Quite what the motivation of the rich ruler was in asking how he could attain eternal life, we don’t know; but it obviously wasn’t enough to enable him to give up his wealth. Compare this to blind man healed in a few verses later (see Luke 18 and 19). He may or may not have been concerned about eternal life, the passage doesn’t say; he had a more immediate concern: he wanted to see. We are not told whether this blind man had been blind from birth, or whether he had gone blind later in life, but if the latter he would have known how much his life was constrained by not being able to see. He had to beg for his living; he sat by the roadside on the approach to Jericho, dependent on the goodwill of others. He was also dependent on their goodwill in their treatment of him; he couldn’t see, so when they approached him, he had to use his other senses to tell whether they were kindly or not. He was blind, so even if he sensed an unkind approach, he may not have been able to get out of their way; and I wonder what it was like, sitting by the roadside, day after day, whatever the weather, and being subject to whatever was kicked up by passer’s by. If he’d gone blind as an adult, he must have yearned for the days when he could see, and earn his own living in a more active way.
But one day, he hears a commotion going past him, and asks what is happening. Those in the crowd obviously paid him enough attention to tell him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. The blind man had heard of Jesus; he must have grasped instantly that this was his one chance to be healed, and starts to call out ‘Jesus, Son of David. have mercy on me’. Now, this is interesting. The rich ruler called Jesus ‘Good teacher’; the passer’s by call him just ‘Jesus of Nazareth’; but the blind man calls him ‘Son of David’, an acknowledgement that Jesus is someone more. But the passer’s by, while happy to tell the blind man what is happening, don’t want him to get in on the act, or bother Jesus. They tell him to shut up. Now some of us, on being told to be quiet, would be duly obedient; we would slink off into a corner, and not bother people any more. Does the blind man do this? Not a chance! He calls out louder. He is focused; this is his chance to see again, to get something of his life back; and he is going to take it, however irritated the crowd are with him. He gets what he wants: Jesus stops, and orders the man to be brought to him, and then asks him what he wants. This too is interesting; while the text doesn’t actually say that Jesus knew the man was blind, the fact that he ordered the man to be brought to him, implies that he may have known. But still, the blind man needs to articulate what he wants: to see again. His courage and perseverance are rewarded: he receives his sight; and, rather than being led by the hand, he follows Jesus along the road, praising God. As, to be fair, do all those round about him.
Jesus continues on his way, entering Jericho, and another man on the outskirts of society wants to see Jesus. This time, he wasn’t poor, but was very rich; but he was a tax collector, therefore a ‘sinner’, a collaborator with the Roman occupiers. This time, too, the crowd get in the way. Zacchaeus is short, and cannot see over the heads of the crowd. As someone who is not overly tall myself, I have every sympathy with him, but I don’t think I’d have gone as far as Zacchaeus did. Running ahead to a spot where he knew Jesus would pass, he climbs a tree so that he can see Jesus. It seems that this is all he wants to do. He doesn’t need healing from Jesus; he doesn’t want confirmation that he is on the path to eternal life (as a sinner, he may well assume the opposite). He just wants to see who this man is that everyone is talking about. By climbing the tree, he may lose some dignity; he may be laughed at; but he is already on the margins of society. Those who would laugh, would have nothing to do with him anyway. But, somehow, for some reason, he is determined to see Jesus. Climbing a tree is the only way; once Jesus gets here, he would be pushed back by the crowds accompanying him. So he climbs a tree and waits; and is rewarded. He sees Jesus.
But then the unexpected happens. Jesus sees Zacchaeus, and invites himself to stay; much to the disgruntlement of the crowd (who, presumably, had been praising God for the healing of the blind man only minutes earlier). But Zacchaeus has come down from the tree, and welcomed Jesus. For the first time in a long time – possibly in his entire life – he feels accepted, and wanted. His desire and determination to see Jesus have resulted in more than he had imagined; and so he responds, by giving half his wealth to the poor, and paying back four times the amount to anyone he has cheated. This has always given me pause: after giving away half of all he possessed, and then repaying those he cheated four times over, would he have had anything left? Maybe not. But that is not the point. The rich ruler had great wealth, but wasn’t willing to give it up; Zacchaeus the tax collector was also very rich; but he potentially gave it up, because Jesus had reached out to him. Who knows what happened next? As Jesus points out: salvation had come to this man today, because Jesus had come to seek and to save the lost. The rich ruler had also been lost, but hadn’t been able to find his way; both the blind man and Zacchaeus were given new life, because their determination meant they reached out to where Jesus was, and Jesus responded and gave them the opportunity to change; and both, in that instant, took what was offered. The blind man got his sight back, and Zacchaeus got his life renewed.
So there are two points here that it is worth pondering. How determined are we in our following of Jesus? How far are we prepared to go? Are we willing to risk public opprobrium in our discipleship, or do we meekly give in and follow where the majority lead? (Assuming that the majority aren’t going where we should be, of course). Are we willing to make fools of ourselves for Christ, and climb those metaphorical trees that we may be challenged with, or do we sensibly stick to behaviour that our culture approves of? Are we like the blind man and Zacchaeus, single minded in our following of our Saviour, single minded in our determination to follow where Jesus leads? Or are we more like the rich ruler, comfortable not only in our life styles, but in our assumption that we are following the right way … and therefore not able to hear or respond to the call of Jesus to follow differently?
The other point is the reaction of the crowd. Jesus is on his way into Jericho when he passes the blind man. The crowd surrounding and following him may well be the same people as those who were present when Jesus met Zacchaeus. Not only that, they presumably knew who Jesus was and what he was capable of: so presumably they knew that he could heal the blind man. So what do they do? Far from approaching Jesus and asking him to come and see the blind beggar, they tell him to be quiet. Don’t disturb the teacher! Don’t interrupt this important happening! The man of the moment is passing by – so shut up! Jesus shows them that he wants to be interrupted, that he wants to heal the blind man; and they all respond by praising God. But rather than taking on this point, when Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house, they complain that Jesus is going to stay with a sinner. They’ve missed both the lesson of the healing, and the point of Jesus reaching out to Zacchaeus. So Jesus spells it out to them – that he came to seek and to save the lost. How do we respond when God works in unexpected ways? Do we praise God wholeheartedly – or do we disapprove, convinced of our knowledge that God would not want this?