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Homily for Pentecost VII, 2020

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

The Gospel tells the story of the healing of two blind men and a dumb demoniac. At first sight, the first part of the account looks like the retelling of a story told at greater length by Mark (Mark 10: 46–52; cf. Luke 18: 35–43), but Matthew also retells Mark’s story later on in his Gospel (Matt. 20: 29–34), including, as he does not in the account we have just heard, the futile reaction of the people to the shouting of the blind men, which only makes them cry out the more (v. 31), and Jesus’ pity for the blind men (v. 34: σπλαγχνισθεὶς); in contrast, Matthew’s account in today’s Gospel is, like the Gospel passages for the last two Sundays, very much stripped down to what he must have regarded as the essentials (whether or not it is a duplicate of the account in Matt. 20: 29–34 or the record of another similar occasion). The account of the dumb demoniac also has a parallel later on Matthew’s Gospel (12: 22–4), where the complaint of the Pharisees, that he has power over the demons because he is in league with them himself, is the bridge to a more explicit confrontation, in which Jesus argues that if the kingdom of Satan is indeed divided against itself, then its days are numbered (Matt. 12: 24–30): an account that Luke tells in his own way (Luke 11: 14–23). I mention these parallels and apparent duplicates, for anyone reading the Gospel is likely to wonder why. The most likely explanation is, it seems to me, that Jesus’ ministry was indeed a ministry of preaching and healing: healing was an important aspect of his mission; it was much talked about—and this is reflected in the Gospels. Indeed, such an account of a holy man, marked by such abundance of miracles, is unparalleled in antiquity, whether Jewish or classical, the nearest parallel being Philostratos’ life of Apollonios of Tyana, which was written in the third century, and is clearly influenced by the Gospel accounts of Jesus. Stories about Jesus’ preaching and works of healing initially circulated by word of mouth among his followers, and it is on these that the Evangelists drew, when writing their gospels (as well as borrowing from each other), and this accounts for parallels between accounts that sometimes otherwise suggest that they come from a different period of Jesus’ ministry (which probably lasted for several years, though the hectic pace of the accounts in the Synoptic Gospels rather gives the impression that it was compressed into a short space of time).

So here, as last week and the Sunday before that, Jesus’ works of healing—of two blind men and a man possessed by demons who robbed him of his speech—are told in Matthew’s stripped-down manner (at least in these two chapters that follow the Sermon on the Mount and lead up to the mission of his disciples, the Twelve Apostles: Matt. 8–9): essentially an encounter with someone sick or disabled, leading to Jesus’ act of healing, and then usually concluding with complaints, either from the scribes and Pharisees, or, last week, from the people of the nearby city. Matthew seems to omit other elements characteristic of these healing stories, both elsewhere in his own Gospel and in the others—the reaction of the crowd, the involvement of his disciples. Here, at this point in the development of the Gospel, Matthew wants to concentrate on the essential action. Which is? The recognition of sickness, disease, disability—recognition of the part of those suffering, and often by others; the request for healing, sometimes by others (as in the paralytic) or, implicitly by the demons, who realize what it means to encounter the living embodiment of God’s holy fire; Jesus’ act of healing, told in abrupt terms, and the restoration of the one or ones healed to health and life; the reaction of those around—amazement, wonder bordering on belief, doubt, dismay at the disruption brought by healing. Even in the very cut-down account we have heard today, there are tiny, significant, developments. The blind men cry, ‘Have mercy on us, Son of David’—the mention of David recalls the whole messianic expectation that surrounds the coming of Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one, focusing attention on who Jesus is. The Christ, the Messiah, was thought to be coming to bring renewal to the created order. Just a few chapters later, Matthew tells the story of John the Baptist, from prison, sending some of his disciples to ask of Jesus who he is: Are the one who is coming, or should we wait for another? And Jesus replies by telling John’s disciples to go back and tell what they have heard and seen—and Jesus goes on to quote from the Prophet Isaias:

The blind see and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf-and-dumb hear, and the dead are raised up and the poor hear the good news of the Gospel (not an exact quotation, but recalling various passages in Isaias).

Jesus lets them see how the prophetic expectation of the Messianic age is fulfilled in him (cf. Matt. 11: 2–15). Hence the blind men’s calling him ‘Son of David’. In crying out, ‘Have mercy’, they are recognizing their need for healing. Lord, have mercy, Κύριε ἐλέησον, Господи, помилуй, Doamne, miluieşte!—we keep on repeating this in the course of the Divine Liturgy, but perhaps do not dwell enough on what we are saying, for we are asking for healing, acknowledging our need for healing—healing of both soul and body. But in the account we have heard, their cry is not enough: Jesus questions them, ‘Do you believe that I can do this?’ to which they reply, ‘Yes, Lord’. So, too, we need to believe in our hearts that the Lord can heal us, forgive our sins, heal our weakness and infirmity. And then Jesus touches their eyes, saying, ‘Let it be according to your faith’, and their eyes are opened. The encounter with Jesus and the blind men then takes a strange turn: Jesus scolds them (ἐνεβριμήθη), and says, ‘See that no one comes to know this’—and, despite this sharp warning, the blind men go off and spread his fame in the whole of the land! The theme that Jesus sometimes asks those healed not to tell about what has happened, sometime quite sternly, as here, occurs throughout the Gospels, developed in various ways, but here no hint is given of what Jesus meant and why he scolded the blind men restored to sight.

Then follows an even briefer account of someone deaf-and-dumb. He is brought to Jesus, presumably by his friends. The record is as brief as it could possibly be: ‘And when the demon as cast out, the dumb man spoke. And the crowds were amazed, saying, never has this been seen in Israel’. And then the final comment: ‘The Pharisees were saying, He casts out demons by the ruler of the demons’. And there the account ends (in the text of the Gospel it ends, too, and the narrative moves on).

What are we to take away from this? This is presented as an episode (or two) in Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom—the kingdom of the Messiah, the Christ, in which kingdom disease, sickness, disability will be done away: and this is manifest in the presence of Christ. Those who encounter him, hear his healing word, are healed. Healing is sometimes not what we want: it opens up new possibilities, new responsibilities, hence the ambiguous reaction to Jesus’ actions. None of us is without need of the healing touch of Christ: let our cry, ‘Lord, have mercy!’, come from our hearts and make possible that healing touch. Amen.