Beyond the Lectionary Text: Matthew 9:27-34
by Kory Plockmeyer
I hate it when someone acts one way when we’re with one group of people and then is a completely different person in a different context.
Perhaps that explains some of my discomfort with this passage from Matthew 9.
These back-to-back healings are, in many ways, nondescript. We are given few details, nothing out-of-the-ordinary happens, and some commentators would suggest that these healings, unique to Matthew, serve little more purpose than to wrap up this section of Matthew’s gospel.
One thing that does stand out is the contrast between the “outside” Jesus and the “inside” Jesus.
Outside, Jesus seems stand-offish, disinterested even, in the plight of the blind people following him. Jesus simply goes on his merry way, seeming to ignore the men incessantly imploring him for mercy, following him down the road. After an unknown length of time, Jesus enters a building, apparently followed by the same blind men.
Inside, it’s a different story. Jesus turns to the two individuals and asks them if they believe that he is able to do this. They answer with much more patience than I feel I could muster at that point with a simple, “Yes, Lord.” Where they could have objected and gotten defensive, pointing out that clearly they believe or else they would not have followed him all this way, they simply say “Yes.”
The contrast between the inside and outside Jesus rings true to much of our daily experience in life. Many of us have spent undefined periods of our lives, following Jesus, crying out again and again for mercy, only to find that it feels as though our cries are falling on deaf ears.
We can be tempted to read these stories of faith and healing as a call to simply trust harder and to have more faith. When times get tough and it feels like Jesus isn’t listening, we just need to grin and bear it and have faith. On the one hand, yes – there is something true about that. Despite the fact that the outside Jesus appeared not to be listening, he was. For reasons we explore below, he chose not to respond outside. Jesus was listening and at times we just need to trust that when it feels like our cries are falling on deaf ears they are, in fact, heard and answered in ways and at times that lie outside of our understanding.
Yet there is also grace in God allowing us to wait and to plumb the depths of human experience. Only by the grace of God are the blind individuals in this story able to walk, follow Jesus, and simply answer “Yes Lord.” By God’s grace, we are able to answer “Yes” to God. Sometimes that “yes” comes despite our frustrations, sometimes because of those frustrations. Yet God invites us to trust that the situation is under control and to follow, sometimes through pain and sometimes through difficulty, ready to declare our faith.
Yet the “inside” Jesus then does something unexpected – he asks those who have been healed to keep the information to themselves. Were we reading the Gospel of Mark, where the idea of the “Gospel secret” is quite prominent, we may be less surprised by this. Matthew’s Gospel, however, goes out of its way to demonstrate again and again as clearly as possible the ways in which Jesus fulfills the promises concerning the coming Messiah. Earlier in the chapter Jesus brought a dead girl back to life. So why does Jesus ask these individuals to stay silent?
Perhaps Jesus is simply worried about drawing too much attention to himself. After all, people are starting to talk after the last set of healings. Perhaps Jesus is testing these two people as to whether their faith extends beyond the miraculous to the simple act of obedience. Perhaps Jesus expected them to spread the news.
We are given little insight as to Jesus’ motivation in this story for asking for silence and I am inclined to believe that is part of the point. Our natural inclination is to question everything and to want explanations for everything. God sometimes does things for seemingly inscrutable reasons and our call is to trust and obey, even when we don’t understand God’s reasons. This is not to say we can never ask questions and never wonder why God does things the way God does, but we ask these questions from a place of trust.
Even as these two go out the door on their way to tell the news they aren’t supposed to tell, a demon-possessed man is brought to Jesus. This account is remarkable for its lack of remarkability. We know nothing of how Jesus drive out the demon or what the demon did or said in response, as we do with other similar stories. Instead we have a simple, barebones narrative sequence: the man is brought to Jesus, the demon is driven out, he speaks, the crowd is amazed. The only thing out of the ordinary in this second healing is that the Pharisees think Jesus must be channeling the Prince of Demons in order to do the things he is doing.
These two healings come at the end of a series of healings. In a short while, Jesus will respond to the disciples of John the Baptist, as evidence of who he is, that “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Matthew 11:5). This verse, coupled with the response of the Pharisees, presents us with two ways of responding to God’s activity in our world: accept the good news that Jesus is the Messiah or reject him.
This is the important counterbalance to the silent Jesus of the “outside” above. Yes, there are indeed times when it feels as though Jesus is simply silently moving forward without us, seemingly deaf to our cries for help. Even in the midst of that experience we are presented with the choice of how to respond to Jesus. We can give up, reject Jesus, and go on our own way, or we can wait and trust.
The path of the Pharisees in this passage is the way of our own effort. This is the way that sees the grace of God at work in the world and at work in our own lives and yet refuses to acknowledge it as being of God. God invites us to the way of grace, the way where we do not depend on our effort, our ability to save ourselves. Sometimes that way of grace requires trusting, even in the midst of the darkness, even in the midst of life’s more difficult circumstances. Sometimes it means trusting even when it feels like God is silent. Sometimes it means walking behind Jesus without being sure of where he is going or when things are going to turn around for us. Where others see darkness or fear, the way of grace sees God at work around us in our own lives and the lives of others.
God invites us to let go of our fear and to hold on to the risen Messiah Jesus, putting our trust in him.
Greek participles note aspect and relative time. That is, the present participles (krazontes kai legontes “crying out and saying” in verse 27), indicate both that the blind pair are crying out as they follow and that they do so in an ongoing fashion.
Most translations will speak of the blind “men.” Given, however, that Greek uses the masculine adjective when describing any group of more than one with at least one man, we cannot preclude the possibility that one of these two is a woman. While it may not change our exegesis in any earth-shattering manner, it may make this passage more accessible if we do not limit our interpretation to Jesus healing two men instead of a more ambiguous pair of two people.
As a way of continuing the thread of “inside” versus “outside,” it is noteworthy that in Matthew 8:11-12 many from the outside are invited inside and many who were inside are thrown outside. All of Jesus’ miracles in chapters 8 and 9, with the exception of the woman with the bleeding disorder who touches Jesus’ robe (9:20-22), take place indoors.
In the movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the wizard Gandalf asks the hobbit Frodo to keep the Ring of Power secret and safe. He offers little explanation for his demand then disappears for quite some time. Frodo knows little of why Gandalf has asked him to do so and certainly does not understand the wizard’s subsequent silence. Yet, he trusts Gandalf’s wisdom and advice and, despite the lure of being able to use the ring for his own entertainment and amusement, he keeps it tucked at the bottom of a chest. Similarly, Jesus (and Matthew’s Gospel) offer little explanation for why the two recently healed individuals should stay silent. Unlike Frodo, however, this pair fails to trust, despite their apparent faith in Jesus.
Rev. Kory Plockmeyer is the pastor of Westend Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI.