This passage in Matthew summarizes Jesus’s ministry of healing and preaching in a few graphic sentences.
It begins with the casting out of a demon from a possessed man. The demon had kept the man dumb. When the devil was cast out, the man began to speak. All the bystanders exclaimed, “nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.”
In the ancient world any illness was the result of ‘possession’ by evil spirits bent on ruining the life of the possessed person. This is why so many cures had prayers, incantations and sacred objects as part of the process. The Gospels acknowledge this world view in their use of the metaphor of the devil as a strong man, one who bosses over the earth as his kingdom. But Jesus is one stronger. He casts out the devil and releases his subjects from their bondage. Although this is an ancient metaphor, it is still relevant today when we encounter people who are victims of addictions for which there seems no medical cure – like alcoholism, drugs, sex, gambling or violence. “Such demons are only cast out by prayer.”
Jesus is unsparing of himself. He goes around every small town and village in Galilee, preaching in the synagogues and healing every kind of illness and disease. Every Gospel writer has pointed out the close connection between his preaching and his healing: Jesus heals the sick and makes them whole again in order to praise God, and listen attentively to his proclamation of the Kingdom. Anyone who has accepted the values of ‘God’s reign’ never falls ill again, or is never again the victim of a demonic possession.
Matthew closes this passage with two homely metaphors, instantly recognizable in the rural society of his day. The crowds were like “sheep without a shepherd” – harassed, helpless, prey to wolves and other wild beasts. “The crop is heavy, but the laborers are few.” To be a disciple of Jesus is to share in his mission of healing and preaching. But there is so much to do, and the genuine disciples are so few.