Date: October 24, 2021
Bible Text: Mark 10:42-56 | Bart Smith
Who’s blind in this story?
I’ll admit that’s a purposefully leading question, but who’s blind— really blind?
“Son of Honored One,” alternatively Bartimaeus, is the most obvious answer, at least from a physical point of view. Mark says that he was out on the side of the road on the way out of town. His name, by the way, is ironic; by being born blind or by losing his sight, he’s dishonored socially. This man could hardly be more marginal! In that time and place, people on the edges, economically speaking, had to plead with strangers for food and money, camped out alongside the road to catch pilgrims headed through Jericho to Jerusalem’s temple. Not unlike the folks we see (or ignore, rather) on the medians, with cardboard signs and buckets collecting change. That’s all we know about Bartimaeus. Mark, who’s always in a hurry to get to the piece of the plot, doesn’t give us a lot of details.
But Bartimaeus is able to see, at least in the ways that it counts most for the gospel’s purposes. I’m told that people who have a hard time seeing, people who live with blindness, have heightened senses in other ways. “Son of Honored One” is able to sense from the deepest part of himself who Jesus is.
You can picture it: all these people crowded around Jesus, following closely on his heels on this whirlwind tour throughout the villages of Galilee, as their movement swells and as he’s preparing to march in Jerusalem on what we called Palm Sunday. Many of them have witnessed what he’s capable of, they’ve seen him first hand making the sick well, the outcast clean, and the spiritually oppressed free. They’ve heard his extraordinary wisdom, his parables and sayings that bless and provoke at the same time. His dense disciples — a high school coach would probably lovingly call them “knuckleheads” — are often utterly clueless to what he’s trying to tell them and what his kin-dom of God movement is all about. Just before this “episode” two of them are pleading with Jesus to give them important positions when he comes into power. Even they, his closest friends, don't get what he’s about.
But Bartimaeus does. He perceives. He knows. “Descendant of Much Loved One” (Son of David) have pity (have mercy, have compassion) on me!” he cries out. By calling out to him this way, he identifies Jesus publicly as Messiah, as God’s anointed ruler, as David’s heir who’s going to take back the throne from the Romans and their puppet kings in Judea. He’s the first person in Marks’ gospel to use that title, and it’s no mistake that he shout this at the top of his lungs as the caravan is headed to the capital. There are spiritual and political implications to this, you see.
Bartimaeus doesn’t just holler at Jesus once, but twice. The translation we read uses the word “scolded” to describe how the crowd responds to him, but “they told him to shut up” fits. They silence him… or try to. But he has none of it, so he shouts even louder.
This is one of those places I wish we could pick up on Jesus’ tone or his body language. I picture him giving the crowds that look, that laser-piercing look that somehow says without words, “Have you not listened to a word I’ve said this entire time?! Tell him to come here” and he gestures. It must have been one of those looks or his tone with “tell him to come here” was enough to make them change their tune. “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you” (NIV) because they help Bartimaeus make his way over to Jesus— Jesus, who is always looking out on those crowds with a piercing gaze; Jesus, who always seems to be able to see those others cast aside; Jesus, who sees them for who they are as God’s precious ones.
Back to my original question: who’s really blind here?
It’s the crowd! It’s the crowd doing what crowds are especially good at: ignoring people, hushing them up, and brushing them aside when we’re afraid of the vulnerability they represent for us.
We all have our proverbial blind spots, don’t we? You know what I mean by blind spots? Literally, I mean the spot where your optic nerve connects to your retina and there are no light-sensitive cells, so you can’t see anything there. Shut one of your eyes while leaving the other open and you’ll notice your actual blind spots. Or take the area where a driver’s view is obstructed, where the rearview mirror doesn’t quite cut it. How many accidents are caused or avoided when you’re changing lanes and can’t see that back left side?
And in the figurative sense we mean those areas in our lives where our awareness is lacking, persistently so, willfully so, sometimes. We’re quite adept at avoiding what’s unpleasant or inconvenient, especially about ourselves. We have built-in defense mechanisms against realizing our limitations or facing hard truths. Blind spots.
Dorothy Day, a founder of the Catholic Worker movement, wrote this:
Much as we want to know ourselves, we do not really know ourselves. Do we really want to see ourselves as God sees us, or even as our fellow human beings see us? Could we bear it, weak as we are? You know that feeling of contentment in which we sometimes go about, clothed in it, as it were, like a garment, content with the world and with ourselves. ... We do not want to be given that clear inward vision which discloses to us our most secret faults. In the Psalms there is that prayer, "Deliver me from my secret sins." We do not really know how much pride and self-love we have until someone whom we respect or love suddenly turns against us. Then some sudden affront, some sudden offense we take, reveals to us in all its glaring distinctness our self-love, and we are ashamed.
This is also true, especially true, when we’re in groups. The larger and larger the groups get, we tend to be blind to people outside our preferred field of vision and to be blind to the harm we cause.
Think of how much wrongdoing dwells in the blindspots, in the realm of the unintentional. The author of our September book study, Pastor Osheta Moore, writes in Dear White Peacemakers about the need for White people doing anti-racism work to have the humility, curiosity, and grace to push past fragility and defensiveness and be open to correction. It’s true that little will change for us as individuals or for us in society, with white supremacy and the other ills that plague us, unless we’re willing to develop the emotional tools for learning about our blindspots.
On a more personal level, how many relationships suffer from the harm we cause in our blind spots? How often are parents and partners and friends unaware of how we hurt one another? I once heard of a pastor who advised a couple whose relationship was riddled with conflict to ask one another, “What’s it like to be married to me?” and to try and sit with the answer.
I’ll go first. Here’s a practical example... I’ve been ignorant of “blind spot” this entire time I’ve been preaching. It’s in the liturgy I’ve chosen or written. It’s in the hymns we’re singing this morning. All this talk about blindness, when there could be people with visual impairment within earshot, might unintentionally harm somebody, make them feel less-than, or emphasize what they lack rather than what gifts God has given them. How does the language we use further marginalize people? How is a metaphor convenient for me but diminishing to someone else? How can I accept one of the Bible healing stories at face value and not have to wrestle with it because of the body I inhabit? Ableism is one of the neglected sins in the body of Christ — how we exclude people with our words as well as our practices. As a preacher and as a person, I have a lot to learn in this area.
Just to be clear, it’s not always harm that resides outside our field of vision; possibilities and potential dwell there too. “What are we missing?” is a keen question to ponder. How much growth can happen when we are brave enough to probe our blind spots?
Bartimaeus’ faith, his trust, his openness to the healing Jesus offers is what makes him whole. It’s like what the Sufi poet Rumi wrote: “Shut your eyes so the heart may become your eye, and with that vision look upon another world.”
Faith helps us see people for who they are, help us see who we are, and help us see who God is and how God is at work in this world. Faith helps us see at a deeper level, at a level clearer than clear. Faith helps us see with the eyes of our heart.
So the question becomes: do we have the courage to ask Jesus to help us see what we need to see?