I begin with an apology of sorts, for calling James and John knuckleheads last week. I assure you I did not hear from either the bishop in Richmond or the pope in Rome. It seems they had more pressing things to deal with. So I guess calling James and John knuckleheads was not quite accurate. What I really meant was that in the gospel of Mark, all the apostles seem deserving of the name. And in today’s gospel, Jesus tries to make the same exact point yet again. He wants them and us to understand something.
First, some background. The structure of the gospel of Mark places the last few weeks’ readings between two healings, both of blind men, sort of like bookends. The first healing takes place just two chapters back, with Jesus restoring the sight of a blind man at Bethsaida. Now just before the healing of that blind man, he feeds 4000 people with a paltry seven loaves. After the healing, Jesus gets into an argument with a group of Pharisees, who demanded a sign, presumably to back up claims he previously made about their neglect of God’s laws in favor of human traditions. Still smarting from that encounter, Jesus shares a warning with his disciples about the leaven of the Pharisees, meaning their hypocrisy. And just like that, they forget that he had just recently fed 4000 people. They conclude it was because they had no bread. Jesus is dumbfounded.
“Why do you conclude that it is because you have no bread? Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Are your hearts hardened?Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear? Do you not remember,when I broke the five loaves for the 5000, how many wicker baskets full of fragments you picked up?” They answered him, “Twelve.”
“When I broke the seven loaves for the 4000, how many full baskets of fragments did you pick up?” They answered [him], “Seven.”He said to them, “Do you still not understand?” Clearly Jesus is exasperated by their lack of understanding.
So in that first healing of the blind man at Bethsaida two chapters earlier, it takes Jesus two attempts. Eventually the blind man’s sight is restored, but his blindness hints at the blindness, the cluelessness of Jesus’ closest followers. We recall the last few weeks’ readings including the first prediction of his passion, death, and resurrection; Peter’s rebuke of Jesus and Jesus calling him “Satan;” Jesus’ claim that Moses permitted divorce because of Israel’s hardness of heart; his encounter with the rich young man who walked away sad because of his many possessions; and last week’s request from James and John for seats of honor in his glory. In today’s gospel, Jesus restores the sight of a blind man, a success story finally after examples of blindness and cluelessness.
There is also a quick comparison between James and John’s request of Jesus last week, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” and Jesus asking the blind man today, “What do you want me to do for you?” James and John could see fine, but seemed in more important things completely clueless. On the other hand, the blind man lacked physical sight, but appeared to possess a deeper insight and faith that Jesus tells him is what actually brings about the healing of his blindness.
As with many things we possess that we never worked for or earned, we tend to lack a fundamental appreciation for certain things until we lose them or are deprived of their use. Most of us are born with sight. We know it enhances our living. We can enjoy reading and art, TV and film, sunsets, nature, and the lovely faces of people we love. We are able to get out of the way of moving traffic, burning buildings, falling pianos, wild animals, and a host of other dangerous situations. But when the ability to see is diminished or lost in some freak accident, illness, or the aging process, it can easily send a person into a world of darkness, and deep depression, fear, anger, and isolation.
Now physically, we may also be able to compensate a loss of one sense with the sharpening of other senses. Some people who have lost their vision will claim their hearing has become more sensitive. And with a combination of senses, they are also more aware of their surroundings. But we can only imagine what that loss is like.
So when blind Bartimeus sitting by the side of the road hears a commotion, and discovers Jesus is close by, he puts two and two together, and “sees” an opening for bettering his situation. But he couldn’t physically see. He couldn’t tell where Jesus was, even if his other senses were sharpened. So he yells out, “Son of David, have pity on me!” He manages to annoy everyone around him, that is, everyone who can see. But he doesn’t care. If you close your eyes for a moment, you can’t tell where anything is. If you can’t make eye contact, your options are limited. Either you feel your way around until you gain your bearings, or you call out until you get someone’s attention.
There were likely other factors at play to make the crowd unsupportive of the blind man’s attempt at getting Jesus’ attention initially. The blind man was a beggar. He probably sat at the same spot by the side of the road most days, filthy and ripe, shabbily dressed, his stare blank, his hand out to people walking by. Maybe he spoke a few begging words. But people could just ignore him. So when he started calling out to Jesus, he became a nuisance. Ignoring him was no longer as easy. They had to restore what worked. “Be quiet.” It’s easier to deal with blind beggars when they’re quiet.
But Jesus could not have seen him in the crowd either until the blind man called out. And unlike the crowd, his response was empathy. The blind man’s dignity was not less than anyone else’s. “What do you want me to do for you?” “Master, I want to see.” Not “I really want to be your disciple, so can you not make it harder still?” Not “I want eternal life, but I’m not giving up any of my toys.” Not “I want a seat next to you when you enter your glory.” It was a request for something all of us already have. But it must have made Jesus smile. He didn’t even need to lay hands on the man. He didn’t need to make a mud paste and tell him to go wash. Instead he said, “You already possess deep insight and faith. And with it you are saved. Physical sight is just frosting on the cake.”
We are surrounded by sisters and brothers who do not have what we very often take for granted—freedom, resources, community, joy, prosperity, opportunity. And when they call out for help, do we respond with the empathy of Jesus? Or do we prefer that they just be quiet. Being blind is often not a choice. But something is seriously wrong when we choose not to see and we aren’t even blind. Are we fearful that helping the blind gain their sight would hurt us? Who are the knuckleheads now?
Rolo B Castillo © 2018
Mark 8: 17-21
Mark 10: 35
Mark 10: 51