[October 25, 2009] Some time ago we read in Luke 9:18-21 how the disciples finally recognized Jesus to be God’s Messiah. Then in 9:22-26 Jesus unveils the cross as His own path and the daily way for the disciples as well. This was the first time Jesus announced that He was going to be put to death. Then in 9:27-36 Jesus is transfigured on the mountain and His glory is unveiled to the disciples. They fail to comprehend and the voice from heaven says, “Hear Him!” (shema; see Deuteronomy 6:4), reminding us of Jesus’ warning in 8:18 to “Take heed therefore how you hear.” Then in 9:37-62 eight stories are woven together showing the failure of the disciples and would-be disciples. They are the eyewitnesses of Jesus ministry, but they are inadequate to the task of the mission ahead. In 9:44 Jesus announces His death the second time, but in 9:45 Luke tells us that “they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them so that they would not perceive it.”
Immediately after this litany of failure on the part of the disciples, Jesus sends out, not the twelve but seventy-two others to prepare people for His coming. This began the long teaching section, 10:1—18:30, all of which takes place during Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem on the way to the cross. By drawing from all the teaching sections of Matthew, Luke designed this section with the local churches outside of Palestine particularly in mind, the churches that Paul and his co-workers founded among the nations made up of Jews and Gentiles, churches such as our own.
The Blindness of the Disciples (Luke 18:31-34)
With the third announcement of His death this section ends. This announcement, which takes place a short distance from Jerusalem and given specifically to the Twelve, is much more detailed than the others, but still the Twelve “understand none of these things, and this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know what was being said.” In three different ways Luke tells us here that the Twelve were blind to what was going on.
In the Acts of the Apostles, the second volume of Luke’s work, the Twelve are quickly overrun by Stephen and Philip and then Paul and Barnabas and Silas and Paul’s other co-workers. Apart from Peter, who plays an important role in Acts 15 before he disappears, we no longer hear about them. Peter is the exception. He is slow but he catches up. The role of the others seems limited to being the hand-picked eye-witnesses of Jesus, eventually to be replaced by the four written gospels as we have them. (Matthew is also an exception, but a quiet one, in that his gospel—written from Antioch—supports the new mission.)
I wonder if we realize the significance of the disciples’ blindness. On Reformation Sunday reminds us that those who call themselves Christians can also be blind. We can be blind. The Reformers were compelled to break from Rome because of the doctrinal apostasy of that great communion. Yet this week we hear that Rome may be receiving back into its communion several dioceses of the Episcopal Church. Why? Because these Protestants feel that the Protestant Reformation has failed, itself falling into apostasy, and that Rome now takes the Scriptures more seriously than they. Certainly Rome takes the Scriptures more seriously than many Protestants.
We who call ourselves Christians and say that we believe in Jesus and He is our Savior, do we understand the meaning of the cross? Do we own the crucified One as our Lord? Do we have any idea what it means for Him—the crucified One to be the Lord of our lives?
While we complain about the church, do we not know that the church is the work of Christ, and that He calls us to be engaged in building it up? Instead, we “come” to church for our own satisfaction, for the comfort of sins forgiven and the assurance of salvation. The church is not, however, something to which we “come.” The church is all those called by Christ and gathered by Him. It is something for which we each are ultimately responsible. Do we bear the cross in order to build up the others? Or do we live our lives only for ourselves (and family and nation of course) and dare to think that the “cross” is simply our suffering, the suffering that all humanity must bear under the weight of God’s judgment? The cross is our dying to self that comes from our choosing to do God’s will.
When we say we “believe,” what do we mean? Those who “believe” can also be blind. Indeed, most of Christendom can be blind. Do we take responsibility for our own faith, our own discipleship? Or do we follow the crowd or passively drift with our moods? You alone are responsible for your salvation, and you will also responsible for the work the Lord gives you. “Oh, but I do not know what that is!” We know not because we do not listen.
The Blind One Needs to Cry out and Beg for Sight (18:35-43)
Jesus draws near to Jericho, a city on the way and near to Jerusalem. Jericho was also put under a curse (Joshua 6:26; 1 Kings 16:34) and therefore represents the condition of humanity in its alienation and hostility to God. There a blind man hears about Jesus and cries out to him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
In the next chapter Jesus will enter Jerusalem for the Passover (on Palm Sunday) and the pilgrims to the city will welcome Him as “the King who comes in the name of the Lord,” that is, as the Messianic Son of David. But Jesus wept over the city because the city itself “did not know the time of [its] visitation.” When He entered the city He pronounced God’s judgment on it because of its blindness. “How is it that they say that the Messiah is David’s ‘son’? David call Him Lord, how is He his ‘son’?” (20:41-44). When the blind man calls on Jesus as the Son of David, we are reminded of this.
Notice that the blind man—like the pilgrims on Palm Sunday—recognizes who Jesus is. Of course he is not satisfied with this. He also knows he is blind. He cries out for mercy. When Jesus asks him what he wants Jesus to do for him, he answers, “Lord, that I may receive my sight!” When Jesus gives him the gift of sight, he then follows Jesus. In order to follow Jesus, we need the gift of sight. The man is physically blind but he is a picture of the disciples, for they are also blind. You will recall that when Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he was struck blind “because of the glory of that light” (Acts 22:11) and needed his sight to be healed. “There fell from his eyes something like scales and he received his sight” (Acts 9:18). Then with open eyes Jesus sent him to the Gentiles “to open their eyes and to turn them from darkness to light” (Acts 26:18).
In the Gospel according to John, Jesus heals a blind man who then believes. “Do you believe into the Son of God?” “Who is He?” “You have seen Him, and He is the One speaking with you.” “Lord, I believe” and he worshipped Him (John 9:35-38). His physical blindness becomes a parable of his spiritual blindness. When Jesus heals one, the other is healed. But Jesus then says, “For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” Some Pharisees then ask, “We are not blind also, are we?” and Jesus answers, “If you were blind, you would not have sin; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (9:39-41). The irony is that those who think they see can be blind. Those whose eyes are opened are those who realize that they are blind.
The city of Jerusalem turned out to be blind, though it was the place of the Temple and the center for scribes. But the people on the margin, who know they are blind, are given sight. The Twelve, blinded “because of the glory of that light” (the light of Jesus), misunderstood the purpose of Jesus, still thinking in conventional ways, the ways of the world. They thought they saw and therefore remained blind. They were blind to the cross because it contradicted everything they had been taught, everything they thought they knew.
In the letters to the churches in Revelation 2—3, Jesus criticizes the church in Sardis for having “a name that you are living, and yet you are dead” (3:1). He also criticized the church in Laodicea, “You say, I am wealthy and have become rich and have need of nothing, and do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (3:17). He counsels them “to buy from Me eye-salve to anoint your eyes that you may see.” Notice that they must buy eye-salve. They are believers yet they are blind and must buy the gift of sight. The blind man in our story must beg for the gift of sight before Jesus gives it to him. We too must seek it out. Indeed, we may need to give up everything to have it, as Jesus continually emphasized in the previous chapters, for what we hold on to is what blinds us.
We cannot take sight for granted. Nor should we assume that we already have it! Nothing is more insidious than the fact that those who are spiritually blind think that they can see. If you have always been blind and everyone around you is blind—as the world is—then you have no basis for comparison. You do not know you are blind. Then when someone with sight comes along, you tend to think he or she merely has a gift with words. They do not really mean what they say. When they speak of what they can see, you imagine they are only speaking poetically, in figures of speech. This is why a person cannot be persuaded to believe. Only by God’s grace can we even know we are blind. But when we first believe—assuming it is genuine faith—we have only caught a glimpse. We may see a little (for example, that our sins are forgiven), but we are still blind to the purpose of God and Jesus’ lordship—His absolute lordship over us—in relation to that. We lack heart because the eyes of our heart are still blind. Paul prays for the Ephesians that God would enlighten their hearts (Ephesians 1:18). We need to beg for more sight and be willing to pay the price for it (Luke 14:26-33).
What Is Impossible with Men Is Possible with God (19:1-10)
Then in Jericho—the city that represents humanity under the condition of alienation—is a rich man. We saw in Luke 18:18-27 that it difficult “for those who have riches to go into the kingdom of God.” Indeed, “it is easier for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
Yet here is a rich man, a chief tax collector, who “was seeking to see Jesus, who He was.” He was small in stature and so he could not see as long as he stood with the crowd. So he ran on head and climbed a tree “in order to see Him.” Again, his desire to see with his physical eyes was symbolic of his desire to see with his spiritual eyes. And again, he was not content to simply have this desire privately and to do nothing about it. He had to make an effort and go ahead of the crowd and work hard (by climbing a tree) to get a different perspective from the rest. All these things are suggestive of what we need to do if we would see Jesus with the eyes of our heart. We need to make an effort. We cannot be content to see Jesus from the same perspective as the rest of the crowd. We must do something about it. Because of this little man’s effort, Jesus notices him.
The story does not stop there. For Zaccheus is able to do what the rich man in 18:23 apparently was not able to. Zaccheus gave half of his possessions to the poor and used the rest to make fourfold amends to the people he had wronged. This was proof of God’s grace working in him (18:27). By letting go of what he had and thereby becoming a free man, his spiritual sight was restored. This was signified by Jesus announcing that, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham.” The sons of Abraham are those who have the faith of Abraham (Romans 4:12).
To believe requires more than mental assent. It requires more than “coming” to church and being a “good person” during the week. That is not faith and many people are still unbelievers who dutifully follow that idea. To believe means to inwardly let go of yourself (your soul) and all the things that tie you down to this world-system (society and culture). It may even require an outward sacrifice, such as Zaccheus here makes. But that sacrifice is what gave him spiritual sight. Without that he was blind.
Zaccheus was on the outside of Jewish society, despised by everyone as a sinner. His diminutive height symbolizes this. But throughout Luke’s gospel, the ones who respond to the invitation of the Gospel are those on the outside: the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, the sinful and the pagan. The Jews are God’s elect, yet the response of these forsaken ones to the invitation of the Gospel is like the sign of Jonah to them. Jonah did not want God to be “gracious and compassionate, long-suffering and abundant in loving-kindness and repentant of evil” (Jonah 4:2). Yet God works in exactly that way to provoke the Jews to jealousy (Romans 11:11) so that they may know that their own election is not based on privilege but on the mercy of God (Romans 9—11). That was Paul’s concern in his own day, but for us—as Augustine observed—God’s present-day election of the Jew is a sign to the Gentile Christian in the same way, lest the Gentile also become arrogant.
Our own day might be seeing the end of Christianity as a civil religion with which the Protestant church has always identified itself. We are back on apostolic ground. We can continue to identify ourselves with cultural Christianity or we can beg for the gift of sight so that God can reveal to us who Jesus really is, the crucified One beaming with the glory of God in resurrection and ascension. How much are we willing to sacrifice that we may see Him?