Jesus entered Peter’s house, and seeing his wife’s mother struck down with a fever, he took her hand and the fever left her; she got up and waited upon them. When it was evening, they brought to him many demon-possessed people, and he threw out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were ill. So what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah was fulfilled:

He himself took on our infirmities and carried our diseases.

Matthew has just begun his extensive record of Jesus’ healings, but he wants his readers to grasp what is really happening. This leads to a certain brevity in his narrative style: he wants the reader to focus on Jesus rather than the circumstances of his healings or the people who are healed. If we compare Matthew’s version of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law with Mark’s (Mark 1.) we can see that all extraneous details given by Mark – the presence of other disciples, the fact that she is invisible to Jesus, and the others have to tell him about her (screened) presence, his “raising her up” etc. – have been erased. Then of course we realise that the details were not irrelevant but central to Mark’s meaning, just as their absence is central to Matthew’s: his Jesus heals because he is God’s acceptance of the burden of human suffering.

That’s what Matthew is leading us to understand. The quotation from Isaiah chapter 53 is a shocking (and unique) interpretation of Jesus’ healing ministry: he takes on our infirmities! The terrible image of the crucified Jesus in Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece, in which the saviour’s pocked skin is vividly rendered, may be a response to the same biblical passage. Only the Son of God is capable of bearing the weight of human misery; and in taking it on, he takes it away.

This is such a profound interpretation, that we must not limit its application to this small corner of Matthew’s story of Jesus, but rather expect to find it throughout. I think this is the key to an understanding of his version of the “joyful tidings” of Jesus. The magic is a marvellous compassion rather than a marvellous power.

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