Scripture: Matthew 9:27-31
This is the second week in a row, now, that our Question Jesus Asked is part of an account of a miraculous healing. Last week, Jesus healed a paralyzed man by the pool of Beth-zatha after asking him if he wanted to be made well. This week we meet back up with Jesus as he restores sight to two blind men who follow him as he travels around in the region of Galilee.
And I have to admit that this week’s question was the one I was most dreading preaching on. In fact, as I was going through the Gospels trying to compile the questions for this series I seriously thought about leaving this one out, just so I wouldn’t have to deal with it.
That’s because every once in a while I will hear an account of what we sometimes call a “faith healing” – usually the healing of a physical disease or ailment in some miraculous way, without the intervention of anything involving modern science but simply through faith and prayer and perhaps the laying on of hands – and I have to admit that I never quite know what to make of these accounts. On the one hand I would never want to limit what God is able to do, but on the other hand, these things are simply not really a part of my religious experience or tradition. I think that I probably speak on behalf of some but not all of you when I say that.
And that makes these stories hard to preach on – especially when Jesus explicitly brings faith into the mix. If I preach what the story seems to say, that God will heal your infirmities if you just have enough faith, I feel a little icky about that, because there certainly seem to be a lot of cases where that does not hold up. But if I only preach about how that’s probably not really how it works, I feel a little icky about that, because the point isn’t simply to deconstruct a story – and besides, I’m afraid I might come off as not having very much faith, myself.
So you can see why it was tempting to just leave this story alone.
Ultimately I decided that that wasn’t the most honest way to go about things, and besides, as I say sometimes, it is often the texts I struggle with where I experience God speaking to me the most in the midst of them.
If you also are someone who struggles with texts like these, then I guess we can struggle through it together.
The story takes place after the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus is traveling around Galilee performing miracles and healing people. First it is a man with a skin disease, then the paralyzed servant of a Roman centurion, a demon-possessed man in Gadarene country, and a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years – along with many others along the way. Jesus has just healed the daughter of a local leader after she’s already been declared dead, after the musicians are already beginning to show up for the funeral, even; and as he takes his leave of the crowds, two men begin to follow him. Unlike the first disciples we heard about a couple weeks ago, they don’t walk along in silence until Jesus happens to glance back and notice them. Instead, they follow loudly, crying out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”
Jesus must not answer right away because we are told they follow Jesus all the way into the next house he’s going to, and then, it seems, just kind of stand in front of him wordlessly, as if to say, “Well?”
And Jesus asks them our question of the day: Do you believe I can do this?
“Yes, Lord,” they say, and he says, “Then it will be done for you according to your faith.”
And it is, and their eyes are opened.
Like I told you, this is all a little bit uncomfortable for me.
Am I really supposed to believe, I wonder, that this is how it works? What would have happened if they hadn’t said yes? What if they said, “Well, we’re maybe not 100% sure, but it seemed worth a shot?” Would Jesus then have judged them unworthy of his mercy? Would he have somehow been unable to perform a miracle for them? Does Jesus need people to believe in him for his power to take effect, like Tinkerbell?
Is this a question that Jesus is asking me, and if so, what about? And might I also be judged unworthy of his mercy if I answer incorrectly?
I’m slightly comforted to realize that out of all the miracles that Jesus performs in these several chapters after the Sermon on the Mount, these blind men are the only ones who get asked that question.
But then, as I read through the accounts of those other miracles, I’m forced to realize that faith plays a big part in many of them, too. The first, the man with the skin disease, kneels at Jesus’ feet and says, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean” (8:2). The centurion with the paralyzed servant stops Jesus from coming to his house and instead says, “No, just say the word from here; I know how these things work” (8:9). The ruler whose daughter has just died says to Jesus, “Place your hand on her, and she’ll live” (9:18). And the bleeding woman takes enough of a risk just to reach out and touch the hem of Jesus’ clothes despite her ritual uncleanliness that she had to have believed she was going to get something out of it. Like it or not, at least in this section of Matthew, faith and healing seem to go hand in hand.
But then in Matthew 8:16 we do learn that many people are bringing their demon-possessed friends and relatives to Jesus and it simply says, “He healed everyone who was sick.” As far as I can tell, no questions asked.
I was slightly comforted again when my commentaries told me that the healing itself wasn’t really the point of the story at all. In the Old Testament, and especially in the prophet Isaiah, the coming of the Messiah, the Son of David – as the blind men call Jesus – was depicted as a time when the lepers would be cleansed and the paralyzed would “leap like a deer” and the voiceless would cry out and, of course, the blind would see. And in these passages in this section of Matthew, these are the things we see happening, one by one. This story isn’t about two blind men who miraculously receive their sight – it’s about two blind men who are able to see the Messiah for who he is.
That did help some.
But then it doesn’t really answer my questions, either, about how Jesus seems to imply that these messianic age healings work.
So I don’t know, Jesus, I guess I still have some questions for you. Is your mercy reserved for those with great faith? Isn’t there something in the Bible about the rain falling on the just and the unjust? What if I have some faith, but not enough? If I ask you for healing or anything else and I don’t get it, does that mean that my faith wasn’t great enough? Does that mean I can look around and tell who is faithful by who gets what they want?
Oh, and while we’re at it, does that make faith really just a tool to get what I want?
Like I said, I struggled some with this text.
But I think somewhere in the midst of it all I heard Jesus saying, “I’ll ask the questions here.”
And I began to realize that I had perhaps gotten so caught up in the logistics of healing that I failed to hear Jesus’ question for what it was. And then it began to occur to me that, obvious miracles aside, there are actually a whole lot of situations where God’s ability to work in my life does, actually, require at least a little bit of faith on my part. Not necessarily because God is up there in heaven doling out mercy to people according to the measure of their faith and withholding it from people who don’t measure up – but because a lot of the time, what God wants to do in and through my life requires some participation on my part. And that participation does often take faith – the recognition of just who I am dealing with and just what he can do.
So I hope Jesus won’t mind if I rephrase his question a little: What might God want to do in your life right now that requires some faith on your part?
This week I asked some of my friends for their examples of things God had been able to do in their lives or through them that required faith from them. One of my friends, another pastor, said that when he was considering going to seminary, he looked over his budget, and he found that after rent, tuition, travel costs, and books, and fees, he would have about $10 left over each month – and that was before buying food or any other necessities. He said more than one person told him to reconsider. But he also believed that God had called him into ministry and that this was what God wanted him to do.
Do you believe I can do this? He believed that God would make a way, and he never went hungry.
Another friend also related a story of God calling her to a particular career, but she is not a pastor, she’s a teacher. She teaches kindergarten in a Title 1 school where every day kids come in hungry, sad, angry, hurt, and, she said, “everything in between.” It’s a job, she says, that she could not do if she didn’t believe it was where God needed her to be right now. For her, faith is what means she shows up every day.
Do you believe I can do this? Maybe she couldn’t do that job on her own. But with the power and the strength that God gives her, she’s making a difference in the lives of the children she teaches.
Yet another friend did tell a story of healing. For years she struggled with depression and was even suicidal for a time. There seemed to be no way out of the darkness. And acting on her own, maybe there wasn’t.
Do you believe I can do this? Through the power of God and good professional help, she is living, in her own words “well and normally most days.” Of course, that’s not a miraculous healing – or is it?
I think of all of the questions I had to answer when I was ordained – “Will you do your best to pattern your life in accordance with the teachings of Christ?” “Will you, in the exercise of your ministry, lead the people of God to faith in Jesus Christ, to participate in the life and work of the community, and to seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people?” “Will you be faithful in prayer…and continually rekindle the gift of God that is in you?”
And the answer to all of them: “I will, with the help of God.”
Because as much as society might tell me that I can accomplish anything if I just believe in myself – sometimes it’s about more than just believing in myself – because there are some things I just can’t do through my own power, skill, or will. And the only thing to do is to pray: Son of David, have mercy on me.
What does God want to do in your life that is going to take a little faith from you?
What if we made this more of a collective question? When we pray for peace in Syria and other places devastated by war and terrorism, week in and week out, do we really believe that God can do that? Don’t we have to, in order to be willing to do anything and not just give the people there up for lost?
You all know that reading and learning about the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and its faith leaders played a big role in my first sensing a call to ministry, and I remember how people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bishop Peter Storey of the Methodist Church in South Africa would preach in the thick of the struggle that God had already won.
Do you believe I can do this? Yes, God, so much that I’m willing to put it in the past tense, and then get out there and march.
And I even think about the future of the United Methodist Church here, as the threat of a denominational split looms ever closer over our disagreements over same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay people. Does God have a good future in store for us, even when we seem incapable of finding the way forward ourselves?
Do you believe I can do this? Well, I don’t always know, God. But I believe after 40 years of fighting that if we do, it won’t be our own doing; and that if we don’t believe in what you can do, then we definitely don’t stand a chance.
Like I said, sometimes it’s the passages I struggle with most that end up having something to say to me.
Do you believe God can do this? Do you believe God has the power to heal, the power to make peace where there is no peace, the power to reconcile, the power to establish justice, the power bring you through challenging times, the power to help you respond to whatever call God has placed on your life?
Then, says Jesus, it will be done for you according to your faith.
Your faith, like mine, may not always be perfect.
But may it be just enough for God to work some miracles through us.