“As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. … He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus.” (Luke 18:35, 19:1).
I was preaching on Luke 18:35-19:10 recently. The story of Jesus healing the blind beggar and then the meeting with Zacchaeus. One can easily read and speak on these two passages without pausing to reflect upon the location reference. There is plenty to talk about without dwelling upon the city of Jericho. Certainly enough for a sermon for those who are unfamiliar with the passage.
But I’ve found, as familiarity with the Scriptures develops, that these geographic references can be illuminating and draws us to reflect upon other parts of the bible and parallels or contrasts which arise. The city of Jericho is rich with background references in the Old Testament and I have often found it to be one of the most stimulating. It draws us to consider other layers of meaning and significance as to what is taking place.
One might object and say that it’s merely a geographical reference informing us of the location of Jesus. But the fact is that we all know that a place name can conjure up more than simply mere geographical location. Towns and cities have histories which influence the way we conceive and understand them when they are referred to in writing. If we read that someone is visiting the city of New York on September 11 it conjures up more than a visit to another city, like Paris or Tokyo, on the same date. Or, for example, in my own context, the town of Katoomba convey height as it is up in the Blue Mountains. But it might also bring memory of sorrow as a reference to Katoomba in my own church is associated with the tragic loss of a youth leader, Barry Willis, who died in a mountain accident climbing on the ‘Three Sisters’ (cliffs at Katoomba) in 1961. We have stained glass windows in our church which were given in memory of the young man, Barry, by his family.
When it comes to the Scriptures, we don’t know all that was in the mind of the author when he wrote ‘as he drew near to Jericho’. Has Luke written this simply because he wanted to make very clear the location of Jesus at this point? Or is Luke conscious of allusions to incidents that have occurred in Jericho as recorded in the Old Testament? Authorial intention is so often unknown. As I read, it often seems to me that Luke is indicating there is more being said than just a google maps reference (that is certainly the case with his references to the city of Jerusalem) but some will not be persuaded unless it is stated more explicitly. However, from a literary perspective, it seems to me that the key is to recognise the great author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit and he is the one who enables us gain insight as we dwell upon these connections and their significance. I have found that this then becomes a way that I deepen in my own understanding of the Lord and his purposes. Put another way, Scripture interprets Scripture.
For instance, at a very basic level is the story of the fall of Jericho when Israel enters the promised land under the leadership of Joshua. Read Joshua 2-6 and one quickly finds that Jericho is associated with themes like: God fighting and winning the battle, beginnings, circumcision (and therefore baptism, one might claim), crossing the Jordan and so on. There is no question that Joshua 6 is all about faith being put into action as the people shout out – and then we read in Luke 18:35-43 of the blind man shouting out in faith to Jesus.
One of the wonders of Scripture is to discover the depths and layers to these inspired texts. It is the Holy Spirit who is the author and whom we need to bring us clarity in understanding the Bible. There is much more that could be said about the city of Jericho. When I read about Jesus coming to Jericho there will be times when I need to pause and meditate upon the history of that town. Joshua 2-6 will be a starting point, but there is also the curse upon the rebuilding of the city (1 Kings 16:34), as well as the intriguing account of the passing of the prophetic mantle from Elijah to Elisha in 2 Kings. Of course, Luke’s gospel has already drawn us to consider the town with the parable of the man beaten as he was ‘going down from Jerusalem to Jericho’ (Luke 10:30). Would it have made any difference in meaning if it was another town, not Jericho, that was used in this parable? On one level, of course not. But, I’ll leave it to you to meditate upon the incident in 2 Samuel 10 when David instructs those who are humiliated to stay in Jericho, as to whether Jesus might have drawn inspiration for the parable from this account.
Jericho – a city which provides much food for reflection. The real lesson that must not be missed though is that the coming of Jesus into any city brings transformation to people’s lives. Short Zacchaeus discovered that truth, and while we might not comprehend all the significance in a place name, even a blind Freddy can see how amazing it is when Jesus steps into a city and what it means: ‘Give praise to God’ (Luke 18:43).