As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, crying loudly, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he entered the house, the blind men came to him; and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you.” And their eyes were opened. Then Jesus sternly ordered them, “See that no one knows of this.” But they went away and spread the news about him throughout that district.
Matthew 9:27-31 (NRSV)
This is a story that appears in all four Gospels with some pretty decent variances. It’s not my intent to try to reconcile these variances into one MegaStory that reflects what “really” happened. I am not interested in that, and I stand a very good chance of missing what Matthew is trying to tell me by trying to somehow make his account mesh with the others. What’s more, I would basically be saying that the purpose of a gospel is to give me an objective biography of Jesus’ life, such that discrepancies between the gospels are now problems to be solved instead different takes on the stories to bring out certain truths of particular interest to the author.
Instead, I’d like to look at some choices Matthew makes and why he might have told this story the way he did.
Matthew puts this story in a chain of healing stories. In this, he follows Mark, although the chain is not quite the same. Luke and John have this story occurring in the midst of other things. In Matthew, this chain is headed by a story where Jesus announces a new, eschatological era has come upon Israel that should usher in celebration, and yet there are overtones that there are hard times, ahead.
As I’ve pointed out several times before, the healings and exorcisms are like huge, neon signs for Matthew that Jesus is the expected Messiah.
In the 30s of Isaiah, the prophet urges Israel to remain faithful despite their impending war with Assyria. Instead, they should trust in God for their deliverance. Isaiah predicts that Israel will be ruled in peace by a righteous king. The prophet paints a picture of the destruction of their enemies in staggering terms involving eternal flames and stars being destroyed, and this is contrasted with the prosperity of Israel under her new king. And then we get to Isaiah 35, where the faithful retake Jerusalem in a blissful reign that even the other nations are envious of, and in the midst of this, we see:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
Isaiah 35:5-6 (NRSV)
This is, in fact, the exact passage Jesus quotes to John the Baptist when John is in Herod’s prison and sends a message to Jesus asking if he is the expected Messiah.
Matthew clearly sees Jesus as this Messiah and wants his readers to know Jesus is this Messiah, too. He is the man who fulfills the expectation of God delivering Israel from her enemies and ushering in a reign of peace and prosperity.
But where is the sign of this? Well, one of the signs is that Jesus is healing people and casting out demons. For Matthew, this is a strong apologetic that Jesus is the Messiah that Israel has been looking for.
This is another instance where Matthew has two people where the other gospels only posit one. Matthew does this a number of times. We don’t know why. Some have thought that, since Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, having two witnesses is important to him, and that explanation sounds as good to me as anything.
Also, like the other healing miracles, the faith of the men is key to the outcome. Jesus does not just waltz up and heal them. He asks if they believe that he can do this. It is through their trust that they are delivered, and this is a controlling paradigm for how Matthew’s Jesus approaches Israel. This Jesus is issuing warnings about judgement and offering a way out. Do you trust him? Do you believe he can save you? That will be the hinge that makes the difference between an Israel with faith who survives the coming calamity and a faithless Israel who will perish in it.
Finally, we see Jesus telling them not to tell anyone, so of course they tell everyone. Here, as in other places, we see Jesus (through Matthew’s eyes) being sensitive to the timing and progress of his work. Most likely, this is driven out of a concern for the survivability of the mission. Despite what some of our well-intentioned songs might say, Jesus did not come to die. He came to accomplish a mission that (almost) ended with him dying and inevitably involved him dying. But dying was not the mission. The recovery of the lost sheep of Israel was the mission.
If word gets out too fast to the wrong people, the forces that will inevitably move against Jesus will begin, and once those gears start turning, there’s no stopping them until Jesus is crushed between them. In Matthew’s gospel, as in others, we see a sensitivity on Jesus’ part to timing and who knows what when. Ultimately, Jesus’ death will be presented to us as a willing, planned decision on his part, not the random forces of history that spun up in response to him. He is not presented to us as an unwilling victim who fell on hard times, but rather a man with a plan, and controlling the revelation of his works is part of the unfolding of that plan.
Ah, but the best laid plans of mice, men, and Messiahs, eh? These men tell everyone, and perhaps Jesus knew that might happen, too. Perhaps it is partially because of this that Jesus’ next steps in Matthew are to send followers out to villages to announce his coming. The cat’s out of the bag, after all.
And what of you, reader, who sees Matthew’s Messiah? Does he look like the deliverer of Israel to you? Does this prophet and healer elicit feelings of trust and belief, or does he elicit feelings of scorn? Do you believe in what God was doing in Jesus Christ so long ago? Does this move you to trust this God? Or are these reasons to simply let these stories pass us by of one more rabbi in ancient Judea who lived and died and time marched on as it always has?
Matthew wants his readers to believe. Do you?
- Isaiah is full of imagery about ancient Israel’s situations and expectations that the New Testament will later use to describe Jesus. What are some other passages? Is the scorn and rejection some felt for Jesus also apparent in those passages?
- What do you believe about who Jesus was? Was he Israel’s Messiah? What does that say about God’s promises?