Repetition is the mother of all learning. Three times our Lord predicted his betrayal, his sufferings, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. (Luke 9:21-22, 44, 18:31-33) This repetition clearly conveys importance. Elisha was twice told that Elijah will be taken up from him (2 Kings 2:3-5). St. Paul prayed three times to have the thorn in his flesh removed but was told, “My grace is sufficient.” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9) The risen Lord grieved Peter with his triple, “Do you love me?” (John 21:17)
Sadly, though, the third repetition of our Lord’s passion and resurrection yields no better result than the first. If anything, things have only gotten worse. The triple prediction yields only a triple lack of understanding: “They understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” (Luke 18:34)
Their lack of understanding puzzles us who live after the resurrection. Why do they not understand? Could he have explained it better? Did he misspeak? Were they ill prepared?
Rather than finding fault with the Lord we should invoke the reality of the mystery of his rejection. Attention to the title used in the passion predictions is fruitful for meditation on the disciples’ lack of understanding. Jesus employs the title, “the son of man,” without fail in the passion predictions as recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
What do we know about the son of man? Most generically the phrase can simply be the equivalent of, “human.” (Psalm 144:3, Ezekiel 2:1 et alia) A son of Adam is one who is like his father. Fully man. But there are key passages that employ the phrase in more exalted terms. Psalm 8 speaks of a son of man who is Lord over every last detail of creation. Sheep, oxen, beasts, birds, fish, and every last sea creature are all under his sway. Daniel 7 fills out the title even more fully as the prophet sees in the night visions, “one like a son of man,” who is presented before the throne of God and given eternal dominion over all things, including what had previously belonged to the beastly kings of the earth. We may conclude then that “son of man,” is a title of cosmic majesty and everlasting dominion.
But on the lips of Jesus the regal title takes a mysterious path. He will be betrayed. Suffer. Be crucified. And only then, almost as an afterthought, arise. Certainly Isaiah spoke of, “my servant” who would suffer as the representative of and bear the sins of the people. But can that suffering servant be the same as the son of man?
Mysteries such as these can be put into words but not always explained. The lack of understanding in the disciples should not be construed as a failure on their part any more than we would fault our children for not being able to understand the full explanation of our love for them. There are some mysteries that can be expressed but not fully grasped until they are experienced. The passion of the Christ is chief among these.
That the son of man and his cosmic kingdom and eternal dominion must pass through the crucible of the passion is too much to comprehend. It is a mystery to be believed and only in the light of the resurrection can it be understood. Even then, on the road to Emmaus the Lord must explain and open the minds of his disicples so that they might understood all that was written.
This brings us then to the connection of the cryptic saying about the son of man’s suffering and the miraculous healing of the son of David. While even the twelve do not understand Christ’s clear words about the son of man’s passion, a blind beggar calls out to the son of David for mercy. What words cannot communicate perhaps works can.
The crowds announce the arrival of one they title, “the Nazarene,” but the beggar has a better confession: “son of David.” The son of David is a title reaching back to 2 Samuel 7:14. The confession overlaps with “son of man,” in that it is a royal title. The son of David is prophesied to be an eternal king whose rule will reach as far as the river and the sea (Psalm 89:25). He will be as a son to God and God as a father to him (Psalm 2:7).
But it is the plea for mercy connected to this title that comes to the fore from this blind beggar in Jericho. The eternal king is a merciful king. What Christ was explaining to his disciples in clear and explicit words is now shown in a healing. His kingdom will be a kingdom of mercy, healing and salvation which is received by faith. None who trust in him will be put to shame (Luke 18:42). Subsequently he will pass through Jericho and bring the day of salvation to the house of Zachaeus the tax collector (Luke 19:9). Once again, through his actions he is showing what the son of man’s suffering, death, and resurrection will accomplish for all. “The Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)
Son of man and son of David are not competing titles. Rather they are titles that converge in the one man, Jesus Christ. While his passion predictions may remain concealed and hidden for a time, nothing is hidden except to be made manifest (Luke 8:17). The result of his suffering, cross, and resurrection will be mercy, sight and the salvation for all who call upon his name. (Acts 2:21)
Everything that is written about the son of man will come to pass. And it will be understood, but only after the fact. “And now I have told you ahead of time so that when it does take place you may believe.” (John 14:29) Good teachers lay a foundation for future learning even when it can’t be grasped in the moment.
We may draw an analogy between the passion prediction in Christ’s earthly ministry and its reading on this day in the church’s lectionary. Just as the disciples heard the plain details of his cross but needed signs to understand so too the church will pass through the coming season of Lent and in those 40 days will see the signs of the son of man’s kingdom, which ultimately is inaugurated through the cross. Only after the fact, like the Emmaus disciples, will their eyes be opened and their hearts be set aglow (Luke 24:32). Likewise we, by following the Nazarene, the son of David, the son of man, Jesus, to the cross and empty tomb see the glory of the cross which brings mercy and sight to those in darkness and the shadow of death.