A man left his place of work one day with a wheelbarrow full of sand. The guard at the gate was concerned that perhaps he was trying to sneak out of the plant with something, so he stopped the man and sifted through the sand. Finding nothing, he waved the man through the gate. The next day, at quitting time, the same man came to the gate with a wheelbarrow full of sand. The guard was convinced the man was stealing something, so once again he stopped him and sifted through the sand, but found nothing. Day after day the same routine took place. Quitting time came and the man would come to the gate with a wheelbarrow full of sand and the guard would sift through the sand to be sure he wasn’t stealing anything. Actually, the man was stealing something. Does anyone know what he was stealing? Wheelbarrows.
Isn’t it amazing that we can fail to see what is right in front of us?
As we continue our series of messages Walking in the Way of Jesus, this morning our message is Mercy Over Indifference. The Scripture passage is Matthew 20:29-34. This is a story of people who could not see what was right in front of them. It is a story of blindness, but not the physical blindness that is mentioned, but the blindness of indifference.
When I read this passage there is something that really jumps out at me, and it took me a while to figure it out. Maybe you’ll notice it to.
29 As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him.
30 Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”
31 The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”
32 Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
33 “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.”
34 Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.
Matthew says the crowd was following Jesus as he traveled. They were leaving Jericho and as they were walking along the two blind men, who were sitting alongside the road, began to call out to Jesus.
In the day of Jesus there was no shortage of people who were suffering. Suffering was everywhere and people were always sitting in city gates and along the roadsides, asking for mercy. Healthcare was nonexistent for the far majority of people who simply didn’t have the resources to pay for a doctor and even among those who did have the money, medicine in that time was very limited in what it could accomplish.
These two men probably sat at that same place every day. They were sitting along the road that was a busy thoroughfare for people going to and from Jericho.
But this day something was different. There was a buzz about the crowd that hadn’t been evident on previous days, and they find it is because Jesus is passing by, so they begin calling out to him. The word choice of Matthew tells us it wasn’t a tentative cry – it was a scream. It was the loud, piercing cry of two men who were absolutely desperate for help.
Here’s what really jumps out at me and puzzled me for so long – who yells at a couple of blind guys? Listen again to what Matthew records – The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet. I know we are living in a time of great contentiousness, but wow, was it even worse in the time of Jesus? I mean, who yells at blind guys who are doing nothing but asking for mercy? Who would tell a couple of blind men to be quiet? How cold and callous is that?
For a long time I couldn’t figure out why the crowd would be yelling at these two blind men. The crowd was certainly excited about Jesus. He was leaving Jericho because he was traveling to Jerusalem. Many of the same people in this crowd most likely became part of the crowd that would, in just a few days, welcome Jesus into Jerusalem at the Triumphal Entry. There had to be a lot of cheering and yelling happening, so why worry about the fact that two more people were joining in on the shouting?
Besides, it would only take a few minutes before Jesus would be out of earshot of the two men, so why would the crowd be worried about them calling out to Jesus? Here is why, I think – the crowd didn’t want Jesus to stop. The crowd didn’t want anything to interrupt his journey to do what they wanted him to do, and when the blind men started calling out to him Jesus did exactly what the crowd feared he would do – he stopped to reach out to the men.
So here’s what I think was going on with the crowd. The crowd wanted Jesus to go to Jerusalem. They wanted him to go to Jerusalem because it was the spiritual and political heart of Israel. It was also just days before Passover, a festival that commemorated God delivering his people from slavery in Egypt. I think the crowd had hopes that when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem he would declare himself the one who would once again deliver the Israelites, this time from the Romans. The crowd did not want these two blind men distracting Jesus from what they wanted Jesus to do.
So, quickly, here are a few lessons for us from this story.
1. The blind men recognized that Jesus could change their lives, and they asked him to do so.
Is it really that simple? Is it just a matter of asking? Don’t we have deep-seated thought and behavior patterns that make it difficult to change? Doesn’t it take months and years of work to make even small adjustments in our lives? These men asked for mercy, and received it. I believe it is the desire of God to change our lives. Be open to his life-changing mercy.
2. We need to make sure our eyes remain ever open to the suffering around us.
The irony of this story is that there is blindness in this story beyond that of the two men – it is the blindness of the crowd. Somehow, this crowd, clamoring for Jesus, could not see the need of these two men, even though they were right in front of their eyes.
We live in a world that it can be cold and callous and heartless. Even religion is at times cold – that person is simply getting what they deserve – God is punishing them. And that may simply be a convenient excuse for remaining indifferent to the plight of a person in need.
3. Be bold in our faith.
The two blind men had not hesitation in answering Jesus when he asked What do you want me to do for you? I like that. The blind men were not about to be discouraged by the crowd who sought to rebuke them. They were bold in calling out to Jesus.
Some years ago I was visiting with someone in the hospital. They had received a diagnosis that provided very little hope for them. The person asked me to pray for them, and I did, but I was struggling through my prayer. I was struggling because I wanted to ask for healing but I knew in that person’s situation that healing was most likely not going to happen, and I didn’t want to set them up for disappointment. When I finished, the person told me Dave, don’t be afraid to be bold when you’re asking something of God. I felt embarrassed at that moment, because I was afraid to ask something bold of God. That person needed to see me exhibit more than a tentative and timid faith in my approach to God.
4. Follow God’s agenda.
The crowd has an agenda for Jesus – they wanted him to hurry on to Jerusalem to do what they wanted him to do. But Jesus had a different agenda – he was going to bring mercy to these two men.
The NIV translation uses a wording in verse 30 that I wish were different. Most other translations use the phrase that Jesus was passing by rather than going by. That may seem like a small matter, but it’s really rather important. When the gospel writers used the phrase passing by in relation it is big. Really big. Hugely big. The reason it’s important is this – in the book of Exodus, chapter 33:18-23, Moses asks to see God. In reply, God says to Moses that he will place him in a cleft in the rock and cover him with his hand, and as he passes by Moses will be able to see his glory as it passes by – he will see God (you may remember the hymn based on this passage – He Hideth My Soul). So when Matthew uses the phrase that Jesus was passing by it meant he was about to reveal the glory of God at work in him and that we need to pay close attention.
What Jesus did was to reveal God’s agenda, which is one of mercy. The agenda of the crowd didn’t matter; the agenda of God mattered.
If the agenda of God is to show mercy, that must be our agenda as well.
A friend of ours named Scott was a truly unique individual. Scott was born with hydrocephalus, what is commonly called water on the brain. Not expected to live more than a few days, he survived into his early 40s. Scott progressed to about the ability of a five or six year old in his mental ability, but in some ways he had some very advanced abilities. Even though he had very little eyesight, it was remarkable what he could see. He could, for instance, identify the members who lived next door just by the way they came out the door. Before then spoke, Scott knew who they were, just by the way they opened a door and walked onto the porch. In his final years, when he was in a nursing home, he could tell who walked into his room just by the sound of their steps and the smell of their perfume or deodorant. When I walked into his room he always called me by name before I ever said a word. It always amazed me how well Scott could see, even though he could barely see in a physical manner. Scott could see from a much deeper, more spiritual place, because he was so tuned in to people.
May we be able to see people in such a deep, spiritual way, and thus not miss what is right in front of our eyes.