Outside of major feast days and special liturgical times like Lent and Christmas and Easter, the Byzantine liturgical calendar for Sundays focuses almost exclusively on healings and exorcisms performed by Jesus. So it’s no surprise that today the Gospel (Mt. 9:27-35) is about a healing and an exorcism (and this particular exorcism includes a healing). This is all well and good, for we ought to praise the Lord for all his marvelous works done on our behalf. It’s only the homilists who are left wondering how they can preach on the same Gospels over and over without saying the same things over and over, so that the congregations don’t have to keep yawning and looking at their watches over and over.
My solution to this conundrum today is to refer to my old friend Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis and his detailed and profound commentary on the Gospel of St Matthew. He always sees things in the Gospel that I don’t (and not only because he’s proficient in the Greek language), so I’ll rely mostly on his wisdom today, so you don’t have to keep hearing the same things over and over.
He says enough on this Gospel to give at least a two-hour homily, so I’ll just focus on a few points. We see in other healings of blind men in the Gospels that after they receive their sight, they begin to follow Jesus. This is an appropriate response to what Jesus has done for them. Yet the blind men in today’s Gospel follow Jesus before He heals them. The text reads: “As Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him, crying aloud, ‘Have mercy on us, Son of David!” Erasmo comments that “disciples are made by their own need… Jesus’ disciples become such out of an avowed malady at the very center of their being.” He calls the disease of the blind men a “chronic, irreversible affliction,” and so only the divine Physician could help them.
It isn’t usually those who are wealthy, healthy, famous, and surrounded by all the pleasures and comforts of life who choose to follow the poor, despised, and crucified Savior. It is more often the afflicted and sick and miserable ones, who can easily recognize their desperate need for help, who turn to the Lord. But that doesn’t mean, as the anti-Christian media mogul Ted Turner infamously said, that “Christianity is a religion for losers.” Or maybe it does, if we accept the truth that we are all losers, due to original sin and all the unoriginal sins we have added to it during our lives. What Mr Turner fails to understand is that when we losers decide to become disciples of Christ, we thereby win the victory over sin and death, and the rest of the losers—however wealthy or influential they may be in this quickly-passing life—end up eternal losers, forced now to be disciples of the devil for endless ages.
The poor and afflicted who recognize their need have a distinct advantage over the rich and powerful who don’t. All of us have need of a Savior, but wealth and prestige keep some people from readily realizing it. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus declares: “You say: ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing’; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17). The blind men in the Gospel had no illusions about their desperate need, and so as soon as they heard that Jesus was passing by, they stumbled after Him until they entered the house in which He was staying. Erasmo says that this house of Jesus represents the Church, where all the sick and needy come to Jesus for healing and salvation.
In this particular healing, Jesus does not ask them what they want, nor do the blind men say that they want to see. Jesus only asks them if they believe in his divine power. Once they say yes, Jesus heals them. It is as if Jesus simply wanted them to recognize that He is the One who is their hope, regardless of what He might or might not do to meet their specific needs. He may have been looking in their souls for a prayer like this one that the psalmist prayed: “It is you, Lord, who keep the lamp of my hopes still burning; shine on the darkness about me, O my God!” (17/18). (Perhaps that would be a good title for the Lord: “The Lamp of my Hopes.”) Jesus then fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that reads: “I will lead blind men on their way and guide them by paths they do not know; I will turn darkness into light before them” (42:16).
After receiving their profession of faith, Jesus extends his hand and touches their eyes. A word would have been enough, but the blind understand touch as a privileged form of communication. As Erasmo says: “The contact transmits vision as divine mercy courses through human nerves and skin… Jesus’ gesture united the spheres of divine compassion and human helplessness.”
Jesus declared, as He often did, that this healing was granted them because of their faith. He knew that their faith was more than a matter of mere words. Even though Jesus asked them if they believed in his power to heal and they said yes, their faith was manifested even before He talked to them personally. They had cried out to Him as He walked by, and when He kept walking they followed Him, as if recognizing that the perpetual night in which they lived was about to be ended through the breaking of a new dawn, the Sun of Righteousness rising in their midst, and they therefore had to embrace Him at all costs. The words of the psalmist were realized in them: “In your light we shall see light” (35/36).
Erasmo offers a little insight that we non-scholars would never discover. The form of the word used for “opened” for the eyes of the blind that were healed is a very rare one, utilizing the grammatical phenomenon of the “triple augment,” the lengthening of three vowels in the same word for a special emphasis. So he translates: “their eyes were opened wide.” Indeed, how could they not be, as they gazed in wide-eyed wonder and joy at the beauty and light of this world, and especially the face of Him who called Himself “The Light of the World.” The one previous time this triple augment is used in Matthew is at the baptism of the Lord, when Heaven opened wide for the Holy Spirit to descend upon Jesus as He rose up from the waters of the Jordan.
“Jesus,” says Erasmo, “is an opener, a revealer, an unveiler: he first manifests the secret being of God to man, and then he opens up the faculties of man that he might be capable of perceiving such a revelation. Christ Jesus’ mediation between the Father and mankind is the very substance of his task on earth.”
After He opened their eyes, Jesus gave them a stern and solemn warning not to tell anyone about it, but He still made use of a pun. He literally said: “See! And let know one know it.” The command of Jesus for them to keep silent is usually explained by the so-called Messianic Secret, that Jesus did not want anyone to know who He was before the proper time. Yet He did not reproach them for loudly calling Him the Son of David, a clear messianic reference. So Erasmo suggests that it had more to do with Jesus not wanting people to regard Him merely as a wonder-worker. They would then flock to Him either to get rid of their own diseases or merely to enjoy the spectacle of the manifestation of unusual powers.
“The two men’s healing from physical blindness is the historical and corporeal sign (in the manner of a sacrament) of their enlightenment through faith that establishes them in the contemplation and adoration of the person of Christ.” Perhaps if this could be both explained properly by the healed men and understood properly by the people, Jesus would have told them to go and spread the news. But despite his strong admonition, the newly-seeing men could not contain themselves and broadcast the news everywhere. In this they seem to prefigure the universal proclamation of the Gospel after Jesus’ resurrection. Having been enlightened (which is the early Christian term for baptism), one cannot but bring news of the Light to those who are still in darkness.
The case of the man who was mute and possessed by a demon is quite different than that of the blind men. They had taken the initiative to seek Jesus out and follow Him. There was some personal interaction: Jesus wanted to know if they believed, and then He stretched out his hand to touch them. In this new case, the man is completely passive. He is brought by others to Jesus. Nothing is said but that the demon was cast out and the man began to speak. We have no account of what he said. Perhaps this striking difference in the two cases has to do with the difference between natural afflictions and demonic ones. At least the blind men still had the will to live, the energy to pursue the Lord, the desire to make themselves known to Him.
The other man was under the control of another. He could have said with the psalmist: “The enemy pursues my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground… like the dead, long-forgotten. Therefore my spirit fails; my heart is numb within me” (142/143). Erasmo comments: “The mute man is possessed by an evil spirit: to that extent, he has ceased for the moment to belong either to God or to the human family… His neighbors’ action of bringing him to Jesus in fact bespeaks a dramatic tug-of-war for his soul between the possessing demon and the compassionate fellow humans who have come to his aid… Dominion by the forces of darkness, however, surpasses the competence of merely human virtue: the Son of God must intervene. And, in the face of this confrontation, the demon capitulates without any struggle. Jesus simply ‘casts him out.’”
The point here is simply that Jesus has made him whole, re-created him, as it were. The devil wishes only to disfigure, degrade, and destroy human souls made in the divine image. It is a properly human thing to speak, and so by rendering him mute the demon sought to “undo the beauty and wholesomeness of God’s masterpiece, man.” But, as St John writes, “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1Jn. 3:8). Despite the lack of detail in this particular episode, the message is clear: Christ is about his Father’s business, healing, restoring, and saving that which sin and the powers of darkness had tried to ruin.
So, as we reflect on these marvelous works of the Lord, let us remember to come to Him in all our troubles and needs. It may be that we feel we are burdened with “chronic, irreversible afflictions” that resist all efforts at healing. But Jesus asks us, as He asked the blind men: “Do you believe that I can do this?” Perhaps we are at times so crushed that we cannot even articulate our need, like the mute man oppressed by demons. Let us then at least ask someone to pray for us, thus being brought before the Lord by compassionate others. Jesus can deliver us as He delivered the possessed man.
In all things let us realize that Jesus is the answer—even if we seem to get no answer from Him! The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, and He wills our salvation, which is the ultimate healing, the ultimate enlightenment, and the ultimate deliverance. Let us cling to Him in faith, for He has promised, and He will do it.