From the State of Dependence and Powerlessness to the State of Independence and Power: The Healing Story of the Two Blind Beggars (Matthew 20.29-34)

We live in an anaesthetic society. The culture that we have adopted has made us insensitive to the pain, agony and suffering around us. News about a “30 year old woman gangraped by four” or about “the destruction of about 5000 sq km of paddy crops by the cyclone Phailin” or about death of children, women and men due to wars, famine and accidents no longer moves us. We read news about death and destruction, pain and suffering, and hunger and poverty with little or no feeling. We walk past beggars sitting or lying by the roadside with hungry stomachs and expectant gaze as if they are nonexistent, and walk into malls and restaurants. 

The culture of individualism, consumerism and hedonism has made us not only insensitive to the cries, pain and suffering of the person next to us, but also blind, heartless and cruel. The very expression of disgust on our face when we see a person wearing rags and worn out sandals, and with dirty face and filthy hands says it all ……… this person does not belong here!

Although there is development in the areas such as science and technology, and economy, there is not much personality and social development. Development, on the one hand, has sent spacecrafts into space, and produced billionaires like Ambanis and Mittals with their private planes and palaces. On the other hand, many remain hungry and homeless, who are treated as the scum of the society. They are derided, chased, beaten and left in the heat of the day and the cold of the night to die with an empty stomach and empty life. Shifa Naseer portrays this paradox vividly in her poem “Beggar”:

He sat there on the road

Watching the people bustling past him

The world seemed in motion

But he himself sat still!

Watching and observing the faces of strangers

Of cars new and old!

 

He sat there on the pathway

Wearing rags and overalls.

He observed people’s shoes

Some were gleaming new and some worn out.

He looked at his own pair

And counted three holes in it.

He laughed and then sighed!

This was his life after all

What he was and is

He never had a choice in this!

His fate was sealed long before he knew.

 

He sat there on the road

Looking and observing his filthy hands

Covered in dust, he scratched his head!

His stomach growled with hunger

But he ignored it.

Looking around, he saw a lady in red

She was frowning and her face was tense

She looked tired and fed up.

He turned his gaze to an old man

Walking with a stick in his hand.

He had a smile on his face.

Such contrast there is in life.

It is cruel

But also beautiful…

 

For the beggar life has no meaning at all.

It is something for others to ponder on.

He is just a beggar

Still on the roadside

With an empty stomach

And an empty life…

 

We see the ruling class making a song and dance about the market and technology as a great liberating force for everyone. The reality is, no technology or economics can empower the suppressed in a hierarchical society unless they are driven by the ethics of inclusiveness as the measure of human progress, and the society adopts a culture of interdependence, solidarity, sharing and compassion. Inclusive development can not take place unless inclusive values and visions become the driving force of polity and society. That’s why, when we talk of material and economic development, we should ask first who are the change agents and what are their values and visions. For, development does not bring development in a similar way to everyone – many are left behind or hardly affected or even turned into victims of development.

Also development does not naturally or automatically ensue in personality and social development, in the sense of development in attitude, perspective, behaviour, and social relationships. That’s why the way beggars and the poor are regarded or treated in today’s “developed” society is in no way different from that of the “underdeveloped” 1st century AD society.      

The Story of the Two Blind Beggars

At the time of Jesus Palestine was undergoing a period of rapid social transition. A number of natural calamities, like famine of 25 AD, and the epidemic of 29 AD, combined with the problem in the distribution of goods or uneven distribution of wealth, and the commercial activity of the Pax Romana had led to changes in the social structure of Palestine. A tiny fraction of the population owned a vast proportion of land and resources, and the majority had to be satisfied with moderate means or with very little. Those connected with the family of Herod (i.e. those who have political connections) rose through social ranks and became wealthy.

The social structural changes had dislocated some from their social situation. The rootlessness that was caused by the structural changes resulted in a number of beggars. We do not know whether the two beggars in Mt. 20.30 were also the victims of the social structural changes, or became like that due to their blindness, because physical ailments often accompany poverty and powerlessness.

Silenced Voice and Powerlessness

The two blind beggars, being shunned by the society, sat by the roadside outside Jericho, as this was one of the roads taken by the pilgrims to Jerusalem. Apart from the two beggars and Jesus, there is a third actor in the story: “a large crowd” (Mt. 20.29). They are a nameless, faceless mass. We do not know whether they had to do anything with the status of the two blind beggars. But one thing is sure – the crowd regarded the two blind men as beggars. They had established the norm which categorised them as such.

The crowd tried to silence the voice of the two beggars when the latter, knowing that Jesus was passing by, shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David” (Mt. 20.30). Instead of helping them to come out of their dependent state, the crowd tried to thwart their own attempt to redeem themselves. The crowd’s effort to silence the blind beggars reflects their wish to keep them as beggars – blind and dependent. If the beggars were healed, they might become independent and shake off their powerlessness. This would upset the status quo in the society.

In a similar way powerful institutions – government, judiciary, law enforcement agencies, educational institutions, and religious institutions – serve to keep people in their designated slots. These institutions normally suppress the voice of the poor and the marginalised, and facilitate the rich and powerful to be spokespersons of the entire society, to set norms for the society, and to maintain the status quo.

Speech and Power

The crowd tried to suppress the beggars’ voice by “sternly ordering them to be quiet” (Mt. 20. 31). By stifling their voice, the crowd tried to obstruct their healing. The people had an interest in obstructing their healing, because it would mean sharing power with beggars and being surrounded by more people who speak out and demand for their rights, if they were healed.

Those, who are living at the center of the society where they have access to power and resources, will go to any extent to stop those, who are living on the margins of the society, from reaching the center. Because it would mean sharing power and resources. That’s why the crowd tried to obstruct the two blind men from speaking out their pain and need with Jesus Christ, and in turn from being healed by him.

If the poor and the marginalised succumb to the pressures of the rich and the powerful, and remain silent without seeking ways and means to come out of their imposed state of dependence and powerlessness, they continue to live on the fringes of society and thus without access to the center of power and resources. 

But the blind beggars could not be restrained by the crowd. They “shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David” (Mt. 20.31). They gain their voice through their knowledge that Jesus was the Messiah and the “Messiah time” had arrived.

The crowd might have been surprised that the two beggars had more knowledge about Jesus than they did. The people were following Jesus because they knew that he was a healer: “So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, Decapo lis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (Mt. 4.24-25). Whereas the beggars addressed Jesus with a Christological title, “Son of David” (Mt. 20.30, 31), because they knew that it was “Messiah time”, the time when “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt. 11.2-5 cf. Lk. 7.22-23). Because of their belief that Jesus was the Messiah, the blind beggars cried to him for mercy.  

The blind beggars did not speak in vain. Jesus said, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mt. 20.32). The beggars had been heard. Their response was brief and unambiguous: “Lord, let our eyes be opened” (Mt. 20.33). In other words, they said, “We want to be whole. We want access to public life. If we get our eyes, we will quit begging. We want our dependency and powerlessness to end.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, we do not find Jesus saying anything as a response to the beggars’ answer. Whereas in the Story of the blind Bartimaeus Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you well” (Mk. 10.52; Lk. 18.42). The Greek word for “has made well” is sōdzō. This is the same word that is used for “to save”. That means, his faith had redeemed him from the condition of powerlessness and dependence. Here faith is an act of hope which refuses to settle for the status quo. Faith is to refuse to accept the imposed place and condition that keeps one in dependence and powerlessness. In asserting the faith, the beggar performed an act of subversion.

The key in the act of redemption from the state of dependence and powerlessness to the state of freedom and power was Jesus, the object of faith. Jesus’ presence evoked the hope and gave the beggars the power and the occasion to speak (Mt. 20.30; Mk. 10.47). In spite of the resistant crowd, the beggars received sight by Jesus’ act of compassion (Mt. 20.34). 

Compassion and the Stifled Voices

The quality, compassion, separates Jesus from the crowd. Compassion overcomes social apathy and indifference. It identifies with those in situations of dependence and powerlessness. It is an important divine quality.

Compassion does not mean feeling sorry for people and their situations. It does not mean pity. In fact, the Latin etymology of the word, com pati, means “to suffer with”: to actively participate and share in the suffering of others. It is the capacity to identify with the suffering. Compassion is to live according to the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” We have to feel and take responsibility for the wellbeing of others, whoever they are.

Compassion is considered in almost all the major religious traditions as among the greatest of virtues. When asked by a Gentile to explain the entirety of the Torah while standing on one foot, the Jewish Rabbi Hillel responded, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow human being. The rest is just commentary. Now go and learn.” Buddha said, “Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the pain of others.  Thus, it is called compassion. It is called compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed.”

Compassion is the primary characteristic of the incarnation. God in Jesus Christ identified with human beings, particularly the poor, the sick and the marginalized. God became vulnerable. In the story of Jesus healing the leper, Jesus expressed compassion by touching him and healing him (Mk. 1.40; Lk. 5.13). By touching the leper, Jesus was challenging the dehumanizing culture that had deviously deprived certain groups of people of human dignity, value and rights, and marginalized them. He brought a social ethic of human dignity and value into the world where the poor and the marginalized were regarded as despicable, dishonoured and ugly, and treated with contempt. Jesus embodies the very essence of compassion and relational care. Through the Parable of the Compassionate Samaritan, he challenges his followers to forsake human-made- barriers such as ethnicity, caste, class and creed and their own comforts and to act compassionately towards others, particularly those in need and distress (Lk. 10.25-37). This parable exposes any religion with “mania for creeds (or doctrines) and an anemia for compassion.” The poor, weak, vulnerable and marginalised become a test for the authenticity of one’s religion and faith in God.

The teachings of Jesus and his followers always stressed that compassion was not only central to spiritual life, it was, in fact, the true test of spirituality. Paul instructs the followers of Jesus Christ to clothe themselves with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” (Col. 3.12). These virtues belong to the new nature of a believer in Jesus Christ.

The two blind beggars, after being healed by Jesus’ act of compassion, followed Jesus, not the crowd (Mt. 20.34). They became followers of Jesus and his culture of compassion, instead of followers of the crowd and their culture of indifference, oppression and hedonism.

Conclusion

A key issue in healing, salvation and liberation is power. The key transaction in the healing of the two blind beggars is the transaction of power. This power transfers people from the state of dependence and powerlessness to the state of independence and power.

The question of power has been kept off the table in recent times by a spirituality that emphasises a personal, psychological quest for peace, happiness and comfort. However, the Story of the Two Blind Beggars insists that raising the power issue and jeopardising the power monopoly of the “crowd” are essential to the process of healing. In the Christian ministry, the issues of who has power and how it is held or monopolised are crucial. Unless these are exposed and dealt, those who are kept powerless will not be healed. They will remain beggars.   

The poor and the marginalized gain power when they start speaking. We face the crisis of speech in our time. This crisis is caused by the silence of those who are on the margins of society. So what is needed is that the stifled voices of the poor and the marginalized should speak. Life is transformed when the powerless get speech. It is the speech of the Israelites under bondage that diametrically changed its history (Ex. 2.23-25).

By crucifying Jesus Christ, the religious and political leaders tried to destroy his voice and language. However, God by raising Jesus redeemed the voice and language of the victim of the religio-political forces. 

It is the presence of the compassionate God, “the God with us”, that gives speech to the poor and the marginalized. The blind beggars, rather than be silenced, cried out in pain and hope for the messianic reality. It is the presence of Jesus, the Messiah, that gave the blind beggars the power.

We – all of us – are blind beggars, with genuine hurts and handicaps. We – all of us – are part of the crowd too. We try to silence the poor, weak and vulnerable, and thus perpetuate their powerlessness and dependence. Because they are a threat to our position and power.

The issue before us is whether we will overcome our own vested interests and learn the healing process revealed in the Story of the Two Blind Beggars. Without that process, the poor and the marginalized will remain powerless. But power and possibility are offered wherever Jesus Christ is the Messiah and his gospel is preached.

 

Sources

Walter Brueggemann, Theological Education: Healing the Blind Beggar.

Braj Ranjan Mani, The Crisis and Challenge of Dalit Bahujans

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