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Things We Ignore Along the Way May Haunt Us

On this Lenten journey, we only need to open our eyes and ears to discover Jesus’ lessons resonating all around us. That’s because our spiritual journey is both timeless and true. Each day in our 40-day journey, we will recall things from Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem—and beyond. But, beware! Sometimes this journey is so painfully true that our hearts ache when fresh light falls on our past.

On one level, there’s nothing new here. These things have been sitting there in the Gospels for thousands of years. On another level, we’re following Jesus’ timeless call to see the world in new ways—so most of these things continue to echo in surprisingly urgent ways from headlines around the world.

Today, we start with one of Jesus’ powerful demonstrations of the importance of sight in this final journey of his life. Today’s reflection centers on a small incident—a matter so seemingly insignificant that people wanted to overlook what was happening in Jesus’ day, too. The incident unfolded just outside the town of Jericho as Jesus and his followers were taking the road up to Jerusalem.

For Jesus’ followers, it was a fresh warning that—in the process of choosing what to carry and what to shed as we lighten our load for this journey—our spiritual lives depend upon not shedding the wrong things. That’s especially true if we even think about shedding our concern for people who desperately need our help.

Like all things in this 40-day journey, this lesson is as old as the Gospels and as fresh as news reports from around the world.

Most Americans know about Anne Frank, the iconic image of the Holocaust’s tragic cost in human life. Just before founding ReadTheSpirit in 2007, I was a religion newswriter for a major newspaper chain—and I was jolted along with the rest of the world, early that year, when long-lost letters resurfaced from Anne’s father, Otto Frank. More than 60 years after World War II, this startling news broke from a Jewish archive in New York City. As it turns out, these letters had been overlooked all those years in a sea of Holocaust-era files.

Once uncovered, though, the news of these letters echoed around the world. Perhaps it is a sign of how deeply ambivalent we feel in the United States about admitting our own wartime culpability, but this news did not echo across American media as strongly as it hit newspapers in Europe and Asia.

The Times of London headlined the story:

“Anne Frank’s Doomed American Dream—Father’s Letters Reveal Bid for Visa.”

That was a fairly muted headline, among the newspapers hitting the streets that day in London. The Daily Telegraph’s blunt headline proclaimed:

“ ‘Anti-Semitic’ America Closed Its Doors to Family of Anne Frank.”

And there it was—a long-buried sin unearthed in the roadway for all to see, after all these years. We have always known that it was the Nazi genocide of Jews that ultimately killed Anne Frank, after she was discovered along with her family in an attic and was sent to a concentration camp. But, now, we’ve learned that, as Americans, we can’t sigh sadly at the end of Anne’s diary and say to ourselves: “Well, no one could have saved them.” The truth is: We could have, as Americans.

That’s a harsh judgment for Americans to accept, but virtually all of the research by Holocaust scholars hammers home this point. Even the existing immigration quotas at the time—quotas that could have saved many Jewish families—were left unfilled by U.S. officials. Historians have traced this refusal to shelter fleeing families to attitudes among a number of key figures in Washington, D.C. who seem scandalously callous by today’s standards.

Our own U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. documents this terrible truth. There were anti-Semitic figures in our government, but America’s cold shoulder to these refugees wasn’t the result of a secret cabal of powerful men. This was a widespread American attitude at the time.

The attitude was as public as the hugely popular, nationwide radio broadcasts of the Rev. Charles Coughlin, who rebuked anyone who dared to cry out on behalf of the plight of Jews in Europe and sternly ordered them to be quiet.

What does this have to do with the start of our Lenten journey? In a word: everything. If you’re Christian, do those phrases emphasized above echo from the Gospels? Perhaps you don’t recall this passage in Matthew, Mark and Luke. It’s a brief scene in which Jesus is making his way toward Jerusalem for the Passover observance and passes through the ancient city of Jericho. Here’s how Matthew tells the story in 20:29–34: (It’s also in Mark 10:46–52 and Luke 18:35–43.)

As they left Jericho, a crowd followed. At the side of the road sat two blind men. When they realized that Jesus was passing by, they cried out, “Have mercy on us, O Lord, son of David!”

The crowd rebuked them and sternly ordered them to be quiet. Instead, the blind men cried all the louder.

Jesus stood still. Then, he called to the men, asking, “What will you have me do for you?”

They said, “Lord, open our eyes.”

Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. And immediately they received sight—and followed him.

This may sound like other healing passages in the Gospels. We’ve all heard these stories preached from Christian pulpits. Usually, the emphasis in the preaching is on the great faith of the people asking Jesus for help—and the miraculous nature of Jesus’ response. But, this story is intriguing because the exact identity of the blind men outside Jericho didn’t seem to matter to the Gospel writers. The more we think about this story, we see that, in fact, it’s not a story about an individual person’s persistence as much as it is a stunning rebuke by the crowd as the young rabbi makes his way to Passover!

The two hinges of this story are: first, the crowd’s attempt to silence the blind men’s pleas; then, the second hinge is the dramatic three-word sentence: “Jesus stood still.” Thinking about that ancient story, with the contemporary truth of the Otto Frank letters as a backdrop, doesn’t the hair stand up on the back of your neck as you think about Jesus’ response?

As we hit the road for Lent, let’s first stop like Jesus and look around us for the many people crying out for help. As we shed our burdens to lighten our spiritual load, let’s be careful that we don’t shed our concern for those in need.

After all, the young rabbi was a man on a mission. Christians say it was the greatest mission in the history of the world. And yet, when confronted with these pleas from the desperate outcasts near Jericho, the young rabbi ignored the powerful voices yelling at him.

Instead, Jesus stood still.

He was moved by compassion.

And soon, others were moving with him.