(The fifth of seven weekly Lenten reflections.) In the last Lenten post (“Hoping for the right things”) I reflected on Palm Sunday and the question of what kind of king the crowds thought they were celebrating. What would they do when their Messiah-King failed to meet their expectations? What do we do when God doesn’t live up to the hype of rescuing us the way we want to be rescued?
On Sunday mornings, I’m teaching my way through Matthew. As it turns out, last week’s lesson was on the story of Jesus restoring sight to two blind beggars (Matt 20:29-34), the lead-in to Palm Sunday and the so-called Triumphal Entry. And it seems that Matthew has something very specific he wants to teach us about what kind of king Jesus is, and what kind of kingdom he brings.
In 20:20-28, Matthew tells of Mama Zebedee asking Jesus to give her two sons, James and John, positions of prominence in the coming kingdom. She, apparently, has a vision of Jesus as a ruler who is ready to come to power soon; most likely, her boys and the other disciples think the same thing. That’s why the other ten are indignant at James and John for pushing their way to the head of the line.
Jesus has to call them together for a little attitude correction:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matt 20:25b-28, NIV)
The very next story, sandwiched between this one and the Triumphal Entry, is about two blind men sitting begging by the side of the road. There are interesting differences between Matthew’s telling and those of Mark and Luke. Matthew has two blind men; Mark and Luke have only one, whom Mark tells us is named Bartimaeus. Matthew and Mark have Jesus and his band leaving Jericho; Luke has them arriving.
But to me, the only difference that really matters comes at the end of the story. The blind men hear the hubbub of Jesus and a large entourage passing by. Knowing his reputation as a healer, and figuring this to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they cry out to Jesus, using messianic language: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” (Matt 20:30, NIV). The crowd tries to silence them, to no avail.
Jesus stops and calls them over. He asks what might seem to be an obvious question: what do you want? They give an obvious answer: we want to see.
And it’s in what happens next that Matthew diverges. In Mark and Luke, Jesus simply declares the man healed, commending him for his faith. But Matthew doesn’t tell us what Jesus said. Instead, he tells us what Jesus did and why: “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes” (20:34a, NIV).
This, it would seem, is Matthew’s point. Before narrating the events of Palm Sunday and the adulation of an awestruck crowd, Matthew emphasizes what it means for Jesus to be king. He is a king who comes to rule by serving, even if it means sacrificing his life. He is a king who has compassion on the lowly, who touches even those whom others might consider untouchable.
We’ve seen this in Matthew before. Immediately after the Sermon on the Mount, we have the story of Jesus healing a leper by touching him (Matt 8:1-4), an unthinkable act for any rabbi concerned about remaining ritually clean. In the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt 18:21-35), found only in Matthew, the king is said to have had compassion on the luckless servant who had lost a fortune of the king’s money. And Jesus himself, overworked and understaffed, is said to have had compassion on the crowds, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36).
We are all blind beggars before the King. He has the power to heal and to restore. We need that power, but we have no right to it.
But this is a compassionate king, who stops to ask beggars what they want. What will be our answer? That’s the question we must ask ourselves, as we await the celebration of the Resurrection.