Romans 15:1-7, Matt 9:27-35; Psalm 69 (LXX 68)
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
Our God is the God of steadfastness and encouragement. We see this clearly as Christians, for the Father has reached into our world, as St. Irenaeus puts it, by His two hands of the Son (who steadfastly endured deprivation and the cross) and the Spirit, whose very name, the Paraclete, means “the encourager.” That God, who in the flesh endured the cross, and who indwells the Church deeply, by means of the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, also has bequeathed to us the witness of many, in the Scriptures. These Old Testament books—Torah, Prophets and Wisdom books—were, says St. Paul, written to give us hope, because they themselves show forth the divine characters of steadfastness and encouragement. By them, as with the living presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit, we are instructed in the ways of God, whether we are in a time of flourishing or in a season of suffering.
This Sunday, the seventh of Matthew, we turn our eyes to the witness of three who were healed by Jesus—two blind men, who called upon Him as the Messiah, the Son of David, and a man who could not speak, because he was hampered in this human activity by a demon. The first two seek Jesus of their own accord; the third, bound by the enemy, is brought to the Healer:
And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him, crying aloud, “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, saying, “According to your faith be it done to you.” And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly charged them, “See that no one knows it.” But they went away and spread his fame through all that district. As they were going away, behold, a dumb demoniac was brought to him. And when the demon had been cast out, the dumb man spoke; and the crowds marveled, saying, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.” And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity. (Mat 9:27-35)
We are immediately struck by the division of the people as they witness these events. The crowds are awed, recognizing the unique nature of Jesus’ actions. But the Pharisees who hear of the healings attribute Jesus’ power to the dark side! We must remark, then, that the word of witnesses, and even being an eye-witness, does not compel belief. (The way that the story is told gives the impression that the Pharisees were in the crowd that actually saw the healing of the man who could not speak). Jesus himself stresses the importance of faith when the two blind men come to him for healing. This may raise some questions, for it is clear that he sometimes healed without this as a pre-requisite. Even here, there is no question of the dumb man being required to articulate his faith in Christ; it is the faith of those who bring him that is operative, it would seem! But where God is willing to act, and a person is capable of response, then Christ asks for it, including that man or woman in his own gracious action. He is, as some have said, a “gentleman” who will not impose his will upon any one of us. And the evidence that he gives of his love, faithfulness and concern is overwhelming: this very passage in Matthew ends by speaking of how Jesus went into many villages and towns, teaching, preaching the good news and healing.
Still, we have this very strange phenomenon of the early unbelieving Pharisees, those who knew the Torah inside and out, and who accepted the whole Hebrew Bible, including the Prophets: so engrossed in the minutiae of the Law, they failed to see its main purpose, which was to illumine the Christ who was in their very midst. As Jesus said about those who rejected him, “The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Mat 12:41 ).
Many of them, however, refused to be instructed by their own Bible, and missed its greatest message of hope—that the steadfast and encouraging God had come into their very midst! We are, of course, grateful for the witness of those Pharisees (Nicodemus; Joseph of Arimathea), as well as some of the priests “obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7), who did respond to the Light among them, and who formed the nucleus, along with the disciples, of the early Church. From them came many of our worship traditions, and a deep love for the Scriptures as the books that lead us to their Author! One of the oldest traditions that we have, inscribed in our worship and indeed in the pages of the New Testament, is a perspective on reading the Psalms in such a manner that Christ Himself speaks, dramatically and healingly, to us. Our parish priest actually acts this out for us every Great Vespers: as Psalm 1 is sung, “Blessed is the Man”, he stands in front of the icon of Christ, reminding us that the “blessed One” par excellence is Christ Himself! Our passage for this Sunday from the epistles quotes from one of the Psalms that the gospels use in telling the story of Jesus’ passion, reminding us that “Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me.’”
Let’s hear some more extensive selections of that Psalm:
Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.
More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies….
For it is for thy sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face.
I have become a stranger to my brethren, an alien to my mother’s sons.
For zeal for thy house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach thee have fallen on me….
Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none. They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink…
But as for me, my prayer is to thee, O LORD. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of thy steadfast love, answer me. With thy faithful help rescue me from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.
Let not the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the pit close its mouth over me.
Answer me, O LORD, for thy steadfast love is good; according to thy abundant mercy, turn to me.
Hide not thy face from thy servant; for I am in distress, make haste to answer me.
Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free because of my enemies!
…I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
This will please the LORD more than an ox or a bull with horns and hoofs.
Let the oppressed see it and be glad; you who seek God, let your hearts revive.
For the LORD hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds.
Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves therein.
For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah; and his servants shall dwell there and possess it;
the children of his servants shall inherit it, and those who love his name shall dwell in it.
(Psalm 69/ LXX 68)
We can surely see in this Psalm the sorrow of our Lord, trumped up on false charges because of his zeal for the Temple of God, insulted by his very own people, as well as by strangers, given vinegar to drink, but still praising the name of God with a psalm, and ending in triumph, “It is finished!” Like Father, like Son—those who insulted the Lord by minimizing the depth of his written Word, or finding ways around justice and mercy, now let their insults fall upon the Son; those Gentiles who laughed at the mighty Creator of Heaven and Earth, considering the Holy Scriptures to be eccentric because they told of one Holy God, not many, now unleash their fury upon God the Son, despite warning dreams not to do so. Jesus is left alone—and yet He sings a song of hope, looking to the time when God will rebuild his people, and call many to dwell under his gracious Kingship. He speaks “to revive our hearts”!
Here is our God —- steadfast, full of encouragement, consistently giving his people Scriptures full of encouragement, and coming Himself among us to model faithfulness and to show us how to direct ourselves towards hope even in the most dire circumstances. Who could have guessed that He could and would trample down death by death? Elijah, who heard God’s still small voice in a time of great discouragement, was undoubtedly overjoyed to see the glory of God, and how God the Son would turn even the reproaches and insults of the enemy into life and joy. Remember the prophet’s glimpse of Jesus’ glory, coming through the cross, at the Transfiguration! It is because of this steadfast, consistent, and “with-us” God that the apostle Paul can remind us what really matters in our lives, in this wonderful passage, found towards the end of his letter to the Romans:
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me.” For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus,that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Rom 15:1-7)
The character of our faithful and human-loving God puts everything within a new perspective, doesn’t it? Jesus, though the Strongest of us all, did not please himself; neither should we. We may be strong, but is should be our delight to serve those who are weaker—whether this is physical, emotional or spiritual weakness. Our lives together should be one common life, marked by harmony, and mutual praises of God. Our entire orientation should be TOWARDS others, as this remarkable instruction puts it: “Welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you.” The Greek word used here actually paints a kind of word picture, suggesting that we go forward to receive someone, just as the Father runs out to receive the prodigal son, in Jesus’ parable. This kind of life, this ready reception of each other, shows forth the very “glory of God,” letting people see that we have “been with Jesus.” We let our light shine, and show that we are very sons and daughters of the Father.
Our readings for this Sunday, then, direct us to understand how important it is to listen to the witness of those who have seen Jesus more clearly. They also instruct us as to how to read the Old Testament with profit, seeing how its stories establish the faithfulness and encouragement of our God, who would come in our midst in the flesh, and fill our communities with his Spirit, who binds us together. And they remind us that our own nature, as the Church, should stand as an icon of that human-loving God to those who are in the world. Those who see our ready receptivity, our joy, our ability to encourage and to be encouraged in times of distress, will see something of the love of God Himself, who plunged into our dark world to restore it to its original light—and to bring it to His very glory!