Even the youngest of souls grasps the difference between making a promise and the fulfilling of that promise. Any parent can promise their toddler a trip to Disney World or to Lego Land. But only those with the means and ability to take their child to a theme park and to pay the price of admission can make their children’s dreams come true. Ability is found not in words but in action.
Do Jesus’s Dreams Come True?
The writer of the gospel of Matthew grasps this reality. He anticipates the concerns of both his ancient and modern readers who observe the great beauty the Sermon on the Mount. While all people long for a world in which hate is overcome by love, most assume that it cannot be achieved by the fickle and relationally clumsy souls that make up our cultures and churches. In one sense, the writer of Matthew shares in the readers pessimism, noting that human religion falls short of Jesus’s grand vision. Jesus repeatedly says, “You have heard it said…but I say to you (Matt 5:21-22; 27-28; 31-32; 33-34; 38-39; 43-44).” But unlike Matthew’s many readers who wonder how the next generation of religious ne’er-do-wells can do any better, Matthew directs the reader’s attention not towards humanity but towards Christ. If the kingdom of God is to arrive and if selfish, hateful, and malicious people are to become selfless, peaceful, and kind, Jesus must do it.
The question remains: can he? Can Jesus turn his words into actions? Can he get us to the amazing world of the kingdom of God?
While ever pessimistic about the human condition, Matthew remains ever hopeful in the abilities of Jesus (Matt 5:18-19). According to the Gospel writer, Jesus can and will establish the kingdom of God for he makes the unclean clean. In short, the answer is an emphatic “yes!”
Making the Unclean Clean
To prove that the Sermon on the Mount is not just another somewhat inspirational and yet totally unfeasible mandate for souls exhausted by a lifetime of failed promises, Matthew recounts how Jesus miraculously healed a leper.
In Jesus’s day, the term leprosy covered a wide range of skin diseases that could cause everything from the discoloration of the skin to the losing of fingers and toes (Lev. 13-14). If a person did not recover from their disease by the end of seven days, they would be exiled from their community and from the temple. Leviticus 13:45-46 prescribed the following:
The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean. He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.
Though the possibility of healing existed, the law and the priestly system could only diagnosis and condemn. Such actions prevented others from contracting the disease but essentially condemned the leper to a humiliating death shrouded in uncleanness. As an old Israelite king noted when the Syrian general Naaman asked from permission to visit Israel in the hopes of finding a cure for his leprosy, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy (2 Kg 5:7)?” Men and women could not make the unclean clean. Leprosy proved fatal.
But, Jesus can. When the leper approaches Jesus in Matthew 8:1-2, modern readers can grasp the shock value of this moment having lived through the COVID-19 pandemic. Where the text to be updated into today’s context, the leper’s actions could be equated to a man profusely sweating, coughing, and stumbling about with all the demonstrative signs of the coronavirus raging through his body. Undoubtedly many in the crowd would openly question the leper’s actions for he has put all kinds of people at risk. But unlike the crowds of his day and those of us afraid of diseases, Jesus does not recoil from the leper. When the leper says, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean,” the text reports that “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleaned.” Jesus triumphs over uncleanness. When sickness touches Jesus, he does not become unclean, the uncleanness becomes whole. He restores that which is broken.
Jesus is Better
In that moment, Jesus does something that no other human being can do. Even the youngest of children know that when you pour dirty water into clean, the clean does not purify the dirty. For this reason, Paul reminds Christians that, “Bad company ruins good morals (1 Cor. 15:33).” When Christians embrace and touch abuse, sexual immorality, gossip, greed, or any other number of sins in their midst, the sinners do not become pure, the healthy Christians become sick. The human condition remains as it was when that when the old Israelite king encountered Naaman’s request. We cannot make the unclean clean.
Only Jesus can. His ability to heal the sick reveals that he is the Messiah. Matthew notes in 8:17 that this miracle and the others that follow were done “to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illness and bore our diseases.” Jesus can bring the kingdom of God to bear. He can promise greatness and achieve it.
Jesus can heal the sick and overcome both physical and spiritual uncleanness for he has dealt with the world’s fundamental problem: sin. The apostle Peter following the lead of Matthew and Isaiah concludes that Jesus, “bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wound you have been healed (1 Pt 2:24).” In other words, the healings that Jesus accomplished in Matthew 8 point to his death and resurrection in Matthew 27-28. Because Jesus makes the unclean clean, the reader knows that Jesus can truly absolve us from all sin and guilt and empower us to live the ethic of the Kingdom of heaven both today on earth and tomorrow in the new heavens and the new earth. Jesus can do it.
The knowledge of Jesus’s ability to make the unclean clean should cause hope to burst forth in every soul. No soul proves too dirty for the saving grace of God. No stain of sin proves permanent. If we will but ask Jesus to heal us, he will make our spots as white as snow.
The Sermon on the Mount proves not to be a philosophical daydream of what could be. It is what is. Jesus possesses the ability to fulfill his promises. Lepers are healed. Sinners are saved and sanctified. The kingdom of God is real.