By Gavin Dunbar
Today’s lessons are about the journey — a journey that begins with Abraham, a journey that reaches its destination in Jesus, a journey whose meaning for us is captured by the blind beggar, who is able to see what the sighted cannot see. What moves Abraham to start the journey? It is not unselfish, noble altruism, but need, longing, and a desire for the blessing God so abundantly promises him. For there is no human being who is not by his nature moved by need, desire, and longing, for his own happiness, to attain a blessing.
But notice how this promise moves Abraham. Because he believes and trusts that God will keep the promise, he obeys God’s command. He leaves his father’s house, and when he reaches the land that God has sent him to, and learns God’s promise includes the gift of this land to his seed forever, there he acknowledges God’s goodness, by giving him something in return, by the offering of a sacrifice. Already we see, at the very beginning of the journey, the pattern of dispositions that the promise of blessing awakens in us — faith in God’s Word, hope in his promises, and that sacrificial love St. Paul calls charity.
Abraham’s journey, of course, is just the beginning of the centuries-long pilgrimage of the people he fathers — a journey of desire and longing for the blessing promised by God — a hope blighted too often by Israel’s disobedience and sin, and made exile rather than exodus. For the journey of Abraham to attain its end, God must take responsibility for it — God’s incarnate Son and Israel’s Messiah must complete the journey for us out of exile.
And that’s what Jesus tells his disciples in today’s gospel lesson: he announces the fulfillment of his destiny, and the completion of the journey begun in Abraham: “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished. For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on: And they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again.”
Jesus knows and consciously wills the rejection he must suffer before his exaltation. But his disciples are utterly perplexed by what he tells them: St Luke says not once, not twice, but three times that this announcement made no sense at all to his disciples: “they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken.”
And it’s not difficult to see why this made no sense to them. If Jesus is the Messiah, and the Messiah is sent to bring victory, glory, life, and blessing to his people — how is this accomplished by defeat, shame, and death under the curse of God? Why would the righteous Son of God accept a death than only a sinner deserves?
It just seems like a contradiction — they are puzzled, and perplexed. They don’t understand the plan of God for our salvation — the mystery of self-giving love for sinners — the charity of God toward those who are least and lowest. But it was charity that moved Christ to give himself for us, the righteous one in the place of sinners, accepting the shameful death that our sins deserve, so that we could receive as the gift of charity the glory, life, and blessing that only he deserves — and so complete the journey into blessing that Abraham began.
This is where the blind man may be our guide — because the blind beggar sees what the disciples don’t see. Perhaps because he is helpless to help himself, utterly dependent on the charity of others, he is especially sensitive to the mystery of self-giving love and charity in ways that the disciples are not. He may be blind, but he sees that Christ is sent to proclaim the grace and love of God to the least and the lowest, those who have no help nor hope in this world.
And though he cannot go to Jesus, Jesus has come to him, and is at this moment passing by — and so he begins to shout to be heard above the hubbub of the crowd — “Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me! Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me! Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Naturally, there are people at the front of the crowd who tell him to be quiet: “they which went before rebuked him, that he should hold his peace.” They don’t think Jesus should have any interest in expendables like this blind beggar. But the beggar does not give up. The more they tried to hush him, the louder he shouted — “he cried so much the more, thou son of David, have mercy on me.”
He resists this pressure to be silent. He is all the more determined to be heard, because of the confidence he has that Jesus has come to help and bless people like him, people who cannot help themselves, people without status, resource, right, or claim to favor. And he knows that this may the one opportunity he may ever have to get that help.
And his faith in Jesus is not misplaced, his hope not disappointed: with the divine authority of one who is Son of David and Son of God, Jesus gives sight to the blind.
The reward of the blind man’s faith is the power to see — the reward of faith is vision — and in the ability to see that he now has, he “followed Jesus in the way, glorifying God.” That is to say, he uses the power of sight that he has received by means of faith to follow Jesus in the way of discipleship, to follow him in the way that leads up to Jerusalem, where Jesus will die and rise again. And that means he follows Jesus in the way of self-giving love for sinners — the way of discipleship, the way that begins in faith and persists in hope, must reach its end in charity.
It is in faith that we can know the mystery of God’s self-giving love, revealed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in faith that we can be transformed by that vision of self-giving love until it becomes the character of our love for one another — a love that “suffers long, and is kind; that envies not; that vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things” — the charity that abides, when all other gifts have passed away.
St. Paul appeals to us to “put away childish things,” to grow up into the knowledge of God’s charity toward us, and into charity toward one another — that charity “without which,” as the today’s collect puts it, “whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee.” And that too is our journey, the inward pilgrimage of the soul in faith, hope, and charity, to spiritual maturity.
Today is the last Sunday before Lent, and these lessons have been chosen to instruct us in the nature and purpose of its shared corporate disciplines. By fasting, abstinence, and self-denial, we put ourselves in the blind beggar’s place — as those longing for the blessing that no food or drink can supply — the gracious love that only God can give.
By earnest and continual prayer, we make his confident persistence in seeking Christ’s mercy our own also — that we too may be given power to see. By the giving of alms, we put into practice the self-denying and self-giving love that he showed us, as the beggars his grace has made rich. May this Lenten season be to us a journey up to Jerusalem, in hope of God’s promises to Abraham, a journey from faith to vision, to know and be transformed by his love and charity.
The Rev. Gavin Dunbar is rector of St. John’s Church in Savannah, Georgia.