Then it happened, as He was coming near Jericho, that a certain blind man sat by the road begging. And hearing a multitude passing by, he asked what it meant. So they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he cried out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Then those who went before warned him that he should be quiet; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be brought to Him. And when he had come near, He asked him, saying, “What do you want Me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.” Then Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight, and followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God (Luke 18:35-43).
The more I try and ground my preaching in the words of the fathers, the more I come to appreciate the fathers as preachers, as pastors whose main concern is the healing of souls and bodies of the consequences of Adam’s transgression. And what I am most struck by is not simply the reverence, but the fearless and even playfulness, with which the fathers approach the text of Holy Scripture.
Take for example St Ambrose in his Exposition of the Gospel of Luke (8.80). It does not concern him that, while St Matthew relates that Jesus heals two blind men, “Luke depicts one.” He then proceeds to bring to the fore the other differences between the two Gospels: Where “Matthew depicts [the miracle] as Jesus was leaving Jericho (Mt 20.30), but Luke [depicts it] as he was approaching the city.” Ambrose then says something that, to the contemporary reader at least, is nonsensical: “Otherwise there was no difference” between the two writers. For most of us the question of whether or not there were two blind men or one, and whether the healing happened as Jesus was leaving or entering Jericho is of great importance. If the Gospel writers can’t agree on these rather simply facts, how can we trust them on the weightier matters that pertain to our salvation?
But these differences don’t matter to Ambrose. Why?
Or maybe, a better question is why do they matter to me? What did Ambrose see that I’m missing? I’ll tell you unlike me, Ambrose read the Scriptures with faith.
Contemporary readers want the Scriptures to be a newspaper, a history or science textbook. We want this because we fancy our “objective view” of history and current events. But what is it that we mean when we imagine that what we are saying is “objective”?
There is a curious pride in our attempt at a journalistic reading of Scripture. The contemporary notion of the objective observer whose view of the world is one not influenced by outside facts, is a view of the human person divorced from community and tradition. To say that I am “objective observer” is fundamentally different from saying that I am telling the truth. Objectivity (in the modern sense) is based on my separation from others—really my intentional isolation from them. It is only a consequence of my isolation from the human community, or so the thinking goes, that I am able to understand reality better then my neighbor.
And the sin is that I allow myself to believe that it is this insight born of separation that best serves the common good.
In other words, for the modern mind we are most fully human not through love and communion, but through separation and isolation. It is alienation not fellowship that is the defining characteristic of the contemporary view of the human person. This anthropological model holds that I know you best not when I draw close to you in love, but stand far from you. This is does not place dispassion (apatheia) at the center of human life, but indifference.
These notions are utter foreign to Ambrose and the Tradition of the Church East and West. The goal of human life is not objectivity modeled on the scientist in the laboratory, but our willingness to “proclaim the truth in love” (compare, Eph 4:15). This demands from me not simply an what I say be objectively valid, but also, and primarily, my subjective commitment to be for others as Jesus is for me and for the whole human community.
Think of this in terms of the Apostle Paul. His commitment is not simply to the truth of the Gospel, but also for the salvation of the Jewish people, of his people. So what does he say?
I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen (Rom 9:1-5).
No for Ambrose and for the fathers in general, we read Scripture not simply within the Church, as if the tradition of the Church existed objectively like a mathematical rule, but within the matrix formed by Christ’s love for us and our own love for Him and each other. This is a love that, in its purest form, would forgo even my own salvation for the salvation of others.
It is the absence of this commitment that blinds me to the
truth of Scripture, the Gospel, and the life of the Church. And it is this blindness that keeps me from acting as I ought when called upon by Christ to do.
But if we, to borrow one of the petitions from the various litanies we hear in the services, remember “our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever virgin Mary,” and “with all the saints, let us commit (or, “commend,” or “entrust”) ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God” well then things can be different.
Whether intentionally or not, when we try and rationalize or justify the differences in the Gospels, we do so because we have fallen into a trap—we have allowed ourselves to act as if human reason were separate from divine grace. Faith and reason are not separate; they mutual presuppose each other as the two wings by which we ascend to God in response to His invitation.
And through the exercise of a faith-filled reason and a reasonable faith, we begin to see that whether Jesus healed two men or one, whether He did so while he was on His way out of Jericho or His way out, or whether Matthew is recounting one event and Luke another, is simply not the point. Rather what matters is that “the Gentiles,” those of us born outside God’s covenant with Israel, have through “the divine blessing received the clarity” of faith. So Ambrose continues:
It makes no difference whether the Gentile people received the healing through one or two blind men since, taking the origin from Ham and Japheth, sons of Noah, they set out the two others of their race in two blind men.
St Cyril of Alexandria reminds us that the healing of our spiritual blindness, like the healing of physical blindness, “cannot be . . . by human means but requires, . . . a divine power and an authority such as God only possesses” (Commentary on Luke, Homily 126).
When we read the Scriptures we are like the blind man in the Gospel. When Jesus approaches him the blind man cried out and said, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Meditating on this St Ephrem the Syrian (Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron, 15.22) says that “The beggar’s hand was stretched out to receive a penny from human beings and found himself receiving the gift of God!” We receive from God more than we can imagine, but because of our, my, lack of faith I do not know what it is that I have already in Christ.
According to Ephrem, “Christ did not say to him, ‘It is your faith that has caused you to see,’ in order to show that faith had given him life and then bodily sight.” Faith is not what we see, but is a way of seeing. Faith is not objective (in the sense I used that word a moment ago) as much as it transformative. Faith does not show us new things, but renews our understanding of God, of self, of neighbor and the creation. Faith shows us that all that is, is held together in God and that it is divine love which unites creation.
And it is our love of God and neighbor that brings us into the great all encompassing communion.