be fully revealed (Isa. 14:1; 49:13; 54:8; 55:3; Jer. 12:15). God, in the person of Jesus, has come to touch hurt humanity and infuse his own wholeness into lives that have been broken and scarred.

Thus, the gospel healings are provided as records of Jesus meeting the marginalized and dispossessed, providing hope for the hopeless and help for the helpless. Through his healings, Jesus offered freedom to those bound by illness or demonic influence, and any attendant societal or religious restrictions, making it possible for them to be reintegrated into society and into their faith community whilst also enabling them to be productive again. Although not all benefited fully from the potential provided by Jesus to actualize their freedom, his healing ministry encapsulates his mission to a humanity in its weakness. This determination to minister to the marginalized, integrating them again into society, must be more frequently reflected in contemporary Christian healing.

"So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.'" (Acts 9:17)]

The use of hands is also a major element in the healing praxis of the apostles (Acts 9:17, 41; 14:3; 19:11; 28:8) as they reflect Jesus in healing activity and methodology. Here, a relatively unknown character is described as also using the laying on of hands to bring healing to the man who will be one of the most significant leaders in the early church.

A number of lessons may be derived from this account:

Ananias follows the practice of Jesus, as did the apostles; so also may believers today.
The characteristic of compassion is present in the use of hands laid on a man who has been suddenly and supernaturally blinded, possibly resulting in uncertainty and fear on his part. The friendliness of hands is appropriate in this context, as it is for all believers.
The element of authority is very significant in the use of hands, as also demonstrated by Jesus. This is not an automatic authority, nor does the use of hands always indicate that restoration will take place. However, Ananias is responding to a commission from Jesus, as emphasized by the reference to the name of Jesus in his statement to Saul. When combined with the person and authority of Jesus, restoration is to be expected and the use of hands in healing and restoration is an appropriate affirmation of that expectation.

Discussion questions

In what ways do the following stanzas explore the character of God, as revealed in God's capacity to care?

He flung the stars out into space
and everyone went to its place and stayed.
He dropped the oceans in the sea;
the waters flowed obediently.
He tossed the sun and moon up high;
they shone for Him in the darkened sky.
He in His power and in His might
ordered the day to turn to night.
He commanded everything to be right
for He, the Creator, ruled.

He reigned supreme in splendour, awe;
his glory - no one could endure.
The King did as He pleased and more;
the King just spoke the Word and angels in their glittering hordes
pounced to obey His every word, their King, their Lord.

But he cradles us in His arms;
He joins us in our storm and gently calms our fears.
He steps into our shoes, just where we are;
He shepherds us with tender care,
with fingers, hands,
love beyond compare.
He flung the stars out into space
but He welcomes us with a warm embrace.
He shows us a glimpse of His eternal grace,
to us, members of a fallen race.
When our name He calls
His love is a soft place to fall.
The King has a smile upon His face
for the Shepherd has made us His own.

What symbols of reconciliation and restoration are particularly appropriate to your culture and Christian context?
What are the potential benefits and impact to individuals when being touched in the context of community prayer on their behalf?
Imagine how people felt when Jesus laid his hands on them (Matt. 9:29; Mark 5:4133; Luke 18:15; John 9:6). What thoughts may have gone through the minds of those who watched?
In what situations may touching another person be inappropriate? What alternative actions could be incorporated to achieve the same symbolic benefit?
Does the absence of touch indicate a decrease in the potential of supernatural restoration? Provide evidence for your response.