Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Two Blind Men & The Burden of Israel

And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him, crying aloud, "Have mercy on us, Son of David!" When he entered the house, the blind men came near him, and Jesus said to them, "Do you believe that I am able to do this?" They said to him, "Yes, Lord!"  Then he touched their eyes, saying, "According to the faith of you both, for you both it is done." And their eyes had opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, "See that no one knows about it." But they went away and spread his fame through all that district.  (Matt. 9:27-31)
Throughout chapters eight and nine of Matthew's gospel, numerous miracles have taken place, and now we have finally arrived at one of the last two. At first glance this story might seem very ordinary, perhaps even bland because of its fast pace, but there is actually a lot packed into it, especially if this narrative is viewed in light of where and when it began (back in chapter eight).

In this brief narrative we learn that Jesus "passed on from there." We might then ask, from where?  Well, in context, Jesus has "passed on" from the Jewish "ruler's" house where Jesus had just performed a miracle. But more importantly, keep in mind the location from which Jesus had left in the first place. Keep in mind that immediately before Jesus followed the ruler to his house, Jesus had just left Matthew's house where a great feast was being held, and where Jesus was the honored guest. Now, in this brief narrative, we find Jesus leaving the ruler's house (presumably to return to Matthew's house) and immediately he's followed by blind men. This is somewhat ironic because Jesus had just left a place where the people were ridiculing him -- a place where faith in him was apparently minimal, if there was any faith to be found at all. Yet from what Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us, the people who ridiculed him could see clearly that the ruler's daughter was dead, which is why they ridiculed him.  And here we find blind men following after Jesus because apparently they see more clearly than anyone else at the ruler's house! 

But not only are these men blind, two of them are mentioned explicitly. The last time "two" of anything were mentioned was with the two demonic-oppressors on the other side of the Sea, in Gentile territory (Matt. 8:28), where the people rejected Jesus. But this mention of two men seems to be more than just a random, arbitrary fact. As Jesus returns from the "ruler's" house, these two men "cry aloud" to him as well. At this point, Matthew is striking a cord in the ears of those listening carefully to his gospel.

Can you remember the last time someone "cried out" to Jesus?

The last time that someone "cried aloud" to Jesus was, again, the two demonic oppressors on the other side of the Sea, in Gentile territory, where the people rejected Jesus for casting out demons. Matthew 8:28-29 describes part of that event:

And when he came to the other side [of the Sea of Galilee], ...two demonic-oppressors met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they  cried out (krazo), "What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?"
Just a couple verses before this brief encounter with the two blind men (Matt. 9:27-31) Jesus is pictured as leaving the ruler's house where a demonic spirit of ridicule is found (8:24), and because the people didn't even have enough faith to believe Jesus was making an elementary truth claim -- namely that the ruler's daughter was asleep, not dead -- Jesus didn't feel very welcome around that crowd for very long. And it's with that scenario in mind that we find Jesus returning back to the place from which he traveled, namely Matthew's house, and two blind men cry aloud (krazo) like the demons on the other side of the Sea; except this time, instead of attempting to flee away from Jesus, saying "What have you to do with us, O Son of God?" these two men are trying to draw near to Jesus, and to get his attention by shouting, "Have mercy on us, Son of David!" The vibe we should be getting from this brief encounter is that these two blind men might possibly be just as insincere and unfaithful as the crowd which just ridiculed Jesus. After all, these blind men were probably part of that crowd. But yet, considering all the other circumstances, these two blind men stand out as seeing what others in the crowd were unable to see, namely that Jesus was The King, the promised Messiah.

There also is a sense in which we learn these two blind men aren't very discerning. After all, they are making a very vocal display of their belief in his Kingly authority, and that probably was not something Jesus was as enthusiastic about vocalizing around the ruler's house. Just stop for a few moments to reflect on that possibility. When Jesus drew near to the ruler's house (i.e. the ruler of a synagogue), Jesus was very cautious about what he said and did. In Matthew's account, Jesus didn't make an ostentatious display of his power. He didn't even make any public promises. He simply saw all the flute players going through their professional routine, and that was enough evidence for him to draw as little attention as possible to his miraculous power and divine authority. He told everyone that the girl was asleep, not dead. And still, the crowds ridiculed him. But that didn't stop him from doing what he came to do. He walked into the ruler's house anyway, grabbed his daughter by the hand, and she rose from her previous state of unconsciousness. No other words are spoken; no ostentatious display of authority; just a quick, in-and-out encounter, and back to Matthew's house he goes. Yet these two blind men don't care that Jesus has just been ridiculed. These two blind men hear all of the commotion and they conclude that Jesus is indeed the King of kings -- the Messiah.  And so, while others stand in shock of what they just saw, these two blind men feel the urge to proclaim him as God's anointed One, even though they didn't see a thing!

From this point on, the story gets even more interesting. Now we have arrived at the point where we might expect Jesus to do something great in response to their "crying aloud." If we suspect their faith is indeed false, we might expect Jesus to rebuke them or to ask them to stop making a big scene. If we suspect their faith is great, we might expect Jesus to respond by healing them on the spot, just as he had done with the suffering woman in the previous narrative. But instead of responding to their cries, we find perplexing silence from Jesus. Jesus just keeps on walking without speaking a word. And it's not until Jesus returns to "the house" from which he left earlier (i.e. "the house" in which Matthew threw a feast for Jesus earlier that day; Matt. 9:10) that we find Jesus saying some thing to these blind men. Not only do these two blind men believe Jesus is the Messianic King -- which was a huge claim to be making publicly in those days -- but their faith carries them all the way back to Matthew's house! Remember, these men were blind, not deaf!

But this is not all. There are still a few subtleties which need to be drawn out in order to appreciate the depth of Matthew's narrative. Not only do these men follow Jesus back to Matthew's house (c.f. Matt. 9:10 & 9:28), but when they finally do enter his home, the first thing they do is "come near" him. In Greek, this word is proserchomai, which means to come or go toward something. It's the same verb used to describe the suffering woman in Matthew's house who "came near" behind Jesus and touched the tassel of his garments as he was leaving to heal the ruler's daughter. Here again in Matthew's house, the two blind men come near to Jesus, echoing the great faith of the woman who suffered for twelves years.

...and Jesus said to them, "Do you believe that I am able to do this?"
Now I don't know about you, but when I first read this, I got the impression that Jesus was still a bit skeptical about their sincerity. And if he wasn't skeptical (which might just be my own perception of Matthew's narrative), he was at least testing their commitment to their very own claims about his divinity. Notice carefully that Jesus doesn't simply heal them after they draw near. Instead, Jesus asks them about their belief in his ability. He asks, "Do you believe I am able to do this?  Again, we find an echo from a previous encounter with Jesus. At the very beginning of this ongoing series of miracles, Jesus is confronted by a leper who tells Jesus, "Lord, if you will, you are able to make me clean." Then Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, "I will. Be cleansed!" (Matt. 8:2-3). Here, towards the end of this ongoing series of miracles, we find a faith which Jesus seems skeptical about. Instead of presuming that they have come near to him because they believe he can do this, he asks if they believe he can do this. What the leper stated boldly at the outset of this larger narrative, Jesus wants to ensure is the case with these blind men. 

But sill, we might ask, what ability is he asking them to believe in? In other words, believe in what? So far, the only thing which the blind men have been crying out for Jesus to do is to show mercy on them. But what does the mercy they're interested in look like? Does Matthew assume some connection between the leper's belief in cleansing ability, or are we supposed to make a connection between something else? Perhaps Matthew writes it this way to have us question their faith, thereby making a connection between their need for true faith and Jesus' ability to provide it for them. There isn't any way to be sure what the exact idea was that Matthew had in mind. Perhaps it was all three abilities: the ability to cleanse, increase faith, and heal. Perhaps.

My own personal opinion is that within the immediate context of Matthew's narrative, mercy is most likely what Jesus had in mind when he asked them about their belief in his ability. In other words, Jesus asks them if they believe he is able to show mercy in tangible, practical ways (like cleansing and healing). After all, it was within Matthew's house that Jesus teaches God's desire for mercy, not sacrifice (9:13). And when the ruler of the synagogue came and knelt before Jesus, interrupting the feast, Jesus rose and followed him because God desires mercy, not sacrifice. When the unclean woman clung to the tassel of his garment to get his attention as he was leaving, Jesus stopped, turned around, and healed her because God desires mercy, not sacrifice. And when Jesus arrived at the ruler's house, only to find crowds who would sooner ridicule him than believe simple truths, he went into the house anyway to raise the girl to life again because God desires mercy, not sacrifice. Now, after returning to Matthew's house, these two blind men come near to him in faith, and instead of showing mercy immediately, Jesus asks them if they believe he is able to show mercy. How else would Jesus know they believe in his ability, other than to ask a simple question? After all, how would they have known Jesus healed the ruler's daughter? They didn't see Jesus heal anyone! They're blind! They can't see anything. The only evidence they had to "see" concerning Jesus' divine authority were the mixed opinions of crowds who ridiculed and gossiped about him. Yet still, they believed, and so even when they're confronted with Jesus' question, they answer unhesitatingly with an affirmative "Yes, Lord!"

Jesus therefore aptly responds with more than mere words. He responds with a "touch." This touch is the same action with which the suffering woman came near to Jesus for receiving life again (9:20), and it's also the same action which Jesus chose to use when cleansing the leper at the very beginning of this larger narrative (8:3). Then Jesus says:

"According to the faith of you both, for you both it is done." And their eyes had opened.
As I picture this historical event in my mind, I imagine Jesus reaching one hand out to each blind man, with his fingers resting upon their eyelids, and at the very moment when Jesus said the words "according to the faith of you both..." they knew the Son of God -- not just the Son of David -- was showing mercy upon them. They knew God himself was laying his hand upon them. They knew that the person they followed all the way back to Matthew's house was the living and true God who had come to show mercy upon the people of Israel. If this was indeed the case, what a tremendous faith!

But then the story makes a surprising shift again. After their eyes had opened, we find that Jesus "sternly warned them." This is not what one might expect to receive after traveling blindly from such a distance, and being drilled for an expression of sincere faith. Interestingly, in the original Greek text, the word translated as "sternly warned" denotes Jesus' indignation, giving the very clear impression that Jesus was scolding them. But because there isn't anything within the surrounding narrative to warrant indignation or scolding, "sternly warned" is probably a better way of smoothing over the connotations of Jesus' feelings toward them. The connotation of a stern warning is considerable caution, and even fatigue, which might be the reason why Matthew describes Jesus as warning so frankly and abruptly. And if his fatigue was truly an aspect of the caution Matthew is depicting, Matthew is finally coming around full circle in his depiction of Jesus the suffering servant (as quoted earlier in Matt. 8:17). 

Let us reconsider something I mentioned earlier in this post, namely that Jesus is not interested at all in ostentatious displays of power and authority. Jesus doesn't go around healing and working miracles to showboat his divine skills. He doesn't walk around touting how marvelously powerful he is, or how magnificent his display of Kingly authority can be. Even from the beginning of chapter eight, with the first miraculous account of healing a leper, we learned that Jesus cleansed him because the man was coming to him, and yet Jesus told him, "See that you say nothing to anyone..." (Matt. 8:4).  By the end of the third miracle -- and what appears to be the evening of that same day -- we learn that many Israelites were flocking to Jesus for healing. Nowhere does Matthew leave us with an impression that Jesus was advertising his power. As time moved on, more and more people within Israel recognized that he truly was unique among men. He cared for and healed the people of Israel, not because he gained more and more popularity from it, but because he loved them; that was the calling of the Messiah. After the third miracle (Matt. 8:16-17), we learn that:

That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: "He took our illnesses and bore our diseases."
By the end of chapter nine, after a continual series of miracles and an increase of popularity throughout Israel, Jesus seems exhausted; Jesus seems burdened. And if we are reading this miracle with the two blind men within the larger context of chapters 8 & 9, the reason why Jesus probably didn't respond to the cries of these two blind men was because of the weight of the burdens he had already been carrying. Jesus is the God-man, but he is still human. He still needs rest. He needs practical help from others too. He can't do everything, all by himself, for ever. And yet throughout chapters 8 & 9, Matthew depicts the ministry of Jesus as though there is little-to-no rest for his head (8:20). So far, the only rest we find Jesus taking is in the bottom deck of a boat, and he's in such a deep sleep that he doesn't even know there's a storm so great outside that it's about to sink the boat! It's as though, no matter where Jesus goes, there's always something to be done and therefore some rest to be interrupted. And when Jesus gets back to land, there's always someone new who wants to follow him, or someone new who needs healing from him. Day after day, night after night, the burden increases. Yet Jesus doesn't stop showing compassion. Jesus continues to bear the burden no matter how little the sleep or how great the increase of burden. 

This unique account of ignoring, then questioning, then finally healing of these two blind men, followed by a stern warning, is designed to give us the clear impression that Jesus is burdened. And the final statement about their excitement, the statement that "they went away and spread his fame through all that district," should actually heighten our sense of the inescapable, unavoidable, and increasingly immense burden which Jesus had to bear for the people of Israel.  

Matthew's narrative, above all, makes clear that among all the people of Israel, especially among it's ruler's, Jesus alone truly carried Israel's burdens, taking upon himself their illnesses and diseases. Little did they know, at that time, that not only would Jesus carry their diseases, but he would be the only one willing carry all of their sins as well. This wilderness stage of Jesus' ministry is only the beginning of a burdened ministry, the destination of which is a crown of thorns and a cross with a sign affixed above it, saying, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews."

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