09 May 2013

After he went down from the mountain...

[This exegesis of Matthew 8:1-3 was written for my recently completed class on the Synoptic Gospels.]



Immediately after the conclusion of his extended moral preaching in Matthew 5-7, Christ descends and performs a series of miracles. First among these is the healing of a leper, from whom we have the classic line “Lord, if you will you can make me clean.” In the following exegesis of this miracle story, we will look in detail at the Greek text [1] of this passage, its symbolic content, relationship to the Matthean theme of Jesus as lawgiver, and the implications of Christ’s encounter for the theology of grace. For reference and comparison in our analysis of the text we will engage the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Chrysostom [2], Frederick Bruner [3], and Ulrich Luz [4]. The passage is brief but quite dense in content, and so, given our limited space, we will omit Matthew 8:4, in which Christ commands that the leper present himself with requisite sacrifice to the priest. However, even absent this verse the passage forms a rich and cogent theological unit.

1 Καταβάντος δὲ αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τοῦ ὄρους After he went down from the mountain… This passage follows the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:25), which is self-consciously modeled after the giving of the Mosaic Law in Exodus. There, Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive God’s commands, while the people wait below in fear. After the giving of the law, Moses descends the mountain (Ex 34) to find the people engaged in idolatry. The descent marks a transition from the sacred, set apart for divine use, to the profane, filled with humanity, its moral turmoil and uncleanness. Christ’s giving of the law has already distinguished itself from the old covenant in that the disciples are present, and the law is not mediated by Moses, but promulgated immediately by the lawmaker himself. Christ teaches the crowds how to live, and then descends the mountain with them. He is present with them in living out the laws. Christ’s relationship to the Mosaic covenant is a matter of constant interest to Matthew, and plays a particularly important role in this passage. It is a contrastive relationship, but also one of fulfillment and reinforcement (Matt 5:17).

ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ ὄχλοι πολλοί. Many crowds followed him… In Matthew’s gospel, the crowds following Jesus, the number of followers, and those who depart from his company, are all signals used to mark the way a particular teaching is received. Like Moses at his initial descent from Sinai, when the people promised to keep the terms of the covenant (Ex 19:8), the people still follow Jesus as he descends. Many will fall away as he proceeds to put into work what he has set out in speech, as they are progressively scandalized by the teaching and works of Christ (Matt 11:6).

2 καὶ ἰδοὺ And behold! The direct command to the reader ἰδοὺ is a noteworthy narrative device. It not only punctuates the story by inviting particular attention to the events about to be recounted, but suggests that they are of particular note, in this case because they are miraculous. But it is not merely the miraculous nature of Jesus’s activity that merits our particular attention, but also the way it represents the fulfillment of the law: of the old law of Moses, and also the new law of the Gospel, which has just been promulgated. Finally, the command to look and see directly what is about to happen invites the listener to place himself with Jesus and the crowds and enter into a direct, personal relationship with the events as they take place.

λεπρὸς προσελθὼν προσεκύνει αὐτῷ A leper, after coming forward, prostrated himself before him… As is well known, the leper is required to keep his distance from the community (Lev 12:46), and mark himself both by his clothing and his warnings to others (Lev 13:45 and elsewhere) so as to prevent his disease from communicating itself to others. His disease makes the leper ritually unclean. [5] And yet the leper approaches Jesus in the midst of many crowds, and prostrates himself before him. This example of persistence, of the unclean breaking protocol out of a desire to be healed, is paralleled several other times in the gospel (we think in particular of the woman with the hemorrhage in Matt 9:21ff.). What it emphasizes to us is that Jesus cannot be made unclean, but is a pure fount of sanctity, which heals all ills and washes away all impurities. We also find something of the audacity of those seeking healing, that they trust so much in the authority and power of Christ that they will approach him even when it seems unreasonable or violates protocol.

λέγων· κύριε Saying, Lord… There are great riches in the leper’s words, which, paired with Christ’s response, form the core of our passage. The leper does not begin by announcing his uncleanness, but having fallen in supplication before Christ, calls him “Lord”. We think of the supplicant coming before a judge appealing for mercy, or in the classical model the worshipper taking Zeus by the knees to plead for help. He does not call Jesus Rabbi, teacher, or master, but Lord. [6] The use of this name is powerfully contrastive, since it makes clear how conscious the leper is of his lowliness before Christ.

ἐὰν θέλῃς δύνασαί με καθαρίσαι. If you will it, you can cleanse me… The confession of Christ’s Lordship provides the rationale for the leper’s next acknowledgment. The form of the request is a present general conditional, which states a universal law of causal implication: whenever X is the case, Y is the case. The power of the leper’s confession is magnified as we look at it in detail: the sole condition provided is Christ’s willingness, ἐὰν θέλῃς, from which follows the power to act, δύνασαί, and most extraordinarily the power to cleanse, με καθαρίσαι, which is not granted to humans. The Mosaic Law gives priests at most the ability to find someone clean or unclean (Lev 12-13), depending on their objective status, whether the illness continues to afflict them. The leper thus attributes to Christ not merely an extraordinary ritual power, the ability to cleanse, but also by implication a miraculous healing power, in removing the leprosy itself.

If we see in the leper’s confession a deep awareness of the divinity of Christ, then, reading the leper as a type of the penitent sinner, we can take his supplication as a representation of the stages necessary for repentance. First, the penitent acknowledges his uncleanness and desires healing. Second, he approaches Christ, contrary to the constraints of natural prudence, in the hope of being healed. Third, he humbles himself before the Lord, confessing Christ’s divinity and his own lowliness, recognizing his inability to cleanse himself. Fourth, he acknowledges the power of Christ to heal him, merely by willing. Fifth, he recognizes the freedom of Christ in choosing to heal him. Sixth, he waits ready to receive Christ’s mercy. The leper’s act of supplication is perfect, and all the more remarkable for its brevity. He does not speak of himself except in terms of Christ’s will, thereby placing himself at the disposal of divine providence and trusting in the Lord’s good will. Though this is not one of the cases where Christ announces that the person’s faith has saved him, clearly such an announcement would be appropriate. The leper demonstrates true simplicity, having comprehended the full reality of his situation in relation to Christ in a single thought, centered on the good will of the Lord. The excellence of his prayer is difficult to match.

3 καὶ ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα ἥψατο αὐτοῦ and reaching out [his] hand he took hold of him… But even though the leper has been given this prevenient grace, by which he has the courage to approach Jesus and the rectitude and clarity of mind to pray rightly, his prayer is only an instrumental or dispositive cause of his healing. The real work, as the leper has already confessed, is to be done by Christ. Matthew stresses this by showing Christ reaching out, ἐκτείνας, to the leper—the initial approach is made by the supplicant under the influence of grace, but the real work of transformation is performed by Christ alone. [7] The action of Christ in this moment is powerful. Not only does he stretch out his hand to heal the man, but he latches on to him, or grabs him, ἥψατο, as if not to let go. Christ is taking possession of the leper, binding him to himself, and by so doing he demonstrates the power of baptism, which imparts a permanent character in the baptized, who, once washed clean, is forever grafted into the vine (though if found fruitless at the judgment he may be removed from it again).

Beyond this there is the obvious fact, once again, of Christ’s apparent violation of purity norms, by reaching out and touching the Leper. Bruner points out [8] that Elisha and Moses, in two Old Testament leper healings, remain at a distance. Since Christ is the source of all sanctity, his action is not, clearly, a real violation of the purity rules, but a fulfillment of them as he makes the leper clean by his word and touch. It is often noted that Christ’s healing miracles, though dependent chiefly on his will and his word, are accompanied by a physical sign or direct contact with the person to be healed. In this way the spiritual movement of absolution, which corresponds to the inward purification of the one healed, is paralleled by the outward action of Christ, which corresponds to the bodily healing of the person. [9]

λέγων· θέλω, καθαρίσθητι· saying, I will it, be cleansed… Christ responds to the perfect prayer of the leper by fulfilling it with equal simplicity. We might think of this interaction in contrast to a more complex one, like the healing of the Syrophoenecian woman’s daughter (Matt 15:21-28), where Christ responds to the request only after the woman has demonstrated her faith sufficiently by inserting herself into a certain metaphorical discourse in the right way. In this case the symmetry of plea and reply merely suggests to us further that the request was planted in the heart of the leper by Christ. Otherwise how could he have known to ask so perfectly? Notice also that Christ addresses his act of willing directly to the leper, commanding him to be cleansed. The power of Christ is not merely one of prayer, by which he asks God to heal the leper, but one of direct action: the Lordship of Jesus extends to the leper who has placed himself beneath him, and his power is sufficient to spiritually purify and perfect the body and soul of the man before him. The action of purification is in the leper, just as the grace of Christ is efficacious within the person who receives it, and not only by external imputation.

καὶ εὐθέως ἐκαθαρίσθη αὐτοῦ ἡ λέπρα. And immediately the leprosy was cleansed from him. Chrysostom emphasizes the immediacy of the effects of Christ’s word, and says that εὐθέως is inadequate to describe the swiftness and close connection of decree to effect. This reflects that Christ’s power works interiorly by the very being of those he has come to heal and sanctify. Just as the being of creatures is supplied constantly by the will of the creator, so the transformation of that act of existing through grace works without delay, since its source is infinite and directly present within all created things. However, again, the infinite power and closeness of the divine work in us is also shown by Christ’s acts to be mediated through the activity of finite causes: Christ’s human voice, his touch, and before that the leper’s humility and supplication. All of these actions mediate the grace of Christ and demonstrate its nature to us, so that, as Aquinas says, those who are taught may also be given the ability to teach. [10]

To conclude, this brief encounter demonstrates the working out of the Law in the hearts of those moved by Christ—both its immediate efficacy beyond the merit or fittingness of those who receive it, and its mediation through temporal acts of kindness and mercy, worship and supplication. In a short, densely constructed passage, Matthew shows the beginning of Christ’s ministry after the Sermon on the Mount, as the one who fulfills the law in spirit and truth, and brings the power of God to work in healing and sanctifying those wounded by sin and illness.









[1] The Greek text is taken from the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, retrieved from http://www.nestle-aland.com/en/read-na28-online/ The English translations given are my own.


[2] In particular, Chrystostom’s 28th Sermon on the Gospel of Matthew, taken from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 10. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/200125.htm>.


[3] Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew: A Commentary, Volume 1, The Christbook, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004).


[4] Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 8-20: A Commentary, trans. James E. Crouch, ed. Helmut Koester, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).


[5] Cf. Bruner 373.


[6] Cf. Luz 5.


[7] Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Ia IIae q.109


[8] Bruner 375.


[9] Luz notes additionally (p. 7), that this passage invites a socially conscious reading of the Gospel, a call care for actual sick and excluded people, and not only for those who suffer from spiritual disease.


[10] Cf. Summa Theologiae Ia q. 103 a.6 co.