I imagine the worst part of going blind would be to lose one’s independence. In today’s Gospel lesson from Mark, Bartimaeus lived earlier days in his life going wherever he wanted to go. He did what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it. Now as a blind man, he was dependent on total strangers.
Whenever someone passed by on the streets of Jericho, Bartimaeus would hold up his cup and jiggle the coins inside so people would know he was in need. And while he held up an outstretched arm, shaking his coins back and forth, he asked people for any help they could give him. “I can’t see. I can’t work. I don’t have any money. If you could spare a little change, I would be grateful.”
Still, when you are forced to depend on the kindness of those around you, some days are better than others. The best days for Bartimaeus were days when business was bustling in Jericho. It helped to have sunny days rather than rainy days. And holidays were the most lucrative of all, for everyone who walked past Bartimaeus seemed to be in a good and charitable mood.
With plenty of time on his hands, Bartimaeus couldn’t help but reminisce. His world, once so full of possibilities and opportunities, had now shrunk to a tiny patch of sidewalk just large enough for Bartimaeus to spread his cloak out on the ground. And the daily routine was always the same. Crouch low to the sidewalk. Wrap himself with a few old and ripped rags to keep his skin covered. Most of all, try not to look into the sun. For despite the fact that Bartimaeus could not see, looking anywhere near the direction of the sun caused his eyes to water…
Back in the time of Bartimaeus, the people of the ancient world referred to sight as “the Queen of the Senses.” Which many of us would likely echo today. There are few things in life more captivating and more inspiring than watching the sun set over the horizon or the sun rise over the beach at the dawn of a new day. People travel from all over the country to New England in late fall just to see leaves splashed in vivid color across changing trees. And is there a more comforting, more wonderful sight than a smile crossing the face of the one who is our beloved?
To be blind would be to miss the blessings of what we can see on every side. On the other hand, there is more than one kind of blindness. A few decades ago, there were women in Cambodia who witnessed firsthand the Killing Fields in Cambodia under the brutal dictatorship of Pol Pot. In fact, a number of those women were forced to watch while their own family members were killed. As a result, countless Cambodian women became blind not because there was a physical cause. But rather due to the deep psychological trauma of seeing more than their eyes could bear.
And then there is a more temporary psychological blindness, which I trust many of us have experienced. When I was in seminary in New York City I used to ride the subway nearly every day. And often on those subway rides a homeless man or woman or teenager would stand up in one of the cars and sing a song. Or tell their story. Or simply walk up and down the center aisle of the train with a cup in hand.
Meanwhile, most everyone on the subway would bow their heads. Or stare blankly out the window. Or look down at the floor. Or scan the various advertisements located just below the subway ceiling. Anything to avoid eye contact with the one asking for money. It was a way all of us could pretend not to notice our brother or sister in need. Until it came time for our particular stop and we could get off the subway and go about the rest of our day.
Bartimaeus knew all too well what it meant to be blind in a physical sense. He also knew about temporary, psychological blindness. To be sure, Bartimaeus understood he was a sight to behold. By his outward appearance, he appeared dirty and pitiful. Shameful might be an even better word. And when he held out his cup and made his request, most people passed by without even turning their heads in his direction. Meanwhile a few looked his way and tried to make eye contact before realizing there was no way to use Bartimaeus’ eyes as a window into his soul…
Thank God Bartimaeus knew there was something behind his sightless eyes. Down in his heart and spirit, Bartimaeus clung to a dream. A deeply held desire to be able to see once again. Bartimaeus longed for the day when he would be healed and set free…a day when he would stand up, put his cloak on, shake the dust off, and walk confidently down the center of the Jericho streets the way he once did…
Finally that fateful day arrived. It was the feast of the Passover and people who passed by were talking with excitement about going to Jerusalem to celebrate. Somewhere in the midst of multiple conversations, Bartimaeus heard a name. And it was a name Bartimaeus recognized.
“Jesus of Nazareth.” The name was familiar because by all accounts Jesus was known to be a healer. And Bartimaeus wondered whether he would ever have a chance to encounter Jesus and ask for his own healing.
It turns out that Bartimaeus wasn’t hearing the name “Jesus” in the abstract. The reason why Bartimaeus heard the name was because Jesus was a little ways down the street. Coming his direction, in fact.
When Jesus approached near enough, Bartimaeus cried out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Which the nearby beggars did not appreciate. According to the unwritten code among beggars, if one beggar raised his voice it reflected badly on every beggar nearby.
Yet Bartimaeus refused to be shushed or silenced. And moments later, Bartimaeus realized that Jesus of Nazareth was actually responding to him. Without hesitating, Bartimaeus sprang to his feet and approached Jesus.
Jesus…“What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus…“I want to see again.” Jesus…“Go your faith has made you well.” That’s all there was to this brief encounter. A question. A request. A healing.
However, what happened next was anything but simple. Daylight flooded Bartimaeus’ eyes. The sounds of the crowd faded as Bartimaeus began to see shapes mold into real people. The shadows became faces. Black and white morphed into colors. And all those people nearby so accustomed to looking upon Bartimaeus with shame and pity? They were suddenly incredulous, staring back and forth at Jesus and then at Bartimaeus…
It is a heartwarming story. But the real point of the story is easy to lose track of. Yes, Bartimaeus was healed and his dream of seeing came to fruition. At the end of the day, though, this story is really about Jesus telling Bartimaeus to go, knowing his faith has made him well. And Bartimaeus deciding that he wanted to stay.
Jesus of Nazareth set Bartimaeus free by opening his eyes and inviting him to go his own way. So he could do the things he wanted to do for so long. When he wanted to do them. Yet Bartimaeus chose to stay and not to leave. Instead of using his newly restored eyesight to go out on his own, Bartimaeus chose to use his newly restored eyesight to follow the one who healed him. In other words, Bartimaeus decided to us his eyes not to serve his own purposes but to serve others in the name of Jesus…
Years later, the disciples would tell the story of Bartimaeus with a chuckle and a wink of their eyes. Knowing full well all the times when they were unable to see who Jesus was and what Jesus was trying to do in the world. The disciples missed seeing the real Jesus time and again in the Gospels, even when he was standing right in front of them. And here Bartimaeus the blind man knew exactly who the real Jesus was both before and after he was healed…
Bartimaeus stayed and soon followed Jesus on the way. Even when Jesus went to Jerusalem. Even when Jesus died on the cross. Even when most people had abandoned Jesus and turned their gaze away from him. Even when Jesus rose from the empty tomb and appeared to people who still doubted him and still could not see who he was. Bartimaeus stayed.
Two thousand years later, you and I tell the story of Bartimaeus to this day for the same reasons. Because seeing is hard work. We all have our blind spots. We all have things we’d rather not notice. We can all remember times when we turned away and averted our gaze because it was easier to pretend no one was there and nothing was happening.
But God needs people like you and me whose vision is courageous and whose hearts are trained to see the world through a lens of compassion and service and dedication. God needs people like you and me who are willing to see the world through the eyes of Jesus. God needs more people willing to be like Bartimaeus and fall in with every person who chooses to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. Amen.