Artwork: “Christ Healing the Blind” by Thobias Minzi (Tanzania, 2010)
The lectionary Gospel reading for this weekend (Mark 10:46-52) describes an encounter between Jesus and a blind beggar by the name of Bartimaeus. Jesus settles for nothing less than a personal, face-to-face, and highly countercultural interaction with this marginalized soul whom the crowd had attempted to silence and dismiss. The end result of the encounter is the restoration of Bartimaeus’ sight and, one would presume, the reaffirmation of both his belovedness and his sacred worth.
Many years ago, after a service of worship in which I preached on this Bartimaeus story, a blind woman, guided by her husband, approached me in the church lobby with an expression of anger on her face. “I hate that story in the Bible,” she said to me, “and I hate the way you talked about it today. You celebrated Jesus’ healing of the blind man, but you didn’t ever acknowledge the fact that many of us have been waiting decades for a healing that still hasn’t come. How am I supposed to relate to a Jesus who gives sight to one person but not to me and many others?! Where’s MY healing?! Don’t I deserve it as much as Bartimaeus did?! Don’t other blind people deserve it?! Why won’t Jesus respond to our pleas the way he responded to Bartimaeus’ outcry?!”
Her words, difficult as they were for me to hear, compelled me to realize that I had preached insensitively, inattentively, and insufficiently. I had assumed that, as a preacher with full use of his eyes, I could simply celebrate the restoration of Bartimaeus’ sight without naming and honoring the continuing pain of those who find in the story a distressing reminder of a healing longed for but not yet experienced. I had been so eager to express my own interpretation of the story that I had failed to seek out or even consider the perspectives of those in the congregation for whom a story about blindness might become a painful trigger. Bartimaeus’ experience of “cure” had received my full sermonic attention, while the crowd’s mistreatment and rejection of Bartimaeus had gone largely ignored. His physical sight had become my central emphasis, but his deepest healing in the presence of Jesus—a healing that ultimately had little to do with his physical sight—went uncelebrated by this preacher.
I have thought differently about the Bartimaeus story since my encounter with that blind parishioner.
More specifically, I have come to appreciate that the restoration of Bartimaeus’ physical sight in the story, while perhaps serving as both an isolated sign of Jesus’ ultimate authority over physical affliction and an echo of God’s restorative grace, was actually the least compelling portion of Bartimaeus’ healing. It is true, after all, that, while cured of blindness, Bartimaeus ended up dying of some other physical affliction. Perhaps cancer. Or a heart attack. Or a stroke. Or the striking of his head upon a rock during a bad fall.
Such is the transitory nature of physical cures. Their glory lasts only as long as it takes for the next physical affliction to come along.
Bartimaeus’ most significant and lasting healing, then, must have had precious little to do with his eyesight. Perhaps his most significant and lasting healing had to do with the fact that, in the middle of a community that had consistently ignored his needs, silenced his voice, and devalued his personhood, Jesus had seen him, heard him, brought him out of the societal margins to which he had been consigned, and pursued his heart in the context of a sincere, face-to-face conversation.
Perhaps it had been a very long time since anyone had initiated a meaningful conversation with Bartimaeus. Perhaps his begging on the side of the road in the heat of the midday sun had become nothing more than a dreaded nuisance to the people passing by, an inconvenience to be ignored and resented. On that day, however, Jesus saw Bartimaeus and singled him out. “Bring that man to me,” he said. “Don’t ignore him! Assist him! Help him up! Guide him to me! He may not matter much to you, but he matters deeply to me. He cried out to me with a desperation that none of you possess. I will honor his personhood and his preciousness in a way that you have not. Guide him to me!”
Therein, I suppose, one glimpses Bartimaeus’ lasting and most miraculous healing. On that day, because of Jesus, Bartimaeus had been seen, heard, valued, sought after, cared for, and elevated in the context of authentic relationship. In a crowd that, moments earlier, had commanded him to shut up, Bartimaeus’ voice was now being called for and honored. Somewhere beyond the sharp edge of the crowd’s antipathy stood Jesus, inviting Bartimaeus into a connection with the Divine Heart and reminding him that, in the transformational grace of God, no one slips through the cracks—not Bartimaeus, and not any of us.
And, by the way, this trajectory-altering affirmation of Bartimaeus’ sacred worth (his grandest healing, if you will) happened well before the restoration of his physical sight. It is almost as though the restoration of his eyesight is an afterthought—an allowance offered to Bartimaeus so that, in that moment of transformation, he might look upon the face of the One who had already blessed him with a healed vision that would last far longer than his eyesight ever could.
As I reflect upon the story of Bartimaeus, I hear the voice of Jesus—
calling us to be the kind of community that works hard to accommodate people’s unique needs and allowing them to accommodate ours;
calling us to seek out the marginalized and mistreated souls that have been forced to the proverbial roadside and to walk with them toward the Savior who beckons us into his presence;
calling us to remember that, in the peculiar economy of God’s grace, every soul is sacred, every voice is heard, and every hurt matters deeply to the heart of God;
calling us to embrace the deeper vision that Bartimaeus experienced—a deeper vision that has nothing at all to do with his eyesight.
May it be so.