Two Blind Men, or: Being Seen is Believing (Luke 18:35-19:10)

We are reaching a point in Luke’s gospel that is a lot like that moment at the end of the Lord of the Rings where Aragorn leads the last army of men and elves to the Black Gate of Mordor to confront Sauron. Aragorn’s army is worn out from winning the Battle of the Pellenor fields, while Sauron is safe within the unbreakable walls of his land. It looks like there’s no way Aragorn can win — but we know that Aragorn is the good guy, so we are waiting for that miracle that will let him finally win his kingdom!

As readers (or as film-goers) we already know the end of the story; we know Aragorn wins; but still there is that tremendous narrative tension as the army puts itself in order and waits for the Black Gate to open.

That is what is happening here in Luke’s Gospel as Jesus marches ever closer to Jerusalem. The people are watching to see if, when he arrives at the gates of Jerusalem, some amazing miracle from God is going to take place and prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jesus really is God’s anointed king.

The people believe, based on the Old Testament prophets, that when the true Messiah arrives in Jerusalem, Judgement Day will begin. If Judgement Day does not begin, then Jesus was not the true Messiah.

Everyone along the road to Jerusalem is beginning to pay attention to this guy Jesus. The narrative tension is rising.

And now — just to crank it up another notch — Luke tells us that Jesus is approaching Jericho.

This city, this name, is very significant. So significant that Luke has been setting us up for it for ten chapters. Do you realize that for ten chapters Luke has not mentioned any place names? For ten chapters Jesus has been travelling, and we haven’t really known where he was on the journey — until now, when Luke tells us, “He is in Jericho!”

This name-drop is supposed to get our attention, for two reasons:

First, Jericho is only about twenty kilometers from Jerusalem. Jesus is only a day or two away from arriving. For everyone there who is paying attention, they are thinking, “Judgement Day could happen tomorrow!” And thoughts like that have a way of focusing the mind, right? You begin to ask questions like, “Oh, well I wonder if I’m on the list of people to be saved?”

The second reason the name “Jericho” should get our attention is because Jericho played a significant role in the Old Testament. What is Jericho famous for? Falling down. Why did it fall down? Because a Messiah figure — a saviour named Joshua — led the people of God, the army of God, to conquer it. And after Joshua conquered Jericho, he went on to conquer the whole land!

And now, a Messiah figure — a saviour named…Joshua (that’s right: Jesus’ name is actually the Greek translation of Joshua) — is leading the army of God to the city of Jericho. What, do you think, is supposed to happen next? This Messiah figure should conquer Jericho, and then go on to conquer the land. Except that this time, he will conquer the whole world, not just Judea.

So Luke drops this name here — Jericho — so that we can understand the mindset of the people watching. We can understand why they are asking, “Who then can be saved? What can I do to be saved?”

Last week Jesus told everyone, “You’ve gotta be humble if you want to be saved!” But we also discovered that we cannot humble ourselves — only God can do that for us.

This week, Luke is going to show us two examples of what true humility looks like, the kind of humility that comes from God.

So everyone is paying close attention as Jesus travels ever closer to Jerusalem. Everyone is beginning to wonder if the end of the world might be just around the corner! — even a blind beggar sitting by the side of the road.

So when this beggar hears the crowd coming he asks, “Hey, what’s going on?” And in verse 37, They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”

Jesus of Nazareth!

So the blind man calls out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Jesus, Son of David.

The beggar was told, “Jesus of Nazareth is coming.” Why does he cry, “Jesus, Son of David”?

Well, when the crowd calls him, “Jesus of Nazareth,” they are emphasizing his lowly beginnings. Nazareth is a dirty little kampung from way up in the north, where Gentiles and unclean people live. “Jesus of Nazareth” is a skeptical title. When the crowd calls him that, they are saying, “This is that guy Jesus who thinks he is the Messiah, and maybe he really is! — but…maybe not.”

But when the blind man calls him, “Jesus, Son of David!” he is emphasizing Jesus’ kingly ancestors. David was the king during the golden age of ancient Israel, and for hundreds of years the Jews have been waiting for the final Son of David to come and rule forever. “Son of David” is a title for the Messiah. When the beggar calls Jesus that, he is saying, “I believe you really are the Messiah, God’s anointed king. And I want you to save me from Judgement Day!”

In a crowd full of skeptics, one man believes.

Why? Why does he believe?

Quite simply, because he has nothing to lose.

All these other people are trying to measure the risk of following Jesus to Jerusalem. If they join Jesus’ army, and he turns out to be the real Messiah, they will be protected from God’s fire on Judgement Day. That is a big payoff! But if Jesus turns out to be a fake Messiah, and the Romans capture him — then all his followers run the risk of being captured and crucified as well!

But this blind man is already at the very bottom of society. If he joins Jesus, and Jesus is the Messiah…huge payoff! If Jesus is a fake Messiah, and this beggar is captured and crucified along with him…so what? This beggar is already living a dog’s life; he expects to die a dog’s death anyway. So why not take the chance that Jesus really is who he says he is?

So he cries out, and he calls Jesus by his Messianic title.

But [39] Those who led the way — those who were leading the procession — rebuked him and told him to be quiet.

Now, who are these people who are leading the way? Could they be disciples, going ahead of Jesus and saying, “Make way, make way!” like those police motorcycles we enjoy on the streets of our city?

Well, Luke doesn’t say these are disciples who try to hush the beggar.

But…remember last week when certain helpless babies were brought to Jesus, and the disciples “rebuked” the parents? And now a certain helpless someone is asking for help, and those who are leading the procession “rebuke” him.

Luke is showing us, very gently, that the disciples are still a lot like the crowd: they still do not really understand who Jesus is or what he came to do. In fact, in the very last verse we looked at last week Luke told us directly, “the disciples did not understand what Jesus was talking about.”

But this blind beggar sees very clearly what the disciples cannot see. He will not be silenced. Luke tells us, he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And the word Luke uses here to describe the man’s cry is a strong word. At first the beggar called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy.” But now he begins to scream.

This is one of my favorite moments in all of scripture. Have you ever been so desperate that you screamed?

Imagine it from this man’s perspective: he believes Jesus really is the Messiah. He believes that in one or two days, when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, Judgement Day will begin — and only those who have followed Jesus, who are part of his army, will be saved.

He wants to follow. He wants to be saved.

But he is blind. Helpless. He cannot follow.

And here is his last chance at life passing by on the road to Jerusalem.

So he screams.

Wouldn’t you?

Isn’t it wonderful that we have a God and Saviour that we can scream at, and he doesn’t get angry?

Jesus doesn’t get angry. Instead, [40] Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him.

Jesus is on his way to Judgement Day, but he still has time to stop.

And when the beggar came near, Jesus asked him, [41] “What do you want me to do for you?”

Lord, I want to see,” he replied.

And [42] Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.

And remember, in the Greek language, this sentence doesn’t just mean, “Your faith has healed you,” it means, “Your faith has saved you.”

Very literally, this blind beggar is saved:

[43] Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God.

He joins Jesus’ army. He is going to Jerusalem, and he is praising God, because now he knows that whenever, however Judgement Day happens, he will be safe.

And when all the people saw it, they also praised God.

Now, why are the people praising God? Aren’t these the skeptics, the ones who are going to wait and see before they commit?

Yes, they are skeptics, but they are skeptics looking for evidence that Jesus really is who he says he is. And this kind of miracle in particular is a very significant piece of evidence.

Remember way back at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he preached in his hometown of Nazareth. He preached from the prophet Isaiah, and during that sermon he said, “I am the Messiah, and my job is: to preach to the poor, to set captives free, and to give sight to the blind.” And if we think back over Jesus’ ministry, we realize that, yes, he has been preaching to the poor; yes, he has been setting captives free; but until this moment, Jesus has not given sight to any blind person.

So the fact that Jesus does this miracle just days before he arrives in Jerusalem is very significant. The people are thinking, “Ah ha! That is one of the signs of the true Messiah!” And they also praise God.

But are the people convinced yet?

Let’s find out: [1] Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. [2] A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.

So a new character is introduced: a man named Zacchaeus, which, ironically, means, “The Righteous Dude”. It’s ironic because the man is a tax collector; a ruler over other tax collectors; and very wealthy. This basically means he is a corrupt businessman; a CEO over other corrupt businessmen; and so good at his corruption that he’s become very rich.

Now, Zacchaeus is what literary nerds — like me — would call an “ambivalent character.” Is he a good guy, or a bad guy? He has the qualities of both.

Remember, the question on everyone’s mind during these days is, “Who will be saved?” Last week Jesus compared a religious Pharisee with a non-religious tax collector, and Jesus told us that the tax collector would be saved.

So maybe Zacchaeus is a good guy!

But, last week we also met a wealthy man, a ruler over other men. And Jesus said, very clearly, “It is impossible for a rich man to be saved.”

So…maybe Zacchaeus is a bad guy?

Is he going to be saved, or judged?

Let’s go on:

[3] He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.

Now, this is an interesting sentence for three reasons:

First, Zacchaeus want to see who Jesus is. Pay attention over the next few sentences: Luke will be playing a little word game with us. Remembering that Jesus just gave sight to a blind man, try to count how many times in this story Luke uses words that are related to sight. And after you have done that, ask yourself, “Gee, I wonder if Luke is trying to make some kind of point here?”

Second — related to the first — Zacchaeus wants to see who Jesus is. He is not interested in seeing a miracle; he doesn’t need healing; he doesn’t want to just “use” Jesus for his own benefit: he wants to know Jesus.

Third, Zacchaeus cannot see over the crowd. But that translation into English is a bit weak. A more literal translation might say, “he was powerless because of the crowd.”

We are noticing a pattern here: the babies of last week were powerless because of the disciples — unfortunately — but Jesus made a point of saying, “bring them to me”. The blind beggar just now was powerless because of the crowd, but Jesus made a point of saying, “bring him to me”. Now Zacchaeus is powerless because of the crowd —

What is going to happen? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Is he going to be saved, or judged?

Let’s go on:

[4] So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

Quick question: how many CEOs have you seen climbing trees?

This is an undignified act. Zacchaeus by climbing up to see Jesus is climbing down the ladder of his reputation.

[5] When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”

Zacchaeus hoped to see Jesus. Instead, he is seen by Jesus, just like the blind man was seen by Jesus before he saw Jesus.

There is a pattern here. Last week the people were asking, “Who is going to be saved?” and Jesus answered, “Only the humble, only the helpless, can be saved.”

Now, this week, we are meeting two men who are helpless. They want to see Jesus; they want to be saved; but they cannot make it happen. They cannot see Jesus…until Jesus sees them.

And that is good news, friends. If you are someone who is really helplessly bad at doing religious stuff — if you’re really bad at fasting or praying or understanding your scripture or whatever — then good news! All you have to do is cry out, and Jesus will see you. He is reaching out for you even now. He wants to come and stay at your house! — just like he does with Zacchaeus.

But what is Zacchaeus going to do? He is not poor like the blind beggar; he has something to lose if the Romans find out he has been friendly with this Messiah figure!

Is Zacchaeus a good guy or a bad guy? Is he going to be saved, or judged?

Well, the only way we can tell is by watching his behaviour!

So, let’s go on and see what he does:

[6] So Zacchaeus came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

Ah, okay! That seems like a good first step, doesn’t it?

But why does he do this so gladly?

Well, remember that religious Jews at that time were a lot like modern Muslims: they could only eat certain kinds of food with certain kinds of people. The good religious Jewish people of that town would never eat with Zacchaeus; they would avoid even entering his house!

But now Jesus — this famously righteous Jewish teacher — wants to enter, and eat, and sleep overnight at Zacchaeus’ house? That means Jesus is officially Zacchaeus’ friend. Jesus, who is also the Messiah, the future king, the righteous Judge over Judgement Day!

And if the Judge over Judgement Day is your friend, well: now you’ve got nothing left to worry about!

Like everyone else in that crowd, Zacchaeus was wondering, “What can I do to be saved on Judgement Day?”

Now he has received his answer: “Eat dinner with Jesus!”

Of course he is glad!

The crowd, however, is upset. [7] All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

Zacchaeus sees that wherever Jesus goes, his holiness makes everything clean. When Jesus eats non-halal food with non-halal people, the food and the people become holy, acceptable to God.

But the people do not see the truth. They cannot. They are blinded by their religious thinking. They believe that when Jesus eats non-halal food with non-halal people, Jesus becomes defiled.

And they’re saying, “Phhht! There he goes again! See, I knew he wasn’t the Messiah! The true Messiah would care about eating halal food with halal people. This guy is a fake!”

They have totally forgotten the very significant miracle Jesus just did outside of town!

Are the people convinced Jesus is the Messiah? Well…for five minutes only la! then: back to being skeptical. But don’t worry! By next week they’ll swing back to believing — then back to not believing — then back to believing…

[8] But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

That is way more than God’s law requires, by the way. God’s law requires a thief to pay back 20% extra when he is caught. Only gangsters were required to pay back four times. So in a way Zacchaeus is admitting, “I’ve been a gangster. Or a politician. But I’m finished with all that now!”

And [9] Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. [10] For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Jesus is saying that Zacchaeus is also a true Jewish man, even though he is really bad at doing Jewish religious things.

But how can Jesus say that? Doesn’t being a “good” Jew mean doing good religious Jewish things like fasting and praying and eating the right kind of food with the right kind of people?

Well, yes, that is how the crowd wants to define being a “good” Jew. They want to say that a “good” Jew is someone who checks all the boxes of God’s Law. Just like that rich ruler from last week!

But remember what Jesus said to the rich ruler last week? He said, “It’s great that you’re obeying every little detail of the law, but you’re actually missing the whole point: humility! Compassion!” Jesus told him, “Show me that your heart is like God’s heart: give away all this stuff to the poor. Give up trying to save yourself!”

Well, here, today, Jesus is sitting down to dinner with another rich ruler. But this rich ruler actually does what Jesus commanded the other rich ruler to do; and he does it without Jesus telling him to do it!

— now, how did Zacchaeus know what God wanted from him?

Well, this is a cool literary nerd sort of detail: remember, way back in Chapter 3, John the Baptist was warning everyone that Judgement Day was almost here? And people were coming from all over the place to ask him, “What should we do to be saved?” And John told them, “Be generous! Be compassionate!” And then some tax collectors came and asked the same question. And John said, “Do your job properly. Stop practicing corruption!”

Was Zacchaeus one of those tax collectors back in Chapter 3? We don’t know for certain. But it is clear that somewhere, somehow, Zacchaeus was told that God’s law is actually about generosity, compassion, and justice.

It is only at this moment, when he sees Jesus at his dinner table, that it all comes together for him —

So when Jesus calls Zacchaeus a true son of Abraham, a true Jewish man, he is pointing out that Zacchaeus’ heart is like God’s heart. Zacchaeus may be terrible at following Jewish religious rules; he is helpless at saving himself. But Zacchaeus gets the real point of God’s law: which is humility, and compassion. Zacchaeus is no longer blind, like that rich ruler from last week. He sees that he is helpless to save himself, so he gives up trying.

And when he gives up trying to make himself clean, that is when he discovers that he can finally see God. When he gives up trying, that is when God makes himself known to Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus began with the desire to know Jesus. In the end here, he not only knows Jesus, but through Jesus he knows God. He understands in his heart what God wants from him: humility, compassion, generosity, justice for everyone he has stolen from.

So he stands up and says, “This is how I want to live from now on! I want to live by God’s law of compassion!”

And that is why Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house: I can tell because this man is proving that he has a truly Jewish heart. And this is the kind of lost person I have come to seek and save.”

Now, I want to pause here for a moment to make one thing very clear:

Zacchaeus is not saved because he is giving away his stuff; Zacchaeus is giving away his stuff because he is saved. It is important not to get those things turned around. Zacchaeus is not saved because he saw Jesus; he is saved because Jesus saw him. He is not saved because he is giving away his stuff; he is giving away his stuff because he is saved.

And it works the same way for us:

First, God opens our eyes to our own helplessness. As a result we cry out for mercy. We climb a tree. We do something to ask for help.

Jesus hears us, and he sees us.

When Jesus sees us, he opens our eyes so we can see him.

And when we see him, we also see God as he really is: our loving, compassionate Father.

And when we see God as our loving, compassionate Father — then, just like little children, we want to be like him.

That is what has just happened to Zacchaeus. He is not giving away half his stuff and paying people back because he thinks he can earn his salvation. No: he is doing this because for the first time in his life he is seeing God as his Father. And because he is seeing the beauty and the mercy and the justice of God his Father, Zacchaeus wants to be like that. He can’t help himself!

See, Zacchaeus was blind; he was just as blind as that beggar. Both men were helpless to save themselves. But now these men are helpless in the grip of their desire to love God and love their neighbors. They are helpless in the grip of their desire to actually fulfill the law of God, the real law of God: not a list of details about fasting and praying and eating, but a beautiful description of what life in God’s family can be like!

For the beggar fulfilling God’s law means following Jesus to Jerusalem, and dying with him, if necessary.

For Zacchaeus fulfilling God’s law means using his wealth to feed the poor; using his wealth to create a system based on justice instead of corruption.

Which leaves us asking the question: how do we fulfill God’s law?

We have been asking, “Who will be saved on Judgement Day?” Jesus’ answer is clear: only the humble, the helpless, those who give up on religion, give up on self-salvation.

But once we realize we are helpless, what should we do? We should cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner!” And he will answer. He will see us. And when he sees us, then we will see him. And when we see him we will see God, finally, as our Father. Our fear of judgement will disappear. We will discover this desire to be like our Father.

And that is when we ask: how can we be like our Father? How can we fulfil our Father’s law in our everyday lives?

The beautiful thing about God’s law is that it is so flexible. As Christians, we do not worry about how many times every day we should pray, how many days a year we should fast, how much or how little we should give to the poor, what we should eat or drink, who we should eat or drink with. We are motivated and guided by one simple thing: love. Love for our Father, and love for people.

That simplicity is what gives us our freedom as Christians. What is loving to do in one situation may not be loving in another situation. There are some things that are always unloving: those things are listed in the 10 Commandments, which is why we read those regularly in our worship. As long as we keep those ten basic moral guidelines in mind, then we know the difference between good and evil; we know how to fulfil God’s law; we know how to please our Father. The daily details of how we do that in this world, in this city, in this culture? — those details we figure out together.

That is why being part of a church family is so important. We get together to worship the Father who rescued us from slavery and adopted us; we get together to hear his voice. We also get together to talk about the details of our lives, to listen to one another as we try to figure out how best to love one another and everyone in this city that our Father brings to us.

Keep in mind, of course, we will not fulfil God’s law perfectly; we are like small children. I remember what my children were like when they were two years old: they did not obey me perfectly, even when they wanted to! But I still loved them, even when they were disobedient! And everything they failed to do I did for them.

That is what our relationship with our Father is like.

If you don’t have that relationship with God, and you want it, then all you have to do is ask. If you are no good at doing religious things, if you are overwhelmed with your failures, your helplessness, your blindness — then just cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” I promise: he will see you. He will give you the eyes to see God as your Father. And you will be free.

For those of us who already have that relationship with God, this is what we should be thinking about as we leave today: what do I see with my new eyes? What do I see in my Father that makes me want to be more like him? What do I see in my brothers and sisters that makes me want to love them and serve them? Now that Jesus has given me sight, how should I live?

In closing, now: just like Joshua, Jesus approached Jericho with his army and conquered it.

But unlike the original Joshua, Jesus did not bring God’s judgement on the city. Instead, he brought mercy. He met two blind men, gave them sight, and gave them new lives. Luke tells us that the beggar followed Jesus to Jerusalem; we don’t know the rest of his story. Zacchaeus stayed in Jericho. According to church tradition, he later moved to Caesarea, a city on the coast near modern Tel Aviv, and became the first pastor of the Christian Church there. That, of course, cannot be confirmed. But one of the great lessons of Jesus’ time in Jericho is this: everyone is born blind. But those who are healed are saved and set free, and their lives are forever changed — and that includes all of us who have asked Jesus for mercy.

In the Old Testament, Joshua went on from Jericho to bring God’s judgement upon the whole land. It is interesting to note that Joshua captured the king of Jerusalem and executed him, but failed to capture the city.

Is history going to repeat itself? Will Jesus bring down the corrupt government of Jerusalem? Will he do better than Joshua, and actually bring God’s judgement upon that city, upon the whole world?

Or will he do something else, something merciful, perhaps?

That is what everyone is waiting to see.

And we also will have to wait.

Come back next week to see what happens.

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