1) Jesus has been on the move throughout the countryside, and here he comes across Matthew sitting in his “tax booth” (or “toll booth”) (Matthew 9:9). Matthew was likely a kind of customs official, charging a “toll” or “tax” on goods being transported to market; for example, such booths were sometimes set up along roadsides near fishing villages. Tax collectors were widely unpopular, not only because the taxes themselves were onerous, and not only because such funds supported the Roman Empire and its collaborators — but also because tax collectors were often suspected of charging more than required, and pocketing the difference.
2) It’s striking, then, that Jesus would call such an “undesirable” to be his twelfth disciple; it certainly raised eyebrows among some Pharisees, as did Jesus’ custom of eating with “tax collectors and sinners” (Pharisees were a local religious group, in many ways similar to the movement gathering around Jesus, and therefore a key rival in that local context). But it’s also worth thinking about that Jesus’ other disciples — many of whom, after all, were fisherman! — likely didn’t care much for tax collectors! Indeed, the gist of the overall story suggests that by calling Matthew, Jesus is driving home a point intended not only for outside observers, but also for his own followers.
3) And what is that point? In a nutshell, that no-one is disqualified from becoming part of the movement — and indeed that Jesus is most interested in people who need help, just as a physician is most interested in people who are sick. As Matthew has been making clear all along in these opening chapters, Jesus is a healer: he comes not to reward those who are already well, but rather to help us become well in the first place.
4) But not, please note, to “make us well” without our active participation. A woman Jesus meets on the road serves as a definitive, iconic role model: she has been bleeding for twelve years (and so likely has been ostracized for twelve years), and yet she approaches Jesus with a fierce form of hope, saying to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well” (Matthew 9:21). The underlying word here — translated as “be made well” in the NRSV — is the Greek word, sózó (pronounced “SODE-zo,” rhymes with “ROAD-so”), which can also be translated, “save,” “heal,” “preserve,” or “rescue.” And in pursuit of this salvation, this healing, this rescue, the woman is nothing less than audacious. Not only does she make her way through the entourage of disciples in order to touch Jesus’ garment, she pushes through the words of Leviticus, too, the ancient ideas that not only is she “unclean,” but anything she touches will become “unclean” — including the one whose clothing she reaches out to touch!
5) It’s worth pausing here to let this sink in: a supposedly “unclean” outcast, a woman, boldly touches a Holy Teacher without his permission, apparently desecrating him in the process. The disciples must have been wide-eyed, stunned. Will Jesus be angry? Has he been defiled? Jesus stops, turns around, and confronts the woman…
6) …and without skipping a beat, praises her for her boldness, her daring, her persistence, her faith: “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well” (again, the word is sózó). And this formulation, too, is yet another surprise, since one might well draw the conclusion that Jesus’ power is the reason the woman is healed (Matthew 9:22). But on the contrary, Jesus draws attention not to his power, but to hers. Your faith has made you well…
7) And so Jesus continues on his way to the house of a leader of a local synagogue, a man whose daughter has just died. With a boldness that mirrors the woman’s faith, the man, too, believes that Jesus’ touch can make his daughter “live” (here the underlying word is zaó (pronounced “ZAH-oh”), the same word in “One does not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4)). When he arrives at the house, Jesus disperses the mourners, takes the girl’s corpse by the hand — and she gets up. She lives. Here again, with his actions Jesus dissolves supposed barriers: between “clean” and “unclean” (Numbers 19:11-13), between life and death. Thus the story foreshadows Jesus’ death and resurrection, as well as the broader promised resurrection to come.
8) The idea that “faith” is a kind of audacity is at least as old as the story of Abraham and Sarah, a saga which begins with God’s call to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). At least two things stand out in this ancient story: first, that it begins with God delivering a single, powerful word — “Go” — summoning Abram and Sarai (later Abraham and Sarah) to leave what’s familiar and set out on an adventure. And second, that the purpose of this calling isn’t only for their benefit; it’s ultimately for everyone: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).
1) As Matthew arranges them, these episodes share a common theme: Jesus’ barrier-dissolving, healing, life-giving ministry, an approach to “salvation” that defies conventional categories. Is Jesus more interested in “eternal life” or “life here and now”? Sózó carries both connotations at once, effectively debunking the distinction. God saves the righteous and damns sinners — right? Nope. Jesus comes to save sinners, he says, the outsiders, those who need help and healing. Even tax collectors! For Christians today, this means: Even and especially people you look down on, or distrust, or otherwise disrespect. While we’re counting them out, Jesus is inviting them in.
2) Likewise, just as Jesus dissolves ethnic and sociopolitical barriers between Jews and Gentiles (a major theme in Matthew’s Gospel), he also dissolves barriers of contempt and marginalization within religious communities. For Christians today, then, the task is most definitely not to criticize Jewish practices (thereby ironically falling into the contempt trap all over again!), but rather to identify and root out Christian practices that implicitly or explicitly divide and marginalize, creating “outsiders” and “insiders.”
3) These stories also provide a glimpse of how Jesus thinks about scripture. He engages holy writ not with uncritical obeisance, as if every word in Leviticus or Numbers (or any other book) is to be taken at face value, but rather with wise rabbinical judgment, carefully weighing which passages are most important, which passages help throw light on other passages — and then applying those insights at the right time, in the right place, and in the right way (remember: “love your neighbor as yourself” is from Leviticus, too! (Leviticus 19:18)).
4) “Faith” is framed here as a form of audacity, a mode of barrier-dissolving boldness — and the woman with a hemorrhage is cast as a prime exemplar, a role model no less impressive than the local religious leader. The two make quite a pair: on one hand, a long-suffering outcast; on the other, a consummate insider. And in both cases, an audacious trust Jesus calls “faith,” a pivotal power possessed by each and every human being: “your faith has made you well [sózó]…”
5) Finally, a key hazard to avoid in coming to grips with these stories is the mistaken idea that any apparent absence of a “cure” means afflicted people are to blame for their “lack of faith.” Indeed, the fact that sózó and zaó encompass such a wide range of meanings — from salvation to health to resurrection to thriving to restoration-to-community — should stand as a guardrail against this misinterpretation. Healing comes in many different forms, physical, emotional, social, and otherwise, and we can trust that our most daring, faithful efforts will be met with God’s merciful healing touch, regardless of the form that healing takes in any given case. For that healing, after all, is the good news of the Gospel in these stories: Follow me. Yes, you. I know, I know: I know all about your past; but I’m calling you to a new future. Take heart, my children, reach out, push through, and dare to touch the edge of my cloak — for I am already reaching out to you, and will yet take your hand, both today and in the end. And when I do, I will call on you to stand up, to go (“Go!”), to set out, to embark on an adventure. In a word: to rise.