Sermon on Quinquagesima Sunday

by a Dominican friar

“They told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he cried out, saying: Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” (Luke 18:36–37)

It’s easy to see why the Church reads this gospel today, the last Sunday before Lent. “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem,” Our Lord tells the twelve apostles. That is, we are making the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem for the last time. In Lent, by prayers and penances, we also accompany Him in spirit on His last journey, so that, when Holy Week arrives, we shall be able to enter more deeply into His passion. So, as we hear this gospel, we can imagine ourselves accompanying Peter and John and Andrew and the others on this last, momentous journey. Or again, we can associate ourselves with the blind man who sits by the wayside, begging. When he hears the procession going past – perhaps singing, as people like to do when they walk in a large group – he asks what is happening, and they tell him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by”He seizes the moment; and in Lent, we do the same. Lent is the favourable time, as St Paul says, to catch hold of the grace of God, as it passes by. Who knows, but for some of us, this may be our last Lent?

Nevertheless, as we study this gospel more closely, we find two things which may puzzle us. The first of these is the incomprehension of the apostles. Our Lord says to them: “All things shall be accomplished which were written by the prophets concerning the Son of man. For he shall be delivered to the Gentiles and shall be mocked, and scourged and spat upon. And after they have scourged him, they will put him to death; and the third day he shall rise again.” Rarely in the gospel does Our Lord teach so clearly as this. There are no parables here, no metaphors; and while the reference to “rising again” has something mysterious about it, the description of His Passion is as plain and literal as a police-report. Yet, St Luke tells us that the twelve apostles did not understand Christ’s words. In fact, the evangelist insists upon their incomprehension, mentioning it three times in different terms: “They understood none of these things, and this word was hid from them, and they understood not the things that were said.” But this incomprehension of the apostles is itself hard to understand. Why should they find it so difficult to grasp such a clear teaching as this one of Jesus about His passion? That, it seems to me, is the first of the two things that may puzzle us in this gospel.

The second puzzling thing has to do with the blind man by the wayside. Since he knows His repute as a worker of miracles, when the blind man hears that Our Lord is passing by, he calls out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” But then we read: “They that went before rebuked him, that he should hold his peace.” Now, this is surprising. Human beings naturally feel pity for a blind man, and especially for one who is also a beggar. And if the people walking ahead of Our Lord were annoyed at his shouting, well, they had only to keep walking and he would soon be out of earshot. So, why do they bother to rebuke the poor beggar, and tell him to hold his peace? The reason surely lies in the title which he gives to Christ: “Son of David”. This was not a title like “Master” or “Rabbi”, which could be shared by numerous teachers. “Son of David” had a precise meaning, and what it meant was “Messiah”. When the Angel Gabriel tells the Holy Virgin that she will give birth to the Messiah, he refers to Him as the Son of David. St Gabriel says: “The Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father, and he shall reign for ever.”  

You see now what a danger the blind man was provoking by addressing our Lord in public in this way. Public authorities are never happy to learn that the people are recognising some new power, independent of themselves. The mere suggestion that the Messiah had been born was sufficient for the first Herod to order the killing of all children under two years of age in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. Neither the second Herod, now in power in Galilee, nor Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, could fail to repress a popular movement which hailed Our Lord as the Messiah. It’s easy to imagine some people from the crowd going up to the blind man and saying to him: “Be quiet! Do you want to get us all killed?”

Yet the blind man will not be quiet. As if he now realises how much attention he can draw to himself by this manner of addressing Our Lord, he no longer uses the name of Jesus, but only the Messianic title, and he does so as much as he can. St Luke says: “He cried out much more: Son of David, have mercy on me.” And Our Lord responds to the title. He stops. He does not go to the man, perhaps because the beggar, being blind, would not have been able to see Him coming. He has the beggar brought to Him, thus giving the man time to collect his thoughts. And He cures him, saying: “Thy faith hath made thee whole.” What faith? Surely, his faith that Christ is indeed the Son of David, the king who was promised by all the prophets.

And this perhaps explains why the apostles had been unable to comprehend what Our Lord had said to them at the start of their journey. For, although they acknowledged Him as the Messiah; although St Peter had confessed Him, while still in Galilee, as “the Son of the living God”, they did not yet grasp what that meant, nor what the prophets had foretold. Peter and the others knew that the Messiah would be a teacher and a liberator of the people, but not yet that He would lay down His life for them. That was still hidden from their eyes.

As Christians, we may wonder at the slowness of the apostles: but are we sure that we should have done better, in their place? After all, that the Word of the Father should become man and live among us was already beyond the imagination of mankind. But that the Eternal Father should have such an excess of love for us that He would send His Son into the world to die on our behalf: this was, so to speak, beyond the imagination even of the angels. Yet, this is what happened, when Our Lord went up to Jerusalem for the last time. This Lent, let us take some time to meditate on these things, and so learn to give love in exchange for love.