Byron C. Bangert

First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana

March 28, 1999

Habakkuk 1:1-4; Matthew 20:29-21:11

It happened on the last stretch of his journey to Jerusalem, according to Matthew. Jesus and his disciples, followed by a large crowd, had just left Jericho, a day's journey to the east. There were two blind men sitting by the side of the road. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted out for help: "Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David." The crowd tells them to shut up! The New RSV translation of Matthew's account puts it a little more delicately: they "sternly ordered them to be quiet." But the two men shout all the louder, "Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!" Jesus stops and calls to them saying, "What do you want me to do for you?" And they answer, "let our eyes be opened."

What else would we expect two men who are blind to ask? It is possible to read this story as simply another healing story. This is just another example of Jesus meeting people in their need. There are some interesting features about the story, however, that suggest that Matthew had something more in mind. This is the second time that Matthew tells of Jesus healing two blind men. The two stories seem to be related, and one may be a re-telling of the other. Moreover, it is noteworthy that the crowd does not want Jesus to notice these two blind men, and tries to shut them up. Presumably, if Jesus does not hear them he will not see them either, and will not be bothered by them. It is also noteworthy that it is two blind men who seem to recognize better than any of the others who Jesus is. That there are two of them makes their witness credible, according to the standards of the day. Finally, Matthew places this story immediately before Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. This is the "lead" to the main story about Jesus' triumphal "Palm Sunday" procession. Could it be that what Jesus does for the two blind men provides a hint of what Jesus will do for all of his disciples?

In any event, Matthew says that--in contrast to the crowd--Jesus was "moved with compassion." And he touched their eyes, and immediately they regained their sight and followed him. It seems that it is not that they were then able to see for the first time. It is that they were then able to see again. Some time back they must have lost their ability to see. Once they regain their sight, they also follow him.

If Jesus were to ask you, What do you want me to do for you?, how would you respond? It would not occur to most of us to ask that our eyes be opened. Because it would not occur to most of us that there is anything wrong with our vision, or our perception--at least not anything that a visit to the optometrist and the optician could not correct. Rather, most of us would probably think of how Jesus might bring greater meaning or purpose to our lives. Or we would think about the weight of guilt and dissatisfaction and sin that we would like lifted from us. Or we might ask Jesus to help us become more capable, more loving, more effectively able to accomplish those good intentions and goals to which we aspire. Or we would hope that Jesus could bring us greater peace or happiness or joy in our daily living. Or we would ask for the assurance and security that our lives are in God's keeping, and we do not need to worry about tomorrow or eternity. But because we probably do not see ourselves as blind, we probably would not ask for our eyes to be opened.

It is clear from reading the Gospels, however, that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all believed that being able to see, or not being able to see, was decisive in what happened to Jesus when he came to Jerusalem. It is clear that many did not recognize Jesus for who he was. It is clear that many did not see that his message and ministry were from God. It is clear that many rejected him because they did not perceive the truth in him about themselves, their world, or their relationship to God. Jesus ends up crucified on a cross, like a common criminal--or worse, a threat to the established order, condemned as a blasphemer and a traitor--because those with power did not recognize the truth about him. Or, because they had some apprehension of that truth, but chose to turn their eyes and hearts and minds away from that truth.

Seeing was very important in Jesus' ministry. It was important to him. It was important to the Gospel writers. Many of the most important statements that are made about Jesus are based on the witness of those who encountered him along the way, those who saw as well as heard, those who perceived and understood. When John the Baptist wants to know if Jesus is the one he has been waiting for, Matthew reports that Jesus instructs John's disciples, "Go and tell John what you hear and see." And what is it that they hear and see? "The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And," adds Jesus, "blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me" [John 11:4-6]. Two things are especially noteworthy here about this statement. First, and at the top of Jesus' list of what is happening because of his ministry, "the blind receive their sight." And second, Jesus takes it for granted that there are those who will take offense at him because of his ministry. What Jesus is able to do for people will not be pleasing to everyone.

Clearly, for Matthew, the two blind men by the side of the road are able to recognize Jesus, to see and perceive who he is, while many in the crowd as well as those whom he will encounter in Jerusalem hardly see at all. The story of what happens to Jesus in Jerusalem is filled with irony. Those who should be most able to see, to know, to understand, do not. The scribes, the Pharisees, the religious leaders, mostly fail to recognize him. The chief priests and the elders condemn him. The crowds consent in his crucifixion. Before it is over, his own disciples seem to lose heart and confidence in him. Those who call him "Messiah," "King of the Jews," "Son of God," do so in mocking and contempt. It is not clear that anyone in the story really grasps what is going on. Jesus' crucifixion is accompanied by wholesale blindness, the failure to see, to perceive, to understand.

Is this a problem for any of us?--the inability to see what is really going on in some significant dimension of our lives? I offer two commentaries on the human capacity for blindness. The first comes from an article by Lewis Coser titled "The Visibility of Evil." Coser began his article as follows:

Some years ago, Everett C. Hughes (1962), in a seminal paper entitled "Good People and Dirty Work," was moved to ask why it was that so many "good people" in Germany denied after the war that they had been cognizant of the evil deeds of the Nazis. There were, of course, many who denied any guilty knowledge for purely expedient reasons. They knew very well but found it to their advantage to deny this knowledge later on. . . . Much more worthy of note and concern, however, are the people who, though they had somewhat vague knowledge of the fact that some horrible things were done in the concentration camps and elsewhere, nevertheless managed to hide this knowledge from themselves. They knew and yet they didn't know. They saw themselves and were seen by others as "good people"--they would never have done any dirty work themselves--and yet they were dimly aware of some dirty work done by others and even in one way or another condoned it as "necessary." They are so perturbing just because they seem in some relevant respect so much like most of us. [in Robert M. Khoury, THE SOCIOLOGY OF THE OFFBEAT: ESSAYS IN THE SCIENCE OF HUMAN SOCIAL BEHAVIOR (University Press of America: Washington, 1982), 315]

Coser went on to observe, "Any society, it would seem, requires for its operation the performance of certain roles whose existence its members can admit only with difficulty" [ibid.]. In the ordinary course of events, "good people" will try to shield themselves from detailed knowledge about the "dirty work" for which these roles seem to exist. Coser points to the ways in which police, legal officials, and others exercised their roles in the past to keep the plight of black people in the South, and in the North, at the periphery of public consciousness. He notes that poverty has also been kept largely from public view, so that it is possible to travel through many of our large cities in comfort without seeing what we do not wish to see--either because it is literally hidden from view or because we have developed the capacity not to notice. "Only the determined efforts of disinterested reformers and of interested spokesmen of the ghetto communities have made it impossible in recent years for the 'good people' of the suburbs to continue to ignore the moral and physical plight of ghetto dwellers" [ibid., 318].

It takes some effort to "see" the "dirty work" that is needed to maintain the stability and security of our social world. We have to look closely to notice the policies of racial and ethnic exclusion, the practices of social or gender discrimination, the political and economic decisions that disadvantage the poor, all of which nonetheless enable us to enjoy a way of life unperturbed by the unwanted presence of those whose circumstance would unsettle us. The same may be said regarding many of those whom we consign to institutional existence. Writes Coser, "When American society piles its rejects into the back wards of hospitals, into its prisons and its mental hospitals, where they become invisible, it protects itself from revolutionary claims for large-scale social reconstruction; but it also protects us "good people" from being diverted from our daily routines and from the claims of our private worlds. Thus, in the ordinary course of events, we remain only subliminally aware of the "dirty work" of prison wardens or police officials or attendants in state mental hospitals. They maintain the routine operation of that larger world upon which the continued functions of our private world is premised" [ibid., 320-21].

Some of what Coser wrote 30 years ago is now dated. Instead of warehousing our mentally ill, our society has put more and more of them out on the streets, where they have become the homeless who are often forced to find their own refuge in out-of-the-way places like shelters and back alleys and covered doorways. But the prison population continues to grow. Thursday's newspaper headlined, "U.S. population of nonviolent inmates tops 1 million" [BLOOMINGTON HERALD-TIMES, A7]. This is all too indicative of what we are doing as a society with those whom we have rejected, those who do not fit in, those who need help. We are locking them up, putting them away, and even boasting that we're throwing away the key. And the worst of them we are putting to death. The point is, in this way we no longer have to deal with them, we no longer have to "see" them, we no longer have to pay attention to their circumstances, or to their shouts and cries and needs.

I do not mean to suggest that this is inordinately sinister. There is no mass conspiracy to treat some people as less than human. But that is the result. And it happens in nursing homes as well as in prisons, it happens in factories as well as in ghettos. It happens when we look away from what is happening under Latin American dictatorships that otherwise help us to maintain our economic hegemony. It happens when we ignore the ethnic strife in places like Rwanda and Yugoslavia, where the victims seem so remote from us and our own interests so unclear. It happens when we ignore the economics of cheap labor in the "third" or "developing" world. Generally speaking, it takes some effort, and it takes people willing to do the "dirty work" of dealing with the mess and disorder of human existence that threaten to disrupt and invade our peace, in order to keep invisible those whom we would rather ignore. And it takes some willingness, some acquiescence on our part, for these circumstances to continue to prevail.

If we have difficulty seeing what is happening in the lives of others, and if it is only too convenient not to try to overcome our limited and undiscerning vision, it is also true that we have difficulty seeing what is happening in our own lives as well. Walter Brueggemann, who teaches Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, provides a second commentary on the human capacity for blindness in the latest issue of THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY:

The majority of the world's resources pour into the United States. And as we Americans grow more and more wealthy, money is becoming a kind of narcotic for us. We hardly notice our own prosperity or the poverty of so many others. The great contradiction is that we have more and more money and less and less generosity--less and less public money for the needy, less charity for the neighbor. . . Though many of us are well intentioned, we have invested our lives in consumerism. We have a love affair with "more"--and we will never have enough. Consumerism is not simply a marketing strategy. It has become a demonic spiritual force among us, and the theological question facing us is whether the gospel has the power to help us withstand it. ["The liturgy of abundance, the myth of scarcity," March 24-31, 1999, 342]

"We hardly notice," says Brueggemann, "our own prosperity or the poverty of so many others." In fact, I think we do know that we are well off, so far as this world goes, but somehow it does not sink it. It does not inform our daily lives in any significant way. We are, if anything, all the more inclined not to want to observe and consider the plight of those who lack the blessings we enjoy. We are blind to the contradiction between the abundance we have and the meagerness of our compassion for those in need. Like the crowd that was following Jesus from Jericho, we would prefer that those who cry out for help neither be seen nor heard.

This is not a sermon about remedies. It is not a sermon about what you can go out and do to help the needy and save the world. There are lots of ways to exercise compassion in this world, and we should be open to opportunities whenever and wherever they arise. But this morning I am posing to you, and to myself, a different question: Do we really want an authentic encounter with the Jesus of the Gospels? Do we really want to come to terms with this prophet, this teacher, this man of compassion, this anointed one of God, who so often draws our attention precisely to those whom we would prefer to ignore? Do we really want to be able to see the "invisible" people of our community and our world? Do we really want to be able to see ourselves in all our own blindness and self-preoccupation and fear? Why was Jesus so threatening that they had to do away with him by killing him on a cross? I do not think it was because he claimed too much for himself. Quite possibly, they found his discerning gaze, his perception, his vision, his judgment, and even his compassion more disturbing than they could bear.

What do you want Jesus to do for you? Do you really want your eyes to be opened, so that you can see more as he saw? According to Matthew, when the sight of the blind men was restored, they followed him. The road led to Jerusalem and what we call Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. It is not a very far distance. But it could be a life-changing journey. AMEN.