Helen Keller is famous for being a person who overcame her disabilities. By the time she was 19 months old she was both deaf and blind. When she was 7-year-old blind she learned to “see” the connection between the water spilling over one hand and the letters W-A-T-E-R that her teacher Anne Sullivan traced in the other hand.
We take for granted our eyesight and forget what Jesus said about the blind seeing while the sighted are blind. The story of Bartimeaus exposes our inability to truly see. Mark tells us the story of Bartimaeus not for us to celebrate a blind beggar whose faith leads Jesus to restore his sight. Rather, Mark is challenging us to ask the question - why does a blind beggar recognise Jesus while sighted bystanders do not?
Mark weaves this challenge again and again into his Gospel. When Jesus teaches in parables, he assumes that the sighted will not grasp his point (Mark 4:12). When Jesus feeds four thousand followers, he goes face to face with the blindness of his closest disciples (Mark 8:18).
That the blind see and the seeing are blind is not just a clever saying. It’s one of the paradoxes that belong to a larger set of paradoxical truths associated with the gift of faith. Paul expresses this paradoxical twisting of normal expectations in his reflection on apostolic life and faith: when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10, GNT); when we are cursed, we bless (1 Corinthians 4:12, GNT); we are often troubled, but not crushed; sometimes in doubt but never in despair; ... At all times we carry in our mortal bodies the death of Jesus, so that his life also may be seen in our bodies (2 Corinthians 4:8-10, GNT). In this paradox there is good news, however hard to understand and contradictory.
People on the world’s margins are at the centre of God’s care. Who’s got true sight? Who is blind? Who’s on the margin? Who’s in the centre? Bartimaeus was a man who was on the margins of his society. He wanted to see the world and everyone in it with new eyes and a changed heart.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for the Passover. He is passing through Jericho, surrounded by a crowd of pilgrims to whom he is talking as he walks, a common way of teaching for rabbis in those days. A crowd lines the road to cheer the passing pilgrims and Jesus as they walk by. It's a kind of mob scene - lots of excitement, lots of energy and exchange, with Jesus clearly at the heart of the event.
Suddenly, from the roadside comes a shout from a beggar sitting at the side of the road. "Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!" They try to hush him up. One translation of this text reports that they yelled at him, "Shut up!" But Bartimaeus doesn't stop. Once more, he cries out again, with raw emotion, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"
Jesus could have become irritated or put off. He could have ignored these pleas from the beggar; he didn't know Bartimaeus. He could have asked someone to sshhh him up or drag him off the street-out of sight, out of mind. Invisible. Instead, Mark tells us, Jesus stopped. He stopped for the blind beggar shouting to him from the edges. He called to Bartimaeus, who jumped up and threw off his mantle, the faster to respond to whatever Jesus had in mind for him. "What do you want me to do for you?" asked Jesus. Bartimaeus responds: "Teacher, let me receive my sight." And Jesus said to him, "Go your way; your faith has made you well." And immediately, he received his sight and followed Jesus on the way.
Some time ago, I read an article about the first people in the world who, blind from birth, underwent successful cataract surgery. You can imagine the wonder with which they saw for the first time-the world. A sunset, a rose, a tree - can you imagine seeing their beauty for the first time? Seeing colour and shape and size. The article reports that one young woman was so stunned by all she saw that she closed her eyes again - for two weeks! When she opened them again, all she could say was, "O God, how beautiful!"
But everything was not so great as expected. The world turned out to be bigger and more complex than anyone knew. Unable to judge distances, the newly sighted people reached for things and overshot their reach and cracked their shins on furniture, which they saw only as objects without density or dimension. And seeing themselves for the first time in the mirror was a huge surprise, and even a terrible shock to some people.
The father of one of the young women wrote that his daughter had taken to shutting her eyes as she walked around the house; she felt safer that way. And a 15-year-old boy asked to be returned to the school for the blind. "I can't stand it any more," he said, "there is simply too much to absorb. It's driving me mad."
If receiving sight is so problematic on a physical level, think for a moment how much more complicated it becomes when we begin to talk about it on a spiritual level. Like some of the cataract patients, we may prefer to stay in the dark. At least it's familiar; we know how to navigate, and we don't have to look at ourselves-warts and all. We often prefer to look only at what is within our reach and part of our view. We like to stay with what we know rather than venture forth into new life, new sight, new visions.
How many of us would share Bartimaeus' desire for sight if by sight we meant spiritual vision - seeing ourselves through the eyes of Jesus, seeing our world, our lives, our loves, our homes through the eyes of one with such incredible sight?
All in the world is not beautiful, awesome, or joy-filled - there is profound sorrow and pain as well as great joy.
John Newton, was a slave trader in the 19th Century. One day on his slave boat, travelling from Africa to England , it occurred to him to ask why he should be doing such a horrible thing, carrying human beings in the hold of his ship in squalid conditions and then putting them up for sale when he arrived in England . He decided at that very moment to turn his life around, give up the slave trade and dedicate himself to something more humane. He eventually became an Anglican priest and spent the rest of is life in the ministry "recovering," as he said, "from his blindness." He wrote the famous song we are going to sing in a moment: "Amazing Grace ... how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see."
If we are to risk receiving new sight, we have got to be prepared to let go of prejudice and fears that have narrowed our living and made our lives predictable and safe. Our spiritual vision has to do with our values and with our personal blueprint for what is most important for our own life and the life of the world.
If we looked at our congregation this morning and sought within us a new spiritual vision, what would we look for? I think we could see Rockdale Uniting Church not only as an object of our love in community, but as an incredible instrument of God's love - a place to witness, within our walls and beyond, to peace, joy, sorrow, love, and justice.
Bartimaeus jumped up and stood before Jesus. He was ready to be healed and ready to receive his sight. How did you come to church this morning? And if Jesus were to stand in front of you asking that incredible question, "What do you want me to do for you?" Would you consider starting at the same place Blind Bartimaeus did - "Teacher, let me receive my sight"?
It's hard to live a sighted life. Most of us find it easier to stay in the dark. It feels safer, and in many ways it seems like less work. It's far more difficult to develop a vision and cling to it. It's hard to feel the pain of the world, to embrace what others fear, to walk down roads that others shun, to seek justice in a culture whose predominant value is individual greed. But spiritual sight is about making the invisible real in your own life and the lives of those around you.
John Newton received vision. From that moment on he gave his life to work for spiritual freedom in the lives of believers.
Bartimaeus sought physical sight, but it was symbolic of a deeper hunger for spiritual sight. His faith made him well, which means that he was healed rather than simply cured.
Jesus had spiritual sight. He looked upon the world with compassion, hope, and love. If our hearts were as his, we would be as vulnerable to the cries of the world as he; and we would respond with open hearts and wide-open eyes.
One last thought… Bartimaeus – son of Timaeus means "polluted one"
The reaction of the disciples to this "polluted" man who persistently sought after Jesus, repeating the same thing over and over again - without any shame exposes their blindness.
Why couldn’t this beggar and blind man simply not bother anyone with his minor needs and just "fade into the woodwork" and be a "nice little beggar and blind man" and not bother those who were involved in important things!
What would have happened if this son of Timaeus had listened and remained silent? Instead a polluted soul cries out to God and even when those who do not want to be bothered by such obnoxious behaviour shun him - Jesus says - "Come to me."
Remember this - we come to Jesus lost and we are found in him.
We come blind and polluted - but Jesus gives us sight.
We come weak and God makes perfect his strength through us.
It is the work of God - God's Mercy... not our feeble strength that saves us!