March 5, 2023

"Reach Out Your Hand"


James 2:14-17; Matthew 20:29-34


In today's Gospel lesson, we read that Jesus was leaving Jericho along with his disciples. Jericho was a stop on the pilgrimage road heading towards Jerusalem, about 15 miles from the holy city. We also read that he had a large crowd following him. Why is this? In Matthew's gospel, by this time, Jesus has fed crowds of 5,000 men + women and children and the 4,000 men + women and children, has performed miracle healings, has walked on water, and challenged those in power. Jesus' fame spread, and his followers increased. People wanted to know more about this holy rabbi.


Jesus has just told the disciples of his pending death on the cross and resurrection earlier in chapter 20. Now his face is set like flint, heading toward pain and suffering. Yet, as he begins this journey towards Golgotha and the cross, we hear of two blind beggars on the side of the pilgrim road who call out, "Lord, son of David, have mercy on us!" This account is another version of a story from the first account of Jesus' ministry in the gospel in Mark.


In Mark's story, it is one blind man named Bartimaeus who calls out to Jesus. In Matthew, it is two beggars with no names. Matthew doubles things all the time in his version of the gospel. It is interesting and frankly weird that Matthew likes to double people and situations. Why is this? I have researched this issue for decades but have yet to find a decent answer. I'm not alone. A very well-respected theologian, Frederick Dale Brunner, states, "It is a curiosity of Matthew that where the other evangelists have one demoniac, Matthew has two; that where Jesus rides one donkey in Mark and Luke, two animals are included by Matthew; and now we have a similar doubling of the blind men. Matthew's doubling must be due to something deeper than his sources or his source's double vision. Perhaps Matthew wished to say something communal or social about these healings. The reason for these twos still escapes me." If that answer is good enough for Professor Brunner, it's good enough for me. Why he doubles so many things escapes me as well.


So, these two blind men call out to Jesus, using the Greek term" kyrios," translated as “Lord" in our passage. It is a title of respect, almost like saying "Sir" or “Ma’am" when addressing someone.


The second term they use to describe Jesus is "Son of David." This title means they believe him to be Messiah. Ironically, two blind people are among the first to proclaim him as Messiah. Jesus says, "Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe." (John 20:29). Even though they cannot physically see, they can see through eyes of faith that it is the Messiah passing them by.


"Son of David" is often used to describe Jesus in Matthew, but not so much in the other gospels. In those other times, people call him the "Son of David", he tells them not to tell anyone. However, as Jesus begins his final earthly journey, he does not tell the two blind beggars to keep quiet. Perhaps by the time he sets out on the pilgrim road to Jerusalem, he is ready to embrace his calling as the Messiah, the Savior.


After their initial call to Jesus, the crowd rebukes them, telling them to be quiet. That did not have the desired effect. The two men shouted even more, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us.!" Jesus stopped. Even as Jesus prepared to face his death, he stopped and called to them, asking, "What do you want me to do for you?" Their response was - "Lord, we want our sight." In Mark's version of this story (Mark 10:46-52), Jesus asks blind Bartimaeus, "Do you believe I can heal you?" before reaching out his hand. That version of the story emphasizes the faith of the blind man, suggesting that because he believes Jesus can heal, he will be healed.


In Matthew's gospel, we find a different emphasis. Verse 34 says that Jesus had compassion on them, then stretched out his hand to heal them. Matthew's version emphasizes Jesus' compassion, which is our focus for this morning.


What does the word "Compassion" mean? The "com" of compassion means "with," and "passio" means "suffer."  So, to have compassion for someone is to suffer with someone. You recognize that person's struggle and are willing to enter that suffering, to reach out your hand to be with them. Srubas says, "Compassion is the human capacity to do what God does in Jesus: suffer with another out of deep, self-giving love and discover that through such suffering comes solace and, dare I say it, even joy."


In Greek, the word translated as "compassion" literally means "he felt for them deep down inside his stomach." Jesus felt an emotion deep down inside, a gut feeling, and he reached out and touched their eyes. Jesus moved in close where others kept their distance, as he often did in his ministry. Consider these two blind men. They were on the outside, looking in. First, many considered that any sickness or infirmity was caused by either a person's sin or the sins of former generations. So, if they were blind, they did something to deserve that blindness. (Deuteronomy 5:9)Then there is the reality that due to their blindness, they would never marry and never have a family or a house in which to live. They were outsiders residing outside the city, outside the path, outside the light, and outside society. Yet Jesus moved with compassion, reached out to these outsiders, and touched and healed them.


Today, we focus on developing Christ-like compassion for others on our Lenten journey. Last Sunday, I spoke about keeping our hearts from hardening by letting Christ's spirit of compassion enter into them. How do we develop Christ-like compassion? Here are seven practical ways to do so. Focusing on any one of them will help you become more compassionate.


  1. Put yourself in someone else's shoes. I needed to go to Bi-Mart to get some new jeans a couple of weeks ago. As I pulled up into the parking lot, I noticed a pair of old purple Converse tennis shoes in my parking space. I was careful not to run them over. As I got out, I thought about the person who owned those shoes, which seemed pretty well-worn, and hoped they now had better shoes. I then thought about how many pairs of shoes I had in my closet and realized how blessed I was. When we remember how hard life is for others, that can lead us toward compassion. As the saying goes, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."


  1. Many of us are taught the "It's all about me" mentality when we are children. Focusing only on ourselves is conceited, not compassionate. 19th-century American evangelist Dwight Moody wrote, "God sends no one away empty except those who are full of themselves." In reality, we are all connected. Each person in this world is made in the image of God and deserving of compassion. Practice shifting your perspective away from exclusively thinking about how something affects you and considering how words, actions, and poverty affect others around you.


  1. Practice being kind - His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, says, "My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness." Many people mistake approval-seeking for kindness. Performing a kind act to others isn't so we can gain favor or standing in return. It is something we just do. Most of the time, when I do an act of kindness, it springs from my faith in Jesus. Sometimes, I think about what Christ might do in a particular situation. For example, this past Thursday, after a wonderful presentation on OHRA (Opportunities for Housing, Resources, and Assistance) by the executive director, Cass Sinclair, our Presbyterian women's group went off to take a tour of the OHRA center. I figured they were in exceptionally capable hands with our current board president, Dennis Slattery, and felt a nudge from the Spirit to be kind to those ladies who talked about coming back to clean up the kitchen after their tour. I figured a good way to be Christ-like was to clean up while they toured and imagined Jesus doing some dishes. So, I got to work. It was a chance for me to practice kindness on my Lenten journey and move closer to a heart led by compassion. This is an easy thing to put into practice. Try to do one kind act each week. Surprise a spouse, a neighbor, or a stranger by being kind just out of the blue with no expectations. Pay for someone else's coffee in line. Bring in your neighbor's garbage cans on garbage day. Take someone out for breakfast. The compassionate possibilities are endless!


  1. Do not judge. (Lest you be judged Matthew 7:1) I know, this one is tough! I am preaching to myself as much as I am to you. I sometimes have this voice in my head that is so quick to judge! What if we could just let go of judging others and proclaiming someone right or wrong? If we try to approach others beginning with this idea of suffering with them, of compassion, if we could trust that life is hard enough as it is and everyone is doing the best they can, perhaps we, like Jesus, could reach out our hands to outsiders too. 19th-century American minister Henry Ward Beecher wrote, "Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation.


  1. Be aware of your own wounds and hurts. Those unhealed places in your childhood or adulthood can wound others. Talk with someone regularly about those places that need healing so that you aren't wounding others around you. I have a spiritual director and a therapist I regularly see to help me recognize my inner wounds. They both are helping me heal those painful places deep inside so that I can be a compassionate presence to others. It is a work in progress, to be sure, and I still have a way to go. But I'm working on it.


  1. Be Present for others. Put down the cell phone. Turn off the tv. Stop multitasking. Stop the continual voice talking in your head and just…listen. Make eye contact with people you meet - the barista who gives you a cup of coffee; the checker at your grocery store; the unhoused person; your spouse or partner; your friend or neighbor. Focus on the other. It takes practice! But as you do this, being truly present with others, you practice compassion.


  1. Consider the compassion of Christ, which is an appropriate focus for the season of Lent. Jesus understood our human condition. He had deep empathy for people, especially those on the outside-the marginalized. With great compassion and infinite love, Jesus went to the cross and died for humanity, including each of us in this moment and all those who come after us. In the Gospel of John, when praying for his disciples, he says, "I pray not only for these but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their word." (John 17:20). I believe that while he was upon the cross, the Messiah saw all those who would come after, who believed in him through the accounts in the gospels, including all of us at this moment. If Christ had such compassion for us, we are called to share that great love and compassion for others.


Becoming compassionate like Jesus is about entering into the lives of people around us. Srubas writes that compassion "is where lofty virtues and values get put into practice. We've all been guilty of moving past stories of people in pain, offering only" thoughts and prayers," like the person in James 2:16 who tells the hungry person, "Go in peace and keep warm and well fed." When two blind men called out to Jesus, Jesus could have responded with a verbal blessing, but his compassion led him to touch them, giving them not only the gift of connection. He also gave them the gift of knowing they were not so broken and unclean that one so holy couldn't touch them."


Faith in action is more than just words. So, let us go from this place, actively reaching out with our hands and hearts in compassion to those around us as we continue our journey on the Lenten way. Amen.