The healing of blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52 is cited for reading in churches October 25, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost.
Earlier, in Mark 8:23-25, Jesus delivered a two-part remedial on a blind man who initially saw people walking around like trees but, after Jesus touched him a second time, “saw everything clearly.”
And in John 9, Jesus restored the sight of a man who had been blind since birth.
There is no question that the restoration of sight is a monumental miracle. Just how monumental the miracle may be is hard to access by we who have always taken our sight for granted.
My mother was born with a genetic affliction that caused the steady deterioration or her cornea. She was legally blind by the time she was in her mid-thirties, but it didn’t slow her down. Sometimes her determination to function normally involved risks.
One hot summer day in the late fifties, Dad was away from home serving as a counselor at New York Boys State and my young siblings and I missed our daily three-mile drive to Eatonbrook, where we loved to swim in the cool waters of this artificial lake.
We were too young and too self-absorbed to understand how difficult it was for Mom to see. Like the man who saw people walking around like trees, Mom perceived objects, including approaching cars, as hazy shadows. But our persistent and frantic pleas for relief from the summer heat began to wear her down.
Finally, with exasperation, she said, “Okay, I’ll do it. But I’m going to need your help.”
We grabbed our bathing suits and towels and piled into the old Plymouth. Mom told us to keep an eye out for traffic.
She could see the shades of oncoming cars but she relied more on her hearing to detect cross traffic at intersections.
There were a half a dozen intersections between our house and Eatonbrook, although they were not particularly busy ones. We did, after all, live in the sticks. As we came to each stop sign, Mom would lean her head out the window and listen. We kids stared wide-eyed up and down the road.
“Is anything coming?” Mom would ask us, just to be sure. We’d shake our heads silently if the road was clear, which it usually was.
But in Eaton village, as we prepared to turn right onto the final stretch to the lake, Mom’s foot slipped off the clutch and the car stalled. We began to roll backwards and Mom quickly restarted the engine and the car lurched forward.
We kids saw the speeding pick-up truck bearing down on us. Inarticulate with fear, our screams were so piercing the squirrels lost their grip on trees. Mom hit the breaks and the car stalled again. The truck sped past us as the driver, a grizzled farmer, glanced at us with mild curiosity.
We sat in silence for several seconds as Mom rested her forehead on the wheel.
“This is the last trip to Eatonbrook until your father gets home,” she said, restarting the engine. “My nerves can’t take it.”
That was fine with us kids. And for those who are reading this anecdote with incredulity, I might add: don’t try this at home.
That was the last time Mom sat behind the wheel of a car until she received a cornea transplant in the mid-sixties – a cure for blindness every bit as miraculous as Jesus gave to Bartimaeus.
But even after she gave up driving and before her sight was restored, Mom didn’t let blindness keep her on the sidelines. She ran a loving household and formed her own real estate company on the side – Morrisville Quality Homes – and supervised the building of five ranch style houses. She even worked side-by-side the contractors on chores she could accomplish by touch, such as sanding railings and stairways.
Mom did not regard her blindness as a disabling impediment – and neither do many other people who don’t see with their eyes.
“I never thought of being blind as a disadvantage, and I never thought of being black as a disadvantage,” said Stevie Wonder in an interview with Paul Lester in the Manchester Guardian. “I am what I am. I love me! And I don't mean that egotistically – I love that God has allowed me to take whatever it was that I had and to make something out of it.”
Ray Charles said blindness clarified his perception of other people. “I knew being blind was suddenly an aid,” he said. “I never learned to stop at the skin. If I looked at a man or a woman, I wanted to see inside. Being distracted by shading or coloring is stupid. It gets in the way. It's something I just can't see.”
Because I have never been blind myself (at least physically), it’s inappropriate for me to speculate how blind people feel about their lack of sight – except to reiterate that blind people I have known were undeterred by it.
Curiously, the blind men who sought Jesus help were utterly incapacitated by their plight, beggars who sat by the road and spread their cloaks so passersby could toss coins in their laps.
Blindness was regarded by passersby as a terrible affliction, perhaps a punishment for some unknown sin. Jesus had to clarify for his disciples that no one was to blame for a blind person’s disability.
When his disciples introduced Jesus to one blind man, they asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).
The question is an odd one because – as British theologian Leslie Weatherhead pointed out – it implies that the blind man may have sinned in a previous life. Weatherhead, writing in The Christian Agnostic (1965), sees deep significance in the fact that Jesus did not scoff at the disciples’ assumptions about reincarnation (one of many eccentric views that led his critics to redub him Weslie Featherhead). Jesus seemed more intent on making another point: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus said, “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (John 9:3) Meaning, of course, that restoring a blind man’s sight calls vivid attention to Jesus’ as an agent of God’s power.
So it was with Bartimaeus, a blind beggar sitting by the road when Jesus passed by.
“When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” Mark 10:47-52)It’s interesting that Bartimaeus suggests he once had the ability to see, while other blind persons cured by Jesus had been blind all their lives. Doctors tell us that would make a big difference because the brains of persons who have never had sight are incapable of interpreting images and it wouldn’t matter if their optic nerve suddenly started to send signals.
But miracles are miracles whether they require a quick fix or a massive cerebral reconstruction, and Jesus appears equally adept at both.
The blind men cured by Jesus appear to be ordinary chaps – that is, neither excelling nor lacking in moral character. Nothing is known about the state of their souls before Jesus brought them into the light.
But over the centuries, preachers and theologians have used recovery of physical sight as a metaphor for the restoration of ethical insight.
The Apostle Paul, who persecuted Christians with Pharisaical zeal, was blinded by his encounter with the resurrected Jesus and his sight was not restored until he was touched by the disciple Ananias:
“And immediately something like scales fell from Paul’s eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized.” (Acts 9:18)One of the best examples of the metaphor was provided by repentant slave trader John Newton. Although Newton had a lot on his mind when he wrote “Amazing Grace,” he summed it up in eight syllables:
“I once … was blind but now I see.”
Newton, an English cleric and poet, was a crew member on a slave ship in 1748 when an Atlantic storm threatened to send the ship to bottom. Newton experienced a sudden religious conversion, but the moral scales about slavery did not drop from his eyes for several more years. In 1755 he quit the sea and began to study theology. He wrote the famous poem to support the three points of his New Year’s sermon on January 1, 1773.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
In his moral blindness, Newton made a fortune transporting African slaves to their dissolute masters. Once his sight was restored, Newton joined forces with abolitionist William Wilberforce, who wrote the Slave Trade Act of 1807 that abolished the trade in Britain.
The miraculous transition from blindness to sight provides the structure for an apt allegory of what happens when Jesus enters our lives.
The physical blessing is breathtaking enough. One blind man initially saw people walking around “as trees,” but when Jesus touched him again he saw clearly. Shortly after the bandages were removed from my mother’s eyes after her first cornea transplant, the nurse gave her a cop of coffee. Suddenly, for Mom, the commonplace became wondrous.
“My goodness,” she said. “The cup is so white! The coffee is so black!”
But many of us who have always seen with our eyes sit in moral and ethical darkness along the sides of the road, spreading our cloaks to capture whatever self-centered schemes and hand-outs may be thrown our way. For many of us, the darkness prevents us from seeing the fullness of God’s love. In our blindness, we may nurture hatred, greed, and bigotry, and we reach out to grasp whatever pleasures and amusements may be tossed in our laps.
But as we sit in our darkness, the day will surely come when Jesus will pass by our perch by the side of the road.
That is our cue, as it was for Bartimaeus, to begin shouting out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus, according to his promise, will stand in front of us and say,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4:18).
And just as surely as Bartimaeus began to see the amazed crowd that surrounded him, we will experience the spiritual liberation declared by Jesus. The demons of our darkness – self-absorption, religious chauvinism, racism, sexism, islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia – will be extinguished by God’s eternal light.
And then we can dance with Bartimaeus and feel the sweet release of the famous chorus:
Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.