The Old Testament today provides an interesting comparison to today’s Gospel lesson.
Naaman, the leper, expected the man of God to put on a good show, saying: “Behold, I thought he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper” (cf. 2 Kings 5:11).
He was disappointed that only a messenger of the man of God arrived, telling him to wash in a probably dirty river. He said, “‘Are not the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?’ So he turned and went away in a rage” (cf. 2 Kings 5:12).
Then, Naaman’s servants questioned him about the actual words spoken, the message of the messenger, and if he really said: “Wash and be clean” (cf. 2 Kings 5:10, 13).
“So [Naaman] went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean” (2 Kings 5:14).
Then Naaman said, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel” (2 Kings 5:15).
We often share in Naaman’s frustrations, wanting a miraculous show of force, not content with the simplicity and straightforwardness of God’s revelation.
Naaman had to humble himself to wash in a dirty river.
That’s not what he wanted.
He wanted what we sometimes want—the still, small voice.
The inward, movement-of-the-heart.
The feeling that something is happening.
It’s often the case we’re disappointed with what’s considered common or average.
We want something special.
The appearance of worldly success, perhaps.
A reason to boast of ourselves.
But for Naaman and for us all—God wants none of that.
He gives the opposite, in fact, on purpose, to test your faith.
You want God Himself? He sends a servant.
You want visible miracles, hand waving, and the Almighty God working wonders? He gives you water, bread, wine, the sign of the cross, and the spoken words of Jesus Christ.
You want the rivers of Damascus.
He gives you the Jordan or the Blackwater or the Missouri.
God works not according to smoke and mirrors, not in our feelings, not even in our memories of golden days and years and the worldly look of success.
God works in His Word proclaimed—in water, in bread and wine, included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word.
By means of common things and His Word.
That’s how God works.
Until, so it seems, we compare Naaman to the leper in today’s Gospel lesson.
In Matthew chapter eight, “Behold, a leper came to [Jesus] and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you [are willing], you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I [am willing]; be [cleansed].’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them’” (Matthew 8:2-4).
Right after we heard that God doesn’t do the whole “special show” thing, Jesus seems to do exactly that, a special, miraculous show for this leper.
Jesus “stretched out his hand and touched him” (Matthew 8:3). He indicated the will of God to cleanse the leper by saying, “I [am willing]…” (Matthew 8:3). And He spoke cleansed flesh into existence by saying, “…Be [cleansed]” (Matthew 8:3).
He put on a show.
A small one, yes, but compared to Naaman, a show.
Here’s the difference:
Naaman wanted the show—so—he didn’t get one.
The leper before Jesus, though, confesses the simple truth that if the Lord is willing to do something, then that thing will be done.
But—it’s better that the Lord’s will be done than my will or the will of the leper.
Perhaps this leper knows the Lord’s Prayer, that Jesus teaches us to pray: “Thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10).
That’s how he prays. The leper before Jesus says, “Lord, if you [are willing], you can make me clean” (Matthew 8:2).
His faith looks to God for everything—even the desires of his heart—and—simultaneously, he appends “Thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10) to his prayer, trusting and knowing that God is at work both to will and to do for His good pleasure (cf. Philippians 2:13).
God is merciful.
That’s why, in verse four, Jesus says to the now ex-leper, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them” (Matthew 8:4).
It might seem strange that silence is commanded after such a miracle, but it’s done so this man knows that God has no ulterior motive.
“Tell no one” means God healed him out of love—not some desire for prestige.
God can and does endure a lack of prestige and fame.
God endures slander—and the Church with Him.
Whatever words others might have—we have the words of eternal life.
We have the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who’s willing to touch the leper, to take into Himself our infirmities and sin—our uncleanness.
That we would be healed and restored and raised up.
Then—we have the pious example of the centurion.
“When [Jesus] had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him, ‘Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly’” (Matthew 8:5-6).
And again, unlike with Naaman, what does Jesus do?
He immediately offers to go and do as the man requests, saying, “I will come and heal him” (Matthew 8:7).
But the centurion didn’t need the show.
“[He] replied, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to one, “Go,” and he goes, and to another, “Come,” and he comes, and to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it’” (Matthew 8:8-9).
The centurion could’ve been part of the prestige, part of the talk of the town—and when that’s good, we want it very much—but this centurion cares only for his servant, saying, “I’m not worthy to have you come under my roof. Speak but a word, and my servant will be healed” (cf. Matthew 8:8).
And Jesus marvels at his faith.
“He marveled and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly…with no one in Israel have I found such faith. Many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness…[where there will be] weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (cf. Matthew 8:11-12).
“To the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.’ And the servant was healed at that very moment” (Matthew 8:13).
It’s important, of course, that Jesus finds no equal in all Israel to this Gentile centurion’s faith.
That’s good news. Salvation is for all.
But it’s important, also, to note again that Jesus marvels at the centurion’s faith.
Jesus marvels only twice in the New Testament.
He marvels here, in Matthew chapter eight, at the faith of centurion (He marvels, also, of course, in Luke chapter seven, when this same event is recorded there—but that counts as one).
Because Jesus marvels at faith.
But—He also marvels at unbelief.
In Mark chapter six, when Jesus is teaching at the synagogue in Nazareth, they take offense at Him, “And he marveled because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:6).
He who has ears to hear, let him hear:
Jesus marvels at faith—big or small—that trusts Him for salvation.
And—Jesus marvels at unbelief.
The people hear the flute and do not dance—the dirge and do not mourn (cf. Matthew 11:17).
Jesus marvels because His blood is shed for all, forgives all, reconciles all, avails for all—and some hate Him for it.
If the Lord marvels today, let Him marvel over the faith that He has authored and perfected.
Let Him marvel over the many who hear the Gospel and believe it.
Let Him marvel on account of all who believe and pray as He has taught us—
That His will be done among us.
Our sins forgiven.
Our bodies raised on the Last Day.
And our life, with Him, lasting—forever.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
The Third Sunday After the Epiphany, 2022
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt