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Compassion for the leaderless

Compassion for the leaderless

Matthew 20: 29-34

29 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” 32 Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.

The role of the crowd in this passage although a minor one, is nevertheless intriguing. Initially, the crowd follows Jesus out of Jericho. But in this passage they (unsuccessfully) order two blind people to stop calling out to Jesus as Son of David. Why this abrupt change?

Following Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is what disciples do. In calling the disciples at the outset of Jesus’ ministry, the invitation is “Follow me.” Those who were called follow immediately, leaving their father behind. Shortly afterwards as Jesus sets out, great crowds also follow him. In fact crowds continue to follow Jesus throughout the ministry and all the way into Jerusalem. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, “great crowds” are astonished at Jesus’ teachings. In 9:36 Jesus has compassion for them “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” They lack leadership. Nevertheless, their understanding of Jesus seems to grow in the course of the gospel: they move from initial questions to acclamation of Jesus’ identity as Son of David (21:9). They glorify God, and they consider John the Baptist and Jesus to be great prophets. They are feared by the leaders of Israel in Matthew 21. Their actions are thus consistent and distinctive: they are like a chorus in a Greek play: they are passive on the one hand and emotionally responsive on the other. In the narrative of Jesus’ trial and death, however, they are persuaded by the chief priests and elders in Jerusalem “to ask for Barabbas and have Jesus killed” (27:20).

Our passage seems to indicate good and bad choices characters like crowds in the gospel make whilst following Jesus. Like Jesus, might we have compassion for those either without leaders or those with bad leaders?

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.

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