In my Bible the little paragraph heading over the lectionary Gospel Lesson for today reads “The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus.” At first glance that’s what the story seems to be about—a blind beggar sitting by the side of the road, calling out to Jesus and having his sight restored. It’s a riveting tale of a marginalized, disabled person who, courageous in the face of a disapproving crowd, cries out for mercy and receives healing. But it’s so much more than that. Maybe more accurately this lesson should be known as “The Calling of Blind Bartimaeus” because it’s the story of a life transformed.
Let’s get into the story. As with so much of Mark’s Gospel we find an awful lot of action conveyed in an economy of words.
Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd are leaving Jericho. A blind beggar known as Bartimaeus, or son of Timaeus, is sitting by the side of the road and somehow hears that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. Is it the talk of the crowd or has his hearing and intuition started to compensate for his impaired vision?
Whatever the reason he realizes that this is the Jesus about whom there is so much buzz, and he cries out to him in the words we now refer to as the Jesus Prayer, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Whoa! Wait a minute—this is the first time in Mark that anyone has identified Jesus as the Son of David, which of course hints at his identity as Messiah.
Maybe that’s why the crowd sternly rebukes Bartimaeus. Perhaps they don’t like his take on Jesus—it may upset their notions, their very theology, of who Jesus is. It doesn’t seem to upset Jesus. We are told that first he stands still—he just stops as if to take it all in– and then directs the crowd to bring Bartimaeus to him.
The crowd says, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Can you imagine that? Have you ever fantasized about being invited to meet your favorite celebrity or having your fondest dream come true? Can’t you just hear Bob Barker saying, “Bartimaeus, come on down!” Bartimaeus clearly knows that this is his moment for he throws off his cloak, springs to his feet, and comes to Jesus.
In a profoundly personal way Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” to which Bartimaeus responds, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus sends him off saying, “Go; your faith has made you well.” And in the deceptively simple last sentence of the story we hear, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”
“Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” Bartimaeus is now a follower of Jesus, changed from a blind beggar to a fully-sighted disciple. While the gospel writer loves the word “immediately” as a way of emphasizing Jesus’ power to change things in an instant, the fact of the matter is that Bartimaeus’ transformation really begins earlier, at the very moment he reaches out to Jesus. It takes a lot of courage and faith to push past the limits life, or others, or even we have imposed on ourselves. Bartimaeus takes the risk to push past those limits and is forever changed.
His story brings to mind the calling of other disciples who leave their fishing boats and tax collector booths to follow Jesus. He throws aside his cloak—his only material possession, the tool of his begging trade where passersby have thrown their coins—and starts his life anew.
His story stands in stark contrast to several others in the Gospel of Mark –the highly educated, ethical rich man who can’t respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship because he is so attached to his money, James and John who selfishly ask to be seated in glory at Jesus’ right and left hand, and Peter who rebukes Jesus for saying that his mission will be fulfilled in the very midst of suffering and death.
Isn’t it interesting that blind Bartimaeus seems to be more visionary than many others who claim to follow Jesus? Even in his blindness Bartimaeus sees who Jesus truly is and reaches out for him.
I want to be very clear that this is not a one-size-fits-all magical story about healing. Many of us here struggle with chronic conditions and issues that have not changed despite fervent prayers. This story is really about spiritual sight, about recognizing who Jesus is and moving toward him in faith, even though the outcome is not entirely clear.
This July I had a cataract removed from my left eye. At age 7 a routine eye test at school revealed that I had a congenital cataract smack dab in the center of my eye. A congenital cataract must be treated in the first six months of life or the eye and the brain will be forever out of sync. I was told I would have to live with a blind spot for the rest of my life.
Nevertheless, I had surgery after all these years to remove the cataract because my ophthalmologist believed that my peripheral vision would improve due to advances in medical technology. We even conspired to fly in the face of conventional wisdom and see if we could coax the eye back online with the brain. I wore patches on my right eye and tried various exercises with the left, but alas, there is still a huge blind spot smack dab in the center of that eye.
I feel sad that I didn’t make more progress, but even more significantly I am awed by how fearfully and wonderfully we are made. It’s amazing to think that our brains and our eyes work together to produce physical sight. As I’ve pondered that fact, I’ve also thought a great deal about the profound connection between our beliefs and our spiritual sight.
My years as a pastoral counselor have convinced me that most all of us have spiritual blind spots born of mistaken beliefs about who we are and who God is. Our institutions, families, and the culture at large have made us see the world and ourselves in very distorted ways. Like people looking into a funhouse mirror we see ourselves as flawed and unlovable, victims who are forever bound by bitter circumstances. And, even though we hate to admit it, we may at times see God as critical, remote, or unreliable.
I don’t know about you but I’m seeing Bartimaeus’ humility and courage as a wake-up call to throw aside our beggar’s cloaks and boldly say to Jesus, “Let Me See Again.” Let me see who you are. Let me see who I am in your eyes. Let me see where my blind spots cause me to reject your ways. Let me see who you are calling me to be. Let me see where I keep taking matters into my own hands because I’m not trusting in you. Let me see how you want to use me in the very circumstances of my life today, whatever those circumstances may be.”
Interestingly enough, Bartimaeus says, “My teacher, let me see again” which leads us to believe that at one time he was able to see and an injury or illness blinded him. “Let me see again” can be our impassioned plea as we seek the restoration of our spiritual sight. The operative word here is “again” because it’s a lifelong process, not a single event. As we surrender our lives and wills to God one day at a time, in joy and sorrow, in victory and defeat, we will increasingly see who we truly are and who God truly is.
Today is Commitment Sunday, a day when we act on one of our best beliefs. Today we declare that we clearly see who God is—the One who gives us all good things and promises never to forsake us. Trusting in that Good News, we are set free to generously return what God has first given us—our lives, our energies, and our money. May God continue to open our eyes to perceive our many blessings and the ways we can meaningfully share them with a world in need of healing and love.