Who is truly blind?

Who is truly blind?

Sermon for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Mark’s brief account of the healing of a blind man crystallizes one of the major questions raised over the course the gospel narratives: who is truly blind? At one level the answer is simple—it is Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, a blind beggar who sat by the Jericho roadside. At another level, though, Bartimaeus is shown as seeing in a way that all kinds of other, ostensibly sighted characters simply do not. Watch.

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I think it is not insignificant that Mark takes note of the blind man’s name; he is “Bartimaeus son of Timaeus.” “Bartimaeus” is not a given name, but rather the Aramaic equivalent of a surname, with “bar” meaning “son.” There’s a point in the Gospel according to Matthew, for instance, where Jesus looks at Simon Peter, and says to him “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah,” which in the original text is “Simon Bar Jonah.” (Mt 16.17) In our world, in other words, that would be akin to Simon Johnson. But here’s the funny thing. “Bar-timaeus, son of Timaeus” then quite literally means “the son of Timaeus, son of Timaeus,” right? Why is Mark so intent on noting this surname and lineage?

I suspect it has something to do with the common assumption of that world that an affliction such as blindness was surely a punishment for some sort of sin or unrighteousness, either of that person or of his or her parents. You might recall an episode from the Gospel according to John, in which Jesus came across a man born blind, and the disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2) Maybe Timaeus was well known as a bad character, and so the name Bartimaeus was all but spit out of the mouths of those who day by day passed by the blind man. That’s his identity; a beggar afflicted by blindness on account of his bad family. If that’s the case, it makes sense that when the blind man begins to call out to Jesus, the people around him “sternly ordered him to be quiet.” He’s being dismissed, written off, pushed down. Like a scapegoat, his presence on the side of the road serves a strange need in the community. No matter how badly my life is going, there is always this blind man to remind me it could be worse. On a good day, I might give him a few coins. I might…

But Bartimaeus is undaunted, his cry to Jesus a sign that he can already see something the others cannot. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He is the only one in the whole of Mark’s gospel to use that title, “Son of David”; a messianic title, connecting Jesus of Nazareth to the very deepest hope of Israel. Be quiet, blind man! There’s nothing he will do for you… but he only cries out all the more loudly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

For all that those around him would have had the blind man simply passed by, Jesus, the Son of David, noticed. “He stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’” Funny thing, but now instead of trying to shut him up, the people around Bartimaeus are suddenly on his side. “Take heart,” they say, “get up, he is calling you.” And isn’t that a telling kind of a shift in popular opinion? To swing wildly like that from “shut up” to “take heart”… it is the kind of thing that groups—crowds—do, and it gives the whole narrative such a ring of authenticity.

Bartimaeus doesn’t hesitate. Casting aside his cloak, he sprang up and went to Jesus.

In all likelihood, that cloak was one of the very few things he owned, though in the heat of the day he probably wasn’t wearing it. In all likelihood it would have been spread on ground, to catch those occasional coins tossed his way. Yet he threw it aside, as if already aware that he wasn’t going to need it again.

“Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’” Immediately Bartimaeus regained his sight—something he’d seen as a possibility from the moment he became aware that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by.

I want you to think about the episode that precedes this one in Mark’s account; the Gospel reading we had last Sunday. That story begins with a request from James and John: “Teacher,” they’d said to him, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” to which he replied, “What is it you want me to do for you?” Now that is exactly the same thing Jesus says to Bartimaeus. “What is it you want me to do for you?” Yet where Bartimaeus had asked for restoration—“My teacher, let me see again”—James and John had asked for privilege—“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” The blind man could see that he was standing in the presence of one who could grant him healing, restoration, life. For all the time they’d spent listening and watching and experiencing Jesus, James and John selfishly ask for places of honour and privilege. So who is blind?

Now consider the final detail in the story of Bartimaeus, and then the episode that follows. Jesus had said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well,” yet how does Bartimaeus respond to the restoration of his sight? “He regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way.” He doesn’t go anywhere; he follows. And where will this following take him? Straight down the road to Jerusalem, as Jesus is first celebrated with those famous words—“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”—and then within days vilified as an enemy of both state and temple. That’s “the way” that Bartimaeus follows, and though his name does not again appear in the text, you have to think that his was one of the voices that sang out those words, “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.” You have to think, too, that he was among the followers who witnessed all of the events of those darkening days, listening as Jesus famously confronted the scribes and Pharisees as being “blind guides” and “blind fools” (Mt. 23:16,17), whose religiosity was taking them far from where they most needed to be.

So who is truly blind? Is it the sightless beggar at the side of the road, who dares to cry out for help? Or is it the ones like the scribes and Pharisees who make assumptions about their law-based righteousness, or the ones like James and John who have so utterly missed the point of everything Jesus has said and done that all they can think of are those seats of glorious privilege?

Careful, these stories say, be very careful in all of your assumptions about how this strange thing called grace is at work in the world. Careful in your assumptions, for you too might just be seeing the speck in your neighbour’s eye, all the while remaining oblivious to the log in your own eye, as Jesus phrases it. (Mt 7.3) Careful, too, how you regard those who have been deemed the outsider, the scorned, the pushed down in our world, for like Bartimaeus, in their vulnerability they might just be able to see something to which we, in our comfort and security, have become blind.

Where we are blind, O Lord, let the scales fall from our eyes, that with Bartimaeus we may follow you on the way.

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