Sight for the Blind

  Luke 18:31-19:10  

At the beginning of his ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus laid out his agenda:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
      to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

One of the promises of the Good News of God’s salvation is sight to the blind. There’s more than one kind of blindness. All the stories in our passage today were about people who can’t see for some reason.

In the first story, Jesus’ own disciples are unable to see the true nature of his ministry (18:31-34)

In the second story, Jesus meets a blind beggar who says: “Lord, I want to see” (18:35-43).

In the third story, a tiny tax collector climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Jesus (19:1-10).

At the beginning of our passage today, Luke tells us Jesus took the Twelve aside—his trusted inner circle, his chosen apostles. And he explained to them:

We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; 33 they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again (18:31-33).

Luke tells us: The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about (vs. 34). Luke uses three ways to tell us they couldn’t see.

Jesus had started this journey toward Jerusalem nearly ten chapters ago, beginning in Luke 9:22. And he had told them this exact same thing then: he was going to be rejected, suffer, and die there. But on the third day, be raised to life. So, none of this was news to them. But Luke says their insight now is no better than it was back then. Because when Jesus first told them what was going to happen: they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it (9:45).

Nearly ten chapters they’ve been walking with Jesus toward Jerusalem. Toward everything he’s told them would happen. It’s been a long journey, full of conflict. All this time, walking this journey with Jesus and they still don’t see it.

Why not? Why was the meaning of his word hidden from them?

I believe it was their own thoughts, their own expectations, desires, and ambitions that blinded them to the truth. The verse right after our reading today ends—Luke 19:11—tells us:

While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once.

In other words, they believed once Jesus crossed through Jerusalem’s gate, as Israel’s Messiah—the anointed king—Jesus would exercise his rightful authority. They thought he was a king coming to conquer, and they were his army who would dispense the justice of God.

They thought he was going to Jerusalem to reign. Not to suffer and die. So, they were blind to the truth.

Sometimes we’re like the disciples on the road to Jerusalem. Our thoughts, our expectations, our ambitions, and our opinions make us blind to the word of God.

As we listen to the scriptures, and we see God’s story unfold, there are many things we may not understand—just as the disciples didn’t yet understand. We may not see the benefit right now of the scriptures we’re considering. If that’s the case, the obstacles to seeing may very well come from our own thoughts, fears, opinions, or lack of experience.

But God is faithful. And if we continue to walk faithfully with Jesus, God will open our eyes and let us see the truth. Just as the eyes of the blind beggar were opened; and just as Zacchaeus finally saw Jesus when he changed his perspective by climbing that sycamore tree.

Just as the disciples’ eyes were opened after Jesus did, in fact, rise again on the third day.

But now, Jesus is leading his blind disciples on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. Only Jesus can clearly see the way.

And Luke tells us, there was a blind man sitting by the road, begging. When he heard a crowd passing through the town he asked what was going on. And the people told him: Jesus of Nazareth is passing by (vs. 37).

Part of Jesus’ ministry, as we have already seen, was telling the good news to the poor, and giving the blind their sight back. This blind beggar on the road to Jericho is both of the above.

And this blind man is the only one who sees clearly who Jesus really is.

And so, he cries out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (vs. 38). He calls out to Jesus as the Messiah. The Son of David. God’s anointed King. The King who comes not to kill and conquer; but to give life and set people free.

Luke says that those who led the way—the people who thought they were important and in the know—rebuked him and told him to be quiet (vs. 39). They must have thought, How embarrassing! This blind beggar is harassing Jesus! Doesn’t he know this is supposed to be a dignified occasion!

The blind man was warned, but he persisted. He begged again, even louder: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Luke says: Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” (vss. 40-41).

It wasn’t food or money the blind beggar asked for that day. He knew that Jesus was God’s anointed to tell the poor the good news and give sight to the blind. Who God had sent to set the prisoners free. And he wanted to be set free from his blindness that made him a beggar.

And so, he told Jesus: “Lord, I want to see” (vs. 41).

And Jesus replied: “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you” (vs. 42). In Greek, the same word means both to heal and to save. Jesus has not only given him his sight back. This blind man experiences God’s salvation—he’s been healed and restored. He has a new life with hope.

The faith that saved this blind man was his insight into who Jesus really is. Jesus’ own disciples and the leading folks in town—the people who were at the front of the group—couldn’t see it. But the blind beggar—the one everyone wrote off and tried to silence—saw what the others didn’t.

And when he saw Jesus with his own eyes, the Good News of God’s salvation came to life in him. Luke says the blind man began to follow Jesus, glorifying God. For the blind beggar, salvation wasn’t the promise of a heavenly reward later. He was set free, his life was transformed, right then and there.

For Luke, salvation is never merely a personal experience of individuals. It moves out to embrace everyone around. And so, it is here. Not only does the blind man glorify God for his salvation; Luke tells us: When all the people saw it, they also praised God (vs. 43).

What did they see? They saw the prophecy Zechariah had spoken at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel coming true: “The rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (1:78-79).

They saw a blind beggar, living in darkness and in the shadow of death, seeing the rising sun dawning in Jesus. And as he followed Jesus, his feet were guided in the path of peace.

As Jesus and company enter Jericho proper, Luke introduces us to a man named Zacchaeus, a chief tax-collector, who was very rich.

Zacchaeus may have been a very rich and successful businessman, but he was also very short. Luke says Zacchaeus was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a small man, he couldn’t, because of the crowd. Read between the lines a bit. Zacchaeus was probably one of the least popular guys in town. Everyone hated tax collectors. Zacchaeus is trying to catch a glimpse of the Jesus parade, but none of his neighbors will let him through to see.

So, Luke says Zacchaeus ran on ahead, along the route Jesus was going to take, and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him. And when Jesus got to where Zacchaeus was, he looked up. Because who wouldn’t notice a sort-of grown man perched in a tree?

And Jesus tells him: “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (19:5). I love that Jesus says, I must stay at your house. It’s like he’s saying, Dude, you are so awesome! We have to hang out!

And Zacchaeus comes down immediately. Luke says Zacchaeus welcomed him with joy. I imagine Zacchaeus sliding down the tree like a fireman’s pole, and running to give Jesus a bearhug. After all, I’m sure it had been a very long time since anyone had wanted to hang out with Zacchaeus.

On another level, Jesus must stay with Zacchaeus because his mission is to seek and save the lost sheep of Israel. Sometimes that means people who’ve gotten lost in sin and destructive behaviors. But there’s more than one kind of lost. Some people get lost because they’ve been excluded. Pushed out of polite society. Told they’re not welcome. And it seems more like Zacchaeus was that kind of lost.

Every time Jesus is kind to a tax collector, people freak out. This time is no different: All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner” (vs. 7).

The same people who pushed Zacchaeus away, so he had to climb that tree. Who had kept Zacchaeus away from Jesus, are outraged that, despite their best efforts, he and Jesus have found each other anyway. And Jesus seems to prefer his company.

But Zacchaeus tells Jesus: “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (vs. 8).

Traditional readings of this story suggest Zacchaeus is promising to give half his stuff to the poor and repay fourfold any money he’s gotten dishonestly as an act of repentance. But let me suggest an alternate reading.

The verbs he uses are present tense. I’m already doing these things!  It may be that Zacchaeus has already repented, before he ever met Jesus. Maybe he was one of the tax collectors we heard about in Luke 3 who listened to the preaching of John the Baptist. John had taught: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same” (3:11). If Zacchaeus is already giving half his property to the poor, he’s obeying John’s preaching.

He’s telling Jesus: These people who call me a sinner have misjudged me. They don’t know my story. We have a lot to learn from Zacchaeus. If you bother to look, people show you who they are.

So, Jesus said: Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (vs. 9). Back in Luke 3, John had said children of Abraham will produce fruit in keeping with repentance. Just like Zacchaeus was already doing. The Good News of God’s salvation for Zacchaeus is that when he climbed a tree to see Jesus, Jesus saw him. And Jesus gave him an opportunity to show himself to his neighbors as he really was. Maybe now his neighbors will see him, too—no longer blinded by prejudice.

Zacchaeus’ story connects directly to some other material not in our reading today--earlier in Luke 18. So, I’m sure Luke meant for us to see the story of Zacchaeus in their light. It’s what we call context, and I’d be an irresponsible preacher if I didn’t point them out.

In Luke 18:17, Jesus rather famously said: anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. In the story of Zacchaeus, Luke said that because he was short and couldn’t see Jesus through the crowd, he ran ahead and climbed a tree. Isn’t that exactly like something a kid would do? When we see Zacchaeus climb the tree, we’re seeing an example of someone who received God’s kingdom like a child.

Earlier, in Luke 18:9-14, Jesus told a story about a Pharisee—one of the “good guys” in Jewish society at the time; and a tax collector, like Zacchaeus. Considered a “bad guy.” They both went to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee’s prayer consisted mostly of patting himself on the back for being such a good boy, while putting everybody else down:

“God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (vss. 11-13).

Jesus finished his story about the Pharisee and the tax collector: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (vs. 14).

What happened with Zacchaeus and his neighbors proved Jesus’ parable. They tried to exalt themselves by pushing him away and calling him a sinner, but they were humbled when Jesus let Zacchaeus tell the truth about himself. Zacchaeus humbled himself, not only by climbing a tree like a child; but also by giving half his possessions to the poor and restoring any wealth he’d gotten dishonestly fourfold. And he is exalted—his name and his story live on in Luke’s Gospel.

Finally, in Luke 18:18-25—just before our story today began, Jesus met another very rich man. His neighbors probably all thought he was a very good guy. After all, unlike Zacchaeus, this man probably came by his wealth “honestly.” This man probably thought he was very good as well, because when Jesus listed the commandments of God, he bragged: “All these I have kept since I was a boy” (vs. 21).

But then Jesus told him: “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (vss. 22).

Luke says when the rich man heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy (vs. 23). And Jesus, seeing that he’d upset the rich man, replied:

How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (vss. 24-25).

When we see Zacchaeus, we see a rich man entering God’s kingdom. The “good,” law-abiding, church-going rich man couldn’t do it. But Zacchaeus, the “bad” rich “sinner,” did. And he gave away half of his property to the poor and restored four times anything he’d taken unjustly. At that rate, I figure it wasn’t too long before he wasn’t very rich anymore.

But after the rich ruler went away sad, Jesus promised that whatever you give up for God’s kingdom, you will receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life (vss. 29-30).

I mention all those because they help us see Zacchaeus more clearly.

And maybe it will help us to see the Zacchaeuses in our lives through the eyes of Jesus.