Who is blind?

Proper 25 B, Oct. 25, 2015

Mark 10:46-52

The Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket, RI

The Rev. Gillian R. Barr

This morning’s Gospel lesson is about someone blind receiving sight. Who in the story is blind?  On the surface, that’s a really easy question.  The beggar by the side of the road.  We even know his name, which we don’t usually for people healed by Jesus.  Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus.

But is he really blind?  He seems to actually see quite well.  He calls out to Jesus, calling him Son of David—giving him a title usually reserved for the Messiah.  Over the past few weeks we’ve heard several stories about Jesus’s disciples and followers just not getting it and basically being blockheads—James and John bickering to see who is the most important, other disciples turning children away, Peter denying what Jesus says about the Messiah’s future including suffering and death.  But this beggar by the side of the road understands who Jesus is. He calls him by a Messianic title, and he also insists that God’s vision, God’s healing, includes those on the margins, people like a blind beggar.  He sees with God’s vision.  He understands that when God looks at him, God sees someone worthy. He claims that he, even though blind, is someone worthy of Jesus’s “mercifying,” as one commentator suggests the Greek actually reads.

The people in the crowd, however, don’t get it. They don’t see Bartimaeus as a human being worthy of healing.  They see only a distraction, someone in their way. Someone taking Jesus’ attention away from them and their focus on getting to the next place on their itinerary.  They are looking at the man’s demands with a zero-sum mentality. They tell him to be quiet.

But we know better, right?  We wouldn’t do that. We wouldn’t ever tell someone asking for Jesus’ mercy, someone seeking healing and wholeness, to be quiet, would we?

Or would we?

There are lots of people in our society who cry out for mercy but are told to be quiet.

  • Victims of sexual abuse or harassment: We tell them “your abuser is so important—we don’t want to ruin his career” –this was just in the news this past week when a major academic authority in astronomy was finally run out of the academy after years and years of sexually harassing female colleagues. It could be an academic, or someone prominent in politics, or entertainment—“don’t make accusations against him—he couldn’t have done that –besides, he’s too important, too influential.  It will harm the profession to accuse him.  Keep quiet.”
  • How many women have been told “stop being so emotional,” or “you’re too bossy”?
  • People in dysfunctional families, especially children or spouses know the rules: “Remember, we don’t talk in public about how Daddy or Mommy acts at home.”
  • Lesbian women and gay men and others are told, “Stop making such a big fuss about these rights—you shouldn’t make such a public deal over your sexuality.”  (Apparently that’s something only straight people can do.)
  • We tell immigrants: if they would only do things legally the way our grandparents did they’d be welcome to come here—while ignoring that the requirements of “immigrating legally” have changed drastically since our grandparents arrived.
  • When people of color complain of some injustice, they are told, “Stop playing the race card.”  Or, “Don’t be so angry. It is divisive.”

When Jesus heals Bartimaeus, he didn’t just walk right up to him.  He could have, but interestingly, he didn’t.  He asks the crowd to “Call him here.”  He involves the very crowd who was trying to get him to go away.  He forces them to see the man in the same way he does—as worthy of love and healing—and to interact with Bartimaeus as someone who is beloved and worthy. He heals the crowd’s blindness as part of the method he uses to restore Bartimaeus’ sight.

As you know, in the other half of my job, as Director of the Jonathan Daniels House, over the past months I’ve been immersing myself in learning about issues of racial justice.  I’m in the middle of reading The New Jim Crow, a book about our criminal justice system and how it’s affected by the systemic racism that infects our country.[i] There is one section of the book that just leapt out at me as I was reading this week, as being particularly related to this week’s Gospel with its images of blindness and sight.

Many of us have assumed that achieving a colorblind society is our goal.  We rejoice when little children show no recognition that their friends are of different races. And that is a laudable goal for young children.

But only in the past few months, as I’ve been studying, have I learned that for an adult person of color, for me to say, “I don’t see you as black or Asian—I’m colorblind” is not always helpful.  Because we do not in fact live in a color-blind world.  We do not yet live in a post-racial society, no matter how much we wish we did. Color and race still do affect every dimension of our lives. So as long as we ignore color, we also are blind to injustice which comes from lingering racism. The author of The New Jim Crow calls us to abandon color-blindness as our present goal and instead to recognize the very real impacts color has on each person’s experience.

She writes,

People of good will [that’s us at Good Shepherd, all, people of good will!] have been unwilling to see black and brown men, in their humanness, as entitled to the same care, compassion, and concern that would be extended to one’s friends, neighbors, or loved ones.  Seeing race is not the problem.  Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. …. We should hope not for a colorblind society, but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love.  That was [Martin Luther] King’s dream—a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love.  That’s a goal worth fighting for.[ii]

Did you notice what Bartimaeus did after Jesus restored his sight?  He did not run around madly looking at all the stuff he’d not been able to see for years.  That’s what I’d do! “ Wow!  I can see!  Let me go over here and look at this beautiful thing!  And over here!  And here!”

But that’s not what Bartimaeus does. He turns and follows Jesus on the way of discipleship.  Given the amount of insight he’s demonstrated already, how he knows that Jesus is the Messiah, to choose to follow him to Jerusualem, I suspect he realizes it will not be an easy journey.  But he knows this hard journey is what is needed.  Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem is the way to the cross, to vulnerability, pain, and suffering.  But that is the way to reconciliation.  And that is the way that Bartimaeus wants to be walking.

The way of reconciliation is an uphill climb.  It requires vulnerability, transparency, lots of humility, and hard inner work, and suffering. It is a way of great cost.  But that is the way of Jesus.  And that is the way the once-supposedly-blind beggar felt called to join.  May it also be the way we choose to walk.  Amen.

[i] Alexander, Michelle.  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Revised edition.   New York: The New Press. 2012.

[ii] Op cit, pages 242-244 in Kindle edition.

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