I realize that, at least by convention, homework exercises should be reserved for the end of the lesson. Today I want to reverse this and invite those of you with access to the internet to find out over the next week why the US state of Idaho has the unfortunate reputation for the most deaths amongst young people offered faith healing as an alternative to medical intervention. Like it or not, faith healing is always going to raise serious questions in terms of what it offers – particularly when it is offered as a substitute for tested treatment based on medical research – and perhaps it is even more suspect when it claims to defy the expected laws of nature.
But before rushing to defend the faith healer who claims to cure cancer or alternately condemn those who offer faith healing without confirmed testing perhaps we should step back a little and look again at the story of Jesus healing the blind man.
Certainly at first hearing, this miracle of the healing of the blind man Bartimaeus is not the sort of story that we should rush to bring to the attention of a blind person with no hope of medical options! These days while cataracts can be removed, retinas transplanted and some pretty impressive eye surgery can offer hope – blindness is still only overcome by intervention for some conditions.
The fact is that some people are irretrievably blind in the physical sense. A faulty optic nerve, a destroyed retina, or even worse eyes totally destroyed in an accident are not somehow amenable to a quick fix. In the same way that faith healing does not restore missing limbs, faith healing would not normally be expected to replace an eye or replace a damaged optic nerve. For people with such disabilities, to believe that Jesus could restore sight at a word or at a touch, yet further to discover that their blindness is not also eligible to be cured by faith in the power of Jesus, simply tells them that either their faith isn’t up to scratch – or perhaps worse that they are irrelevant in the Christian family.
But perhaps we should start by acknowledging the standard way of writing religious truth in Jesus’ day was by means of story telling – or even parable
The theologian Bill Loader suggests a more helpful way of looking at this passage. In his commentary on this reading he reminds us of its symbolic purpose. We might for instance notice that this middle section of Mark refers us to the time when Jesus ministry is changing and he and the disciples are coming down from the North in Galilee and beginning the descent towards Jerusalem where execution awaits. Three times – once in chapter eight verse 31, in chapter 9 verse 31 and in chapter 10 verse 33 Jesus states that he will suffer as the Son of Man – and that he will be rejected.
The disciples are presented as those blind to what Jesus is up to. If nothing else, this encounter between Jesus and Bartimaeus shows that, despite their constant daily interactions with Jesus, the disciples were blind to Jesus’ purpose and unable to see his values. The whole of this section is bookended by two healing miracles to do with blindness – the first in Chapter 8 verses 22-26 – and then at the other end today’s account in Chapter 10: 46 – 52.
As Loader points out, the disciples and Jesus presumably both see exactly the same man, yet there is a world of difference in their perception. Similarly, the blind beggar and the others in the crowd know Jesus is coming, yet Bartimaeus is the one who acts.
The name Bartimaeus is also likely to be intended to have symbolic significance (bar = son of and Timaeus meaning the worthy one). Here we have this blind beggar – so desperate for help that he calls out “Son of David, Jesus, have pity on me”. Son of David? – what is this? Son of David is the title of the Messiah – and though blind, Bartimaeus is seeing in Jesus something that Jesus’ disciples are unable to notice. In some ways, for a blind man Bartimaeus is portrayed as one who has noticed quite a bit. Jesus is passing. Bartimaeus not only knows this but he sees this as his opportunity, perhaps his only opportunity. He sees Jesus as someone who might make a difference to his life.
And perhaps most important of all, unlike many who encounter Jesus, Bartimaeus sees Jesus as one worth following – and not just in theory. At the end of the story, he actually joins him on the journey.
I imagine you have worked out by now that the disciples’ blindness is blindness of the heart. There was a clamour of voices pleading for Jesus attention but when it came to the loud pleadings of the blind beggar, the disciples (and I guess most of the crowd) looked at the unwashed, blind, wretched man and just assumed he was unworthy of Jesus attention.
Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus – the disciples tell him to zip it. They tell this blind beggar he is a nobody. Foolish in retrospect maybe, yet I don’t think we should rush too quickly to judgment on the disciples.
There has long been something in the human condition that makes us prefer the preferred vision of Jesus imprisoned in the splendour of a stained glass window where he can be celebrated with lofty organ music and loud expressions of praise rather than making a serious attempt to follow the Jesus who made friends with dirty blind beggars and who is not above taking us down to the squalor to find his face in the faces of the homeless and desperate.
For those of us tempted to go along with the superior judgment theme and see in others’ misfortune the judgment of God, perhaps we might remember that for Jesus there was no hint of that – at least not in this story. It was not “Bartimaeus, you ought to be asking yourself why God has visited you with this blindness!” But rather it was, “Bartimaeus – what do you want me to do for you?” It seems that if Jesus can notice the needs of this, a most wretched man, then maybe, just maybe, for those of us who want to make his journey our journey, we are similarly called to his form of seeing and noticing.
Jesus can hear this voice of the blind beggar among the clamor and in his response shows that, to him at least, Bartimaeus is seen as being entirely worth bothering with. The question for our conscience is: will we in our turn be similarly moved?
To some extent there is also a question of perception. Because you see we are all blind to some extent. The scientist in me wants to remind you that every animal has a different range of perceptions at to what is out there in the world. Dogs for example can pick out smells far better than we can, an eagle can see distant objects much better than we do, the bat of course is famous for using sound to help echo-locate objects in virtual darkness. Humans can only see something like 30% of the light in the spectrum from the sun and under the water whales and dolphins are far better than we are at sensing vibration. Pigeons navigate by using the Earth’s magnetic field. Even physically, our sight is limited.
In several places the Bible talks of another level of perception which is only available to the spiritually alive.
John puts it this way: “ no-one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”. (John 3:3) That sounds a bit like Paul with his: “the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, for they are spiritually discerned”. (1Corinthians: 2:14)
These days, many might assume Paul’s words imply a pious religiosity which is other worldly, yet reflecting on Mark’s version of Jesus’ meeting with Bartimaeus, a much more down to earth approach is also implied. This may indeed be spiritual discernment, but at the very least it is not discernment which is pulpit bound.
Remember in Mark’s story the disciples only saw a nuisance of a man. Jesus perception is attuned to seeing Bartimaeus as someone worth helping.
It would be dishonest to try to portray Christianity as an answer to all the woes of the world.
In reality we live in a world where bad things do happen – and sometimes to very good people. Earthquakes, Tsunamis, volcanoes, house-fires, road and air accidents, ships going down at sea, children being scalded or drowning in swimming pools, babies being born crippled or blind – and so on and on through a very long list. Christianity will not make our world a safe place. Yet what can make something of a difference, is our perception of how we can help and our perception of how we see our neighbours.
When the earthquakes severely damaged much of Christchurch, to me one of the signs of restored sight was the way many people immediately rallied to help their neighbours. Those who made cups of tea for the shocked survivors, the students who cleaned the streets, those who fed the frightened animals, checked on the elderly, volunteered to help in the public shelters…surely these were those who saw their fellows as they really were.
What is a little more worrying, are those who can gather in a Church for worship and praise, yet apparently totally dissociate themselves from the needs that are clear to those able to see. Surely this too is a form of blindness.
Bartimaeus saw what Jesus might represent even before his physical vision cleared. But the real test for the once blind beggar came when Jesus dismissed him with the word “Go”. No doubt he then had many choices of how to respond, the same sort of choices if it comes to that, we too must make. The real measure of what he now saw before him was that Bartimaeus chose to make Jesus’ journey his own.
In some ways this story will have more chance of speaking to us if we look to its challenge as a parable. As in most parables, we then have the chance of selecting what it might mean for our own understanding and future.
If that is Jesus who approaches to deal with our form of blindness, how will the story end for us?