Several years ago Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Mich., reminded a seminary graduating class that building ramps will not give back to the disabled the use of their legs. In other words, ministry does not always turn circumstances around. Sometimes the most it can do is hold back the tide of misfortune, or provide a raft so people are not swallowed up by dangerous currents—or make it easier for them to enter buildings.
But after we build ramps, or set aside parking places, or provide aids for hearing and seeing, we sometimes conclude that we have done our part and it is time to move on to the next project. We might look upon those whose need cannot be easily remedied just as the disciples in the Gospel looked upon the blind beggar. To them he was an annoyance—not because of his blindness but because they were leaving Jericho, heading to Jerusalem, and he was disrupting their plans.
The readings today deal with the reign of God. At first glance, they look like success stories: circumstances have been turned around. The blind man receives his sight. In Jeremiah’s future, those who are blind or lame or with children or who are pregnant are gathered together again. And the picture of Christ the high priest is glorious.
A closer look reveals something different. Jeremiah’s scene depicts the people who had been scattered by the exile, people who were afflicted and especially vulnerable. They were gathered together and consoled and cared for by God, but the text does not say that they were healed. The Letter to the Hebrews does depict Christ the high priest, but it indicates that he was glorified only after he had sacrificed himself for the sake of others. It was the blind man’s own faith that saved him. New Testament scholars tell us that this was the true miracle—his healing was the external manifestation of it.
These are truly success stories, but not in the ways we might at first have thought. The successes they depict can be seen in God’s embrace of those who have been broken by life’s tragedies, in Jesus’ total giving of himself for others and in the faith of the man who called upon Jesus. In each instance, something of the reign of God was brought to light.
This reign exists underneath, behind or deep within the circumstances of life, even if we cannot see it there. It takes shape when we embrace the needy in our midst, when we give of ourselves to others, when we turn to Jesus in faith. Bringing this reign to light is the responsibility of us all, not merely of those for whom it is a life work or vocation. Baptism has made us all ministers of this reign, and our place in the world—as circumscribed as it may be—is our field of ministry.
The reign of God does not always meet our expectations. It would be wonderful if those who are blind or lame would be healed through faith, but they are not. It would be wonderful if those who are in any way vulnerable would be strengthened and preserved from harm, but that does not happen either. Hence there will always be people who need our help, and in helping them we will establish the reign of God. It is almost as if we need them so that we can bring God’s reign to our world. Perhaps we do! We always say that the reign of God turns circumstances upside down. Might this turn of events be an example of such a reversal? Perhaps it is our turn to cry out, “Master, I want to see.”
Other expectations surrounding the reign of God have been dashed as well. Those committed to ministry have not always been faithful to their charge. (The disciples tried to silence the man!) Some have been guilty of greed, blind ambition or the abuse of power. Why did God choose weak human beings to establish that reign on earth? How can a reign of holiness be brought forth by sinners?
Those committed to ministry are also often disappointed. They do not always see their work bear the fruit they had hoped it would produce. At times their best intentions are questioned and their commitment is dismissed by the very ones they serve. This is particularly true today when people of genuine integrity and unselfishness are forced to bear the shame and suspicion brought on by the crimes of others. The establishment of the reign of God does not appear to be a success story in our day.
But maybe it is. Are there not among us those who embrace the needy? Are there not among us people willing to sacrifice themselves for others? Perhaps if we have faith, our eyes will be opened, and we will see how the reign of God is indeed being established in our midst.