Friday, October 9, 2009

Have mercy on us, Son of David!

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, crying loudly, ‘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 and said, ‘According to your faith let it be done to you.’ And their eyes were opened. Then Jesus sternly ordered them, ‘See that no one knows of this.’ But they went away and spread the news about him throughout that district.

After they had gone away, a demoniac who was mute was brought to him. And when the demon had been cast out, the one who had been mute spoke; and the crowds were amazed and said, ‘Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.’ But the Pharisees said, ‘By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.’

- Matthew 9:27-34

Here is yet another story echoed from other gospels. "Have mercy on us, Son of David!" is the echo of the cry to Jesus, which has become a prayer indispensable to life in the Church. In both Luke and Mark, we have the story of the blind man who cries out, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Here in Matthew's gospel, we have two blind men (similarly to the way that the demoniac healed at the tombs is a single man named "Legion" in the other gospels, and appears in the form of two men in Matthew's gospel).

The cry, "Son of David, have mercy!" is a clear indication that for these men, Jesus carried Messianic status. "Son of David" is a Messianic title. Just as Jesus has preached often throughout the gospels about the need for one's eyes to see and ears to hear, about casting out the log in one's eye to see clearly enough to help others, and making the eye single for proper sight, so we have in this story a clear spiritual implication in the healing. The prophet Isaiah wrote that the messianic age would be signified when "The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped" (Isaiah 35:5). Jesus' question to the blind men, 'Do you believe that I am able to do this?' is perhaps as much a question of their faith in him as it is equally a question about their recognition of his identity. When they answer affirmatively, Jesus replies, 'According to your faith let it be done to you.' After their eyes are opened and they can see, Jesus instructs them to tell no one. This is typically Jesus' instructions in Jewish territory. Clearly, those who address him as "Son of David" understand Jewish perspective and prophecy and the awaited Messiah. Until it is time for him to reveal himself in his own way, Jesus' instructions among the Jews are always for those healed through his ministry to keep their silence. But, of course, those who are healed can hardly conceal their joy and amazement at what has happened, and, as repeatedly happens, we are told that they went away and spread the news about him throughout that district.

Then, a mute demoniac is brought to Jesus. Openly, he casts out the demon, and the man begins to speak. The crowds are amazed, and we are told that they say, 'Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.' Jesus' open healings and his reputation have now spread, causing consternation among the Pharisees, and we begin perhaps to understand why he has instructed others healed by him not to speak of him. The famous accusation begins. The Pharisees claim, 'By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.' In the gospels of Mark and Luke, there are well-known discourses that Jesus gives in reply to this accusation. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," he replies. He furthermore asks, therefore, by whom the exorcists among his accusers cast out such demons. Jesus, as a Messianic figure, is clearly working against demonic power in these healings. "The ruler of the demons" would seek to consolidate power, not to act against its own. It is important, then, that we begin to understand that all of Jesus ministry is healing in spiritual terms. In this light of Messianic identity revealed through the name "Son of David" and also in terms of the types of power displayed by Jesus, we come to understand that the significance of healing on every level goes much deeper than alleviating the immediate cares of people who are afflicted. This is a spiritual battle that is going on. At other levels, perhaps, far beyond our own comprehension, there is a battle of power and for souls going on. There are two "kingdoms" at war. Jesus is in the world to bring the kingdom of heaven to us. Casting out demons, the signs of messiahship through the powerful healings and miracles he displays, are signs of a powerful authority brought into the world in order to vanquish a kingdom of demons, in which we are made slaves: surely the afflictions visited upon those who are possessed are forms of bondage and slavery which we must recognize through the readings.

Regardless of one's personal beliefs about demons or demonic activity, the text, the narrative of our gospel, is clearly giving us an understanding of two kingdoms at work, and, of course, which one Jesus is bringing into the world. For Matthew's Jewish audience, certainly the Messianic status of Jesus is highly important, and understanding that this figure of power is acting in the name of the kingdom of God tells us what it means to heal on a particular basis of cosmic significance. The cry, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" has remained with us throughout the centuries as a form of prayer. The phrase "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me" is a prayer in itself, and constitutes the popular practice of the Jesus prayer, a form of contemplative prayer that stems from the practices of the earliest monastics, the Desert Fathers. We remember what it is to cry for mercy, to seek solace in such prayer. Ultimately, we should know that its real implications are not just for a form of spiritual battle (as the Desert Fathers understood it), but also that a cry for mercy is more than a release from affliction. It is a way of asking for release from bondage, from a slavery to something that inflicts pain and suffering upon us. In that light, I think it's important to practice prayer with this awareness. What is it that causes needless affliction and pain? What is it that we would be free from? For this, we ask for mercy and the healing power of love. While we seek professional care for all kinds of ailments, we would also do well to remember this practice of prayer for mercy, for healing - and to understand that the kingdom of Love is still an alternative to the viewpoint of life lived as a slave to something unnecessary, which causes us pain. For whatever ails, mercy is available as a help, even to come to terms with a perspective outside of the box of affliction and bondage. We need our eyes opened to "see" it. The Greek word for "mercy, " eleos, is related to the word for olive oil - the basis for all balms of healing in the ancient world. Mercy is always a cry for healing, on so many personal and spiritual levels. Whether for a single individual, or as Matthew's version of these healings indicate, for more of us at once on a corporate or social level, we ask for mercy. We ask for the power of a kingdom which teaches love to come into our world, and to free us from the bondage that exists without it.

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