There are two versions of the gospel story of the ‘healing of the sick in Gennesaret’, a shorter version in Matthew and a longer one in Mark. The stories are as follows, with the corresponding parts aligned (my emphases).
(34) And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.
(35) And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent round to all that region and brought to him all that were sick,
(36) and besought him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment; and as many as touched it were made well.
(53) And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret,
and moored to the shore. (54) And when they got out of the boat, immediately
the people recognized him, (55) and ran about the whole neighborhood and began to bring sick people
on their pallets to any place where they heard he was. (56) And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or country, they laid the sick in the market places,
and besought him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment; and as many as touched it were made well.
Besides the extra parts in Mark, there is one crucial difference between the two versions: what in Matthew 14:35 are the men– the male inhabitants – in Mark 6:54b are the people (in fact ‘they’). I believe we should address this difference first because in my opinion a correct interpretation of this pericope depends on a sound decision which of both is original. Did Matthew narrow the recognisers to the male half of the population, or did Mark extend the males to the whole population? Which of both is more plausible when gathering sick people?
At first sight Mark’s version seems to be original, as it seems plausible that both sexes were involved in gathering the sick. What then could have inspired Matthew to exclude the women, and – at the same time – to remove the details of gathering and transporting the ill?
In my opinion we should look at this pericope the other way around. Maybe Matthew’s ‘male’ version is original, and maybe Mark has led this pericope away from its original meaning by generalising ‘the men’ to become ‘the people’ and at the same time adding information on physical illness or disability. Does πάντας τοὺς κακῶς ἔχοντας (pantas tous kakōs echontas), translated as ‘all that were sick’ in Matthew 14:35, necessarily point to physical illness if an explanation in that direction is not provided? The expression κακῶς ἔχειν (kakōs echein) indicates that the person described is in bad shape, but this deplorable condition is not necessarily limited to physical health. Without Mark’s physical health diversion, one could understand people to be in a more generally deplorable condition (materially, socially, psychologically). The male-only picture Matthew is painting could point to a situation that involves only men, which is suggestive of a military context. Men are gathering other men. At the end of the pericope the people involved (the males involved?) feel better. The effect of Jesus’ action is described with διασᾠζω (diasōizō) in Matthew and with σᾠζω (sōizō) in Mark. Although these verbs can be used in a health context, their meaning is much broader, general meaning ‘to keep from harm, to preserve, to rescue’, referring primarily to the positive effect leading figures had on the people under their protection. So maybe Jesus is not depicted here as a miracle healer but rather as a leader.
This brings us to the touching of the fringe of Jesus’ garment by the ‘sick’. This behaviour is drawn from Numeri 15:37-41, which uses identical terms. The core of the practice to which the Numeri verses refer is total dedication to God, culminating in the last words ἐγὼκύριοςὁθεὸςὑμῶν (egōkurios ho theos humōn), ‘I am the Lord your God’. Maybe this is what the men who came to Jesus did: they offered their total commitment to God, more specifically to the Zealot commandment to have only God as their master. This commitment brought about a positive change in the mind of these poor wretches: a new project, new hope, new enthusiasm, expressed by the verb (δια)σᾠζω.
I believe that the reality behind this pericope in Matthew is described by Ben-Sasson in A History of the Jewish People, p. 271: Landless farmers, refugees from various places and unemployed temporary labourers constituted the reserves from which the increasingly frequent riots and rebellions drew their manpower.
The picture that arises from Matthew’s version of the story of the healing of the sick in Gennesaret is the picture of Jesus son of Saphat making his rounds in the Galilean countryside recruiting soldiers for the Zealot revolutionary army. As he arrives in Gennesaret, some men recognize him, and they make their way around the neighbouring villages where they come across many men in a deplorable situation who want to fight against the Romans hoping to improve their pitiable fate. They come to Jesus and as a kind of ‘oath of allegiance’ to the Zealot ideals they touch the fringes of the garment of their region’s rebel leader. Maybe this was accompanied by a motto like ‘God alone is our Master’. This recruitment mission took place at the beginning of the war against the Romans (end of 66 CE, beginning of 67 CE).
Although in general I adhere to Markan priority, in this pericope Matthew has priority over Mark. Therefore this pericope is an example of the complexity of the editing of the gospels.