In his book The Minds Eye, neurologist Oliver Sacks tells some powerful stories about people who were born blind or lost their sight. He shares the story of a man who lost his vision in his 20s and claims that when he reads brail with his right index finger he sees the raised dots in his mind’s eye. Sacks notes that for this man, like many other blind people, the visual part of his brain did not atrophy once he lost his sight. Rather, his visual cortex became hyper active and hyper responsive, party from input from the other senses, partly from internal imagery, and partly from converting sensual data and what people told him into imagery.
Sacks also mentions a blind woman named Arlene who loves traveling with people so she can have them describe what they are seeing. She asks them follow-up questions, which force them to see more. A blind man who was Australian told Sacks that if he could not see the world, he would construct it as accurately as possible. His neighbors were horrified to see him working on his roof at night, but the Australian found that his ability to picture his roof accurately was heightened by the loss of his sight.
Sacks highlights the creative ways people respond to blindness, and the ways their blindness causes them to see in new ways. In Jesus’ day there was no Oliver Sacks, no schools for the blind, no advocates for the blind. There was only a dominant religious belief that blind people were cursed by God. Like lepers, those who were deformed in some way, the poor, or those who had suffered greatly, blind people were believed to be out of favor with the Lord. They had done something to deserve their plight, and were forced to beg for a living. Blindness was a humiliating stigma which brought social isolation.
It is thus powerful that the blind man in today’s Gospel is the one who sees, the one who is faithful. Despite his physical blindness, Bartimaeus sees that he needs Jesus. He knows that Jesus can offer him mercy and the chance of a new life. He cries out to Jesus “Son of David, have mercy on me,” but many people around him sternly tell him to be quiet. He’s like that embarrassing family member or neighbor who just doesn’t know how to behave publicly. But Bartimaeus is not daunted; he is desperate and nothing can silence him. He cries out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” This is the first time in Mark’s Gospel anyone uses the title “Son of David” for Jesus, a title alluding to his royal ancestry. It is no accident that Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, where he will initially be welcomed like a king, and later be crucified like a common criminal. Jesus is a king like no other, probably not the king Bartimaeus expected, and most definitely not the Davidic warrior messiah the disciples expected. His reign will turn the meaning of king and kingdom on its head as he embraces people like Bartimaeus who have nothing other than the knowledge of their brokenness and need for God’s mercy.
The story of Bartimaeus falls in the central section of Mark’s Gospel. This section begins and ends with stories of Jesus giving blind people their sight. After healing a blind man in Bethsaida, Jesus makes three predictions about his upcoming death which the disciples fail to understand. Jesus then heals Bartimaeus. Clearly the author is contrasting the restoration of sight to two different men with the blindness of Jesus’ disciples.
Bartimaeus is unique in many ways. His healing story is the only one in Mark in which the person being healed is given a name. Bartimaeus is also the only person healed in Mark’s Gospel who then follows Jesus “on the way.” Many commentators have pointed to Bartimaeus as the model disciple. As he rises to approach Jesus he casts off his cloak, his only possession. Contrast this with the story of the rich young ruler who owned many possessions, but was unable to sell them and give the proceeds to the poor so he could follow Jesus.
In Bartimaeu’s day beggars’ cloaks were a matter of life and death. They provided protection from the cold. People threw their charitable coins on them – they were the equivalent of today’s hat or metal can. Bartimaeus has the courage and faith to believe that Jesus will heal him. He doesn’t let the crowd quiet him, but persists in crying out to Jesus. Jesus calls him forward and asks “What do you want me to do for you?” When Jesus asks his students James and John the same question earlier in the story, they ask to sit at his right and left hand side. They are interested in power, glory and reputation, not following the way of the cross. Bartimaeus responds, “my teacher, let me see again.” He wants to see clearly, whereas James and John see only their own needs and wants.
In my experience it is the down and out, the poor, the sick, the deformed, the friendless, the widow and widower, the orphan, the unemployed, the homeless who live with no illusions. They know they need God. They know they are dependent upon God and God’s people for mercy and survivial. They see what matters clearly, and they have so much to teach us.
Blind men and women like Bartimaeus can’t be self reliant or have the illusion of self reliance. In order to survive they have to trust others. They have to rely upon the community’s hospitality. By healing Bartimaeus’ sight, Jesus also heals his isolation. Bartimaeus is restored to community. This happens not because Bartimaeus believed his way into wellness, but because Jesus pronounced his wellness. Jesus healed and Bartimaeus’ faith received that healing. As Jesus stated publicly, Bartimaeus’ faith made him well. Bartimaeus’ faith moved him from scorned and pitied beggar to follower of the Way of Jesus. Bartimaeus didn’t have all the answers. He didn’t fully know who Jesus was or what was ahead, but he did know that Jesus was the one who could give him sight and a whole new life.
Bartimaeus receives the gift of sight. He knows that true sight involves faith and the knowledge that he is completely dependent on God’s mercy. As Jesus gets closer to Jerusalem, he faces the spiritual blindness of his closest followers. They are unable to grasp who he is or what he came to do. Thankfully the blindness of Jesus’ followers does not interfere with or obstruct his work in the world.
Only after the resurrection do Jesus’ followers begin to see and understand. Only then do they begin to piece everything together, to see, even if partially. As Mary Magdalene and the other woman are told by the young man in white at Jesus’ tomb, go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”