by Daniel Harrell
I’m moving around Matthew 9 these past Sundays, filling in here before I head South to visit family and stick a toe i the ocean, leaving one last piece to preach outside for our annual worship in the park once I’m back. Chapter 9 kicked off with a party at a tax-collector’s house—Matthew’s house—where Jesus dressed down both his foes the Pharisees and the followers of John the Baptist for party-crashing. They were upset that Jesus wasn’t fasting. Jesus pulled a fast one, you may remember, by asking how you could fast at a wedding feast, giving a sneak peak at his true identity and then shrugging his shoulders when some couldn’t get it. “You can’t sew a new patch on an old coat. You can’t bottle new wine with an old cork.” Change of heart isn’t something you can make happen. You have to let it happen to you. You have to be made brand new. Completely reborn. In the end as from the start, new birth isn’t something you can do to yourself.
A desperate synagogue leader disrupted all of the fun to beg Jesus to come raise his just dead daughter back to life. Sure, Jesus says, for the sake yet another sneak peek. But on his way a desperate, chronically bleeding woman needs help, only she doesn’t ask. Shunned from religious circles because of her bleeding, she reached out and brushed Jesus’ pants leg and her bleeding stopped. Jesus brought her back to her life, said her faith saved her, not meaning she had enough or had it right, but that she had it aimed in the right direction.
I skipped this morning’s passage last Sunday for Pentecost. I couldn’t resist talking about Jesus handpicking disciples for harvest work on a Sunday devoted to the Holy Spirit igniting the birth of the church. Pentecost had been solely a Jewish holiday commemorating the spring harvest—which by the way, coincides with our own spring harvest this year. We got the first 30 pounds of food out of our gardens yesterday, cabbage and kale. We’ll be distributing it through VEAP and our pastoral care visits. If you need some food for lunch or know a hungry person who does, feel free to pick some yourself on your way home.
Of course the disciples at Pentecostal would be harvesting people. They would be the first to embody Christ’s spirit, to so love the world and carry on God’s mission, be Jesus in the flesh as the body of Christ for the world. Given the enormity of the task, it couldn’t hurt to practice. So here in Matthew 9, Jesus empowered his guys and sent them out to do what he did: cure the sick, raise the dead, kick out demons, not worry about the money, tell the truth and not worry about the words, the Holy Spirit would do all the talking. They’d enjoy both a bountiful harvest and vicious resistance—the Spirit stirs up as much trouble as it stops. The power to work wonders wouldn’t save them from suffering. This was the hard part. Yielding to the work of God meant letting God work on you. Suffering scours our souls until only our real faith remains, a virtue not the fruit of our effort and nature, but a faith and virtue surpassing nature. In the end as from the start, rebirth and resurrection isn’t something you can do to yourself. This is very difficult to accept. Very hard to see.
Two blind men accost Jesus coming out the door and beg, “Son of David, have mercy!” This is the first time anybody’s called Jesus “Son of David” in Matthew. “Son of David” meant Son of King David, the ruler during Israel’s glory days, a revival of which Israel longed for its future. Oppressed under Roman rule, Israel’s prayer was for a return to the day and to a King who could slay evil giants, be they national or personal. Jesus just raised a dead girl back to life. Can’t get any bigger that that. “Son of David, have mercy on us too.” The blind men could see more than they knew.
After years of paying for television I never watched, I finally cut the cable last year—which you may remember for me meant climbing up on my roof at the risk of my life to hack down my DirecTV dish. The result has been a substantially lowered entertainment bill, complete disengagement from televised sports, and a Netflix subscription that now entices me with hours on end of commercial-free binge viewing from an enthralled, slack-jawed perch on my sofa. I’ve plowed through West Wing and Parenthood, as well as Netflix originals, most recently Daredevil, based on the Marvel comic book superhero who happens to be both blind and a devout Catholic.
You don’t come across many superheroes who believe in Jesus. Who needs faith when you can fly through the air or pulverize evil with a hammer? In fact, Jesus could probably help his own numbers a little if acted more like a superhero himself. Daredevil, also known as lawyer Matt Murdock, lost his sight as a boy while saving an old man from being hit by a car. Radioactive chemicals splashed on his face, blinding Matt but heightening his every other sense in astonishing ways. Daredevil can hear conversations blocks away, can tell whether a person’s telling the truth by their heartbeat, can leap across buildings and defeat legions of evil giants with a kick and a stick. Being devout, he refuses to kill anybody, but he does about everything else, there’s a lot of blood and pain with his vigilante violence—a lot of badness to beat in Hell’s Kitchen. As Matt Murdock, Daredevil checks in with his priest now and then, not to confess as much as to align his purposes with the purposes of God. The priest asks how he’s holding up. “Like a good Catholic boy,” Murdock replies. The priest says, “That bad, huh?” One reviewer notes Daredevil’s real superpower is his faith, displayed in his relentless sacrifice night after night, his ability to gain strength from his weaknesses, as well as his guilt over the terrible things he does to bring justice. Though blind, he sees more than he would with sight.
So you won’t think I spend all my free time in front of the television, I’m also finishing a novel by Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See, winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book centers around the exquisite courage and power of a young blind girl, Marie-Laure, who also experience heightened senses with her own loss of sight. “To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears … families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which her city sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun.”
Her heightened sense heightens a sense of devotion and duty in service to the French Resistance during World War II. Marie-Laure sees beyond the visible, her insight inspiring a remarkable heroism all her own in face of the worst dangers imaginable. “When I lost my sight, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
That both television and literature mine the ironic power of blindness taps into a long-revered theological tradition. Blessed are those who believe what they cannot see. Smart people tell us how our universe began with a burst of light 14 billion years ago, and since has expanded to a size of some 46 billion light years across and getting bigger at an ever increasing rate. How large is 46 billion light years? Light travels about 5.87 trillion miles a year. Punch that into your calculator, factoring the width of the universe is due to the expansion of its objects away from each other, multiply by 14 billion and you’ll get this number: 2.70231100992E23. The E means that the numbers prior are to be multiplied by 10 to the 23rd power. Theologian Peter Enns, says this number is what God laughing at us looks like. It is not simple math. Relatively speaking, some of this expansion occurs faster than light, as impossible as that sounds. And not only that but the empty space in space is expanding too. Oh, and remember that 46 billion light years wide is only the size of the observable universe. The entire universe is estimated to be 10 to the 23 power bigger. We can only see what we can see due to the time it takes light to reach our instruments on our dust speck of a planet.
Let’s not pretend I have any idea what I’m talking about here. Astronomy and optical physics are way above my pay grade. The most powerful aspects of light operate outside the visible spectrum. Even for physicists, to comprehend light requires space be left for deep mystery. Light proves as unfathomable as the good Lord himself. What kind of a God do we worship, who dwells in unapproachable light, capable of the kinds of things the universe displays, who renders my calculator incomprehensible, yet willingly (and quite literally) makes time to enter human space to know and to love and to suffer and save?
Jesus asked the blind men, do you really believe I can do this? We like to think that seeing is believing. But the long theological tradition counters the conventional wisdom. Seeing is not believing but exactly the opposite. To believe is to see.
Scripture teaches faith to be “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Jesus touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you.” Become what you believe. And their eyes were opened in every way. It was like the blindfold coming off at a surprise party only to not be that surprised—just really happy. Oddly, Jesus sternly warned them to keep the surprise. “Don’t tell anyone about this.” But who was he kidding? The men spread the news about Jesus throughout that whole region.
Why keep it quiet? Wouldn’t faith be easier if we had visible proof? If we could see with our own eyes. Why not save the world the superhero way? Be the superstar Son of David. Slay the giants without the suffering. Why not be superhero, Jesus Christ Superstar? By midpoint of the gospels, Jesus is a bona fide superstar. He’s a superhero who defeats demons and walks on water, the heralded heir of King David and hope of all Israel, a celebrity savior who heals and helps while preaching really short sermons. People heard, but didn’t really listen, they could see, but didn’t really understand. They paraded him as their hero, fawned over him like fans, made him a viral sensation, the paparazzi buzzed around him like flies. Jesus spoke of a God’s Kingdom, but they heard military might and political power, not the surrender of might and yielding to power. With Jesus, injustice would be overturned by succumbing to it. The futility of violence would be exposed by suffering its cruelty. Death would redeemed by dying. Victory won through defeat. But this is not how superstars operate. This is not how superheroes save. Which is why Jesus also preached repentance. The people needed to get over their delusions of conquest and success. Yielding to the love of the the Lord meant letting God do his work his way. In the end as from the start, rebirth and resurrection isn’t something you can do to yourself. This is very difficult to accept. Very hard to see.
Why not the superhero way? Fly through the air, drop a hammer, wield your power? Use your celebrity? Raise awareness and money to fight world poverty and disease. Have your own TV show. When you’re famous you can heal more, feed more, comfort more. Be the king everybody wants. If you’re truly the Son of David, really the Son of God, who better to do it than you?
Jesus had heard all this before. The gospels called them temptations, enticements of the devil himself. In this morning’s passage the Pharisees accused Jesus of having succumbed to the temptation. Of being a devil. Applying their own theological rationale, they concluded that “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.” Here again, the stark contrast of perception, the fatal failure of sight. In a similar encounter in John’s gospel, Jesus pressed against the Pharisees’ resistance.“I entered this world to render judgment,” he said, “to give sight to the blind and to show those who think they see that they are blind. … because you claim to see, your guilt remains.”
The crowds who heralded Jesus as their hero would eventually turn on him too once they saw he wasn’t the king they wanted. Fans don’t like superstars who fail. They crucify them.
Jesus prayed for God to let him off that cross. He asked the Father to save the world some other way. But there is no other way than the way of sacrificial love. Jesus did what we did that we might have what he gives.“Not my will by thy will be done.” As much as we’d prefer God to do like we want, faith means letting God love like he loves—scouring our souls to their core for the sake of real faith and real virtue, in us and through us, as hard as this may sometimes be. In the end as from the start, rebirth and resurrection isn’t something you can do to yourself. It isn’t something you can do to others. This is very difficult to accept. Very hard to comprehend. So Son of David, have mercy on us too. Give us grace. Help us see.