August 25-26, 2012
Here we are at the last installment of our series on the miracles in the gospel of Mark.
It seems to be a straightforward miracle.
A man is blind.
He asks to be healed.
Jesus cures his sight.
Everyone is happy.
Well, maybe not everyone…
Have you ever spoken about this story with someone who is blind themselves?
Or for that matter,
have you ever spoken about last week’s story of Jesus healing the deaf man
with someone who is deaf?
or have you spoken about stories from the Bible
when Jesus cures the lame with someone who is paralyzed?
I haven’t either – until this week.
And my assumptions were challenged.
I was challenged first by a paper written by Craig Satterlee,[i]
a professor of preaching at the Lutheran seminary in Chicago.
Craig is legally blind.
And he’s careful to say that he does not speak for all people who are blind
or who have other disabilities.
But he says too often he’s heard in churches
either in subtle ways or even outrightly
that disabilities are a consequence of sin,
or a lack of faith.
People make the assumption that the chief concern and the ideal for all people
is to get rid of their disabilities.
As Pr. Foltz mentioned last week about a group within the deaf community,
that’s not necessarily true.
I spoke to a member of our congregation, who is blind this week,
and he said, “Sure receiving the gift of vision would be great.”
But he says it’s not the thing that’s upmost on his mind.
Because he’s been blind since birth,
he can’t even really comprehend what it would be like to have sight.
How can one hope and pray for sight when one doesn’t know what it is?
What makes him uncomfortable are not the stories of Jesus’ healing the blind
in the face of his own continued blindness,
but the experiences he’s had of well-meaning Christians
who pull him into a prayer circle as soon as he enters the church door
and assume that that’s why he’s there – to pray for his vision.
He has far deeper concerns and desires than receiving his vision.
And he’s under no illusions that eyesight is the one thing (or even the most important thing) that would make his life ideal.
There are larger concerns and desires for many persons with disabilities,
than to get rid of their disabilities.
There are hopes and dreams for many persons with disabilities,
which do not include physical recovery.
Is it possible that the 26 biblical stories of healing in the gospels,
point to more than physical recovery as the ideal?
Is it possible that Jesus understands that persons with disabilities are fully and completely children of God as they are now –
and not only if or when their disabilities are gone?
The story of Bartimaeus is a great one to consider that possibility.
Let’s start with a trivia answer: Bartimaeus is the only person in the Bible who receives healing who is named.
The rest of the stories in the Bible are about “Jairus’ daughter” or the “man born blind,” or the “man with a withered hand,” or the “woman who had been bleeding .”
Only Bartimaeus is named.
And yet most of our Bibles still insist on stressing his disability more than his personhood.
Look at the heading of this section in your Bible.
Most likely, it says this section is about the “Healing of Blind Bartimaeus.”
Not the “Healing of Courageous Bartimaeus,” or “Loudmouth Bartimaeus,” or “Disciple Bartimaeus” – all of which would be appropriate.
Bartimaeus as with most persons with disabilities in the Bible
is spoken of primarily in terms of his disability.
But Bartimaeus is more than a blind man – he is a man who is a model of faith –
not because he was blind and received sight –
he didn’t do anything to create his blindness;
and he didn’t do anything to receive sight again – Jesus did.
Bartimaeus is a model of faith
because of his lived belief in Jesus.
Bartimaeus is sitting on the road leading from Jericho toward Jerusalem begging.
There is a large crowd and the sounds and smells are something like a parade going down the road.
Bartimaeus listens to the conversation of the travelers.
He hears that among the crowd walking by is Jesus of Nazareth.
Not knowing exactly where Jesus is in the crowd,
Bartimaeus begins to shout.
“Jesus, Son of David!”
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
People in the crowd try to hush him.
(Doesn’t that sound familiar?
We get uncomfortable when confronted by those who are disabled.
We’d rather they stay at home or bring their own caregivers so we don’t have to bother
opening a door or moving our seat.
We get annoyed when they complain about the lack of handicapped-access.)
But the crowd’s pleas for quiet only make Bartimaeus cry out louder.
“Jesus, Son of David!” he calls.
Bartimaeus refuses to allow the crowd to treat him as if he were insignificant.[ii]
He refuses to allow himself to be silenced by those who think others are more important than he is.
Jesus hears Bartimaeus and stops walking;
he ignores his ‘handlers’ around him telling him that he has some sort of a schedule to keep and not to bother with the riffraff at the side of the road – instead Jesus tells them to “Call him here.”
Jesus makes Bartimaeus visible as a human being.
By calling him, Jesus respects Bartimaeus as a person.
And in response the crowd begins to treat Bartimaeus as a respected human being.
Their tone changes and they say, “Take heart, get up, he is calling you.”
So here is Bartimaeus, sitting on the side of the road.
He has his cloak which collects the offerings he receives by begging
lying on the ground in front of him.
He hears that Jesus is calling him,
and he flings away the cloak – the coins scatter –
and he jumps up and goes to Jesus.
When Bartimaeus arrives in front of Jesus,
Jesus does not assume that he knows what Bartimaeus wants.
Instead, he treats the man as a person in his own right,
who has the ability to make his own decisions,
and asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Bartimaeus tells Jesus what would be healing for him.
“Rabbi, let me see again,” he says.
And Jesus dismisses him saying, “Go – your faith has made you well.”
What is faith in this circumstance?
Perhaps it was Bartimaeus’ persistence.
Perhaps it was his refusal to be silenced by the crowd around him.
Perhaps it was his calling Jesus the Son of God when most of the crowd did not recognize him as the Messiah.
Perhaps it was his flinging of the cloak, thereby losing the tools he used to make a living.
In any case, Bartimaeus becomes a model of faith,
most clearly before not after he is cured of his blindness.
Earlier, I asked the question, “Is it possible that Jesus understands that persons with disabilities are fully and completely children of God as they are now –
and not only if or when their disabilities are gone?”
I hope it’s pretty clear that the answer is “Yes.”
But I think it’s an important question to ask, because it’s really a question for all of us.
All of us have things we pray for – we want something about our lives or the lives of the people around us to be different.
If only we were married – or divorced.
If only we had children – or they were better behaved – or would move out of the house.
If only we had a job – or a different job – or were retired.
If only we weren’t so lonely – or people would leave us alone –
If only….then our lives would be complete.
We can learn from the faith of Bartimaeus – the faith which was there before he received his sight.
We can learn from those who have disabilities who have not been cured.
We can learn from all of these, that “Yes, we can live fully and completely as children of God now – without our life circumstances changed at all.”
Jesus said, “Go. Your faith has made you well.”
[i] Craig Satterlee, “Learning to Picture God From Those Who Cannot See.” This paper continues and expands upon Craig A. Satterlee, When God Speaks through Worship: Stories Congregations Live By (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2009), 99-112 and idem, “„The Eye Made Blind by Sin‟: The Language of Disability in Worship,” Liturgy, Vol. 25, No. 2 (April-June 2010): 33-41. Originally presented at Societas Homiletica 9th International Conference at Yale Divinity School, New Haven, CT, August 1-5, 2010.
[ii] Kathy Black, A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability, Abingdon Press, p81.