102421 Pentecost 22 Learning to See from a Blind Man
The sermon begins at minute 19:35 of the video
One problem with preaching from the lectionary is that it doles out the Gospel piecemeal and can distort the meaning. This morning’s story of Bartimaeus comes at the end of a section of Mark’s Gospel that began with another story of a blind man. To grasp the meaning of the story requires knowing the whole section. By bookending the section with stories of blind people gaining their sight, Mark gives us a signal about what is important in these stories.
In the first story, sight comes to the blind person in two stages: first seeing people like trees walking, and only afterwards seeing clearly. Perhaps Mark is showing the path to seeing that the disciples themselves would take – it took them more than one hearing to understand Jesus’ teaching. Between the two stories of blind people, Jesus tells the disciples three times that he is going to suffer and die on the way to fulfilling his mission. Each time, they reveal their blindness. The first time, Peter rebukes him for saying such a thing. The second time they are afraid to even ask what he means – maybe because of the harsh response to Peter. But that doesn’t stop them from arguing about which of them was the greatest. The 3rd time, James and John simply ignored what Jesus said, and asked for privileged positions in Jesus’ kingdom.
Clearly, Mark is using these stories about blind people to reveal the spiritual blindness of the disciples. Jesus asked the same question of James and John and of Bartimaeus: what do you want me to do for you? The disciples answered that they wanted privilege and power; Bartimaeus said, let me see again. Would that the disciples had asked to see like Bartimaeus did. Their spiritual blindness kept them from seeing Jesus as the suffering Son of Man, and that distorted their understanding of the Gospel.
As we respond to the story of Bartimaeus we must ask ourselves two questions: What are we blind to that are we supposed to see? and How do we come to see?
So, what are we blind to that are we supposed to see?
- Like the apostles, we might be still blind to the fact that healing, restoring, and saving always involve suffering. If followers of Jesus are to be agents of healing, we must be willing to go out of our way to respond to those on the edge of the road, to sacrifice some of the benefits we have received from an unjust system to restore justice – as we confess each week, we repent of the evil done on our behalf; and to be open to being rejected and punished for wanting to save those on the side of the road.
- Secondly, we might be blind to the people on the edge of the main road, and to the knowledge that they are the ones who see most clearly. Bartimaeus knew some things that those following Jesus on the road didn’t. Yet those on the road sternly ordered Bartimaeus to be quiet. Whether we say it out loud or not, we also often want to tell those shouting from the edges, be quiet! That is the first healing we need: start listening to those on the edges and stop telling them to shut up. And we must be specific about who those folks are. Who are on the edge in today’s world? We will say a litany during the prayers of the people that will invite us to consider who they are.
- Finally, we are blind to the debt of mercy we already have to those who have suffered and sit on the edge. That debt must be considered when we are debating how much debt we can take on. The issue of debt lies underneath the story ofw Bartimaeus, but we must know something about Mediterranean culture to see it. In the Mediterranean value system, mercy describes a person’s willingness to pay personal debts. By addressing Jesus as son of David the beggar publicly identifies him as Messiah. By repeating this statement over and over, the beggar insists that Jesus owes the healing to him. By shouting it out ever more loudly, the clever beggar makes the entire crowd aware of Jesus’ debt to him.
If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know that the big issue in congress is the Build Back Better bill. Republicans oppose it, and 48 Democrats support it. One reason given for opposing it comes from not wanting to increase the country’s indebtedness. That may not be the real reason, but it’s a convenient one. From the perspective of the Mediterranean value system in which the Gospels were written, we might ask whether the bill may be paying a debt owed to all the Bartimaeus’ who have been sitting on the side of the road in this country. We might view things like child tax credit not as debt creators, but as debt payments. Past policies have created the position of poverty in which people find themselves. The fact that we have to pay more and in debt ourselves is the result of our unjust actions in the past. We may not believe that such a view would make good fiscal policy. But as followers of Jesus, we must at least ask ourselves why not.
The 2nd question we must ask is, how do we come to see?
- Today’s Hebrew Scriptures provide the first answer: by encountering God personally. Job responded to the experience of God in the whirlwind we explored last week by saying: I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore, I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. The Psalmist says, I sought the Lord…look to God and be radiant … taste and see that the Lord is good. Bartimaeus encountered Jesus, even though he couldn’t see him until he was healed. We must encounter the holy if we’re ever going to see.
- The second way we come to see is by paying attention to the ones on the edge. Those who told Bartimaeus to shut up were more blind than he was. Not only did they not see the opportunity to be agents of healing; they failed to recognize the teacher in their midst. So often we get things backwards. We think we are the ones who have to teach, give, protect, and heal others. Individuals and nations have missed so many opportunities and failed in so many missions because they see the world upside down. I have resisted as many times as I have been open to the blessing of having my eyes opened by receiving from the poor, learning from the supposedly uneducated, and receiving power from the so-called powerless. Our own salvation is tied up in the salvation of those on the edge.
- Finally, we come to see by witnessing healing, restoration, and salvation up close. We are told that God restored the fortunes of Job. I’m uncomfortable with the ending of the Job story because it looks like quid pro quo. I can’t even bring myself to include it in the reading. But there is a truth to it. God does restore life to those who have received the short end of the stick. That promise doesn’t include a timeline, but it is presented as a guarantee. Job came to see before his fortunes were restored. After the encounter with God in the whirlwind, Job said, I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. But the restoration of Job’s fortunes was simultaneous with that confession. It was not payment for it. The Psalmist claims the same experience:
I sought the Lord; God answered me and delivered me out of all my terror… I
called in my affliction and God heard me and saved me from all my troubles.
And finally, we are not told how the disciples and the crowd were impacted by
Bartimaeus receiving his sight. I can only imagine the disciples realizing how different was Bartimaeus’ request from theirs. And the crowd may not have
come to “see” in the moment. But upon reflecting on the events of that day, I’m sure they “saw” things differently. What are you blind to that are you supposed to see? How will you come to see? Maybe Bartimaeus could be your teacher today.