For Sunday October 28, 2018
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
About a year ago, my now sixteen-year-old son had a biking accident on his way home from school. He remembers the crowded bike lane. He remembers a boy in front of him stopping suddenly. He remembers plowing into that boy’s bike. And he remembers waking up on the ground — he doesn’t know how much later — with a cracked helmet, a few scrapes, and a headache.
That headache — officially diagnosed as “daily chronic headache” and “migraine without aura,” hasn’t gone away now for thirteen months. That’s how long my son has been out of school, and unable to participate in the extracurricular activities he loves. That's how long he's been confined to darkened rooms with ice packs on his forehead. Needless to say, we've seen several physicians and tried many medications and alternative therapies. Everyone who knows and loves my son has prayed and is still praying. But at the time of this writing, the headaches persist.
I share this story to explain the ambivalence with which I come to this week’s Gospel reading. Like many contemporary Christians, I struggle with the New Testament’s healing stories. I don’t distrust them, exactly. I don’t doubt that Jesus healed the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the leprous. But I don’t quite know what to do with the miracle stories, either. Should I read them as metaphors for spiritual healing and renewal? Should I take them literally, but only as unique 1st century proofs of Jesus's deity? Should I regard them as myths from a pre-scientific era? Or should I — as I was taught to do as a child — believe that miraculous healings continue to this day, and that God’s children have every right to pray for them, expect them, and proclaim them?
I don’t know. All I can say is that I struggle. I don’t want to leap to metaphor too quickly, when it’s clear in the Gospels that Jesus cared about the physical, embodied lives of everyone he met. But I also don’t want to hold out false hope to anyone — including my son. I suppose one easy "out" would be to say, “Well, healing happens when it’s God’s will.” Perhaps that caveat works for some people, but it doesn’t work for me. As far as I can tell, Jesus never said “no” to anyone who asked him for physical healing. And frankly, I can’t stomach the possibility that Jesus wants my son to be in life-altering pain right now, for some divine purpose God has yet to reveal.
Neither does it help me to differentiate between “healing” and “cure.” When Jesus “healed” a lame man, the man literally stood up and walked. When he healed a bleeding woman, her bleeding ceased. In the Gospel stories, spiritual healing and physical cure happen simultaneously, so it doesn’t feel honest to separate them for my 21st century intellectual comfort.
All that said, this week’s Gospel reading features a healing story — one of the more famous ones in the New Testament. A blind man named Bartimaeus sits by the roadside, begging for alms. As Jesus and a large crowd pass by, the man begins to shout: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those standing nearby try to shut up him, but their reprimands only prompt Bartimaeus to shout louder. Finally, Jesus stops, stands still, and asks the same people who had just scolded the blind man to lead him forward. They obey. “Take heart; get up, he is calling you,” they tell Bartimaeus, who throws off his cloak and springs up. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks when the blind man approaches. “My teacher, let me see again,” Bartimaeus replies. “Go; your faith has made you well,” Jesus responds. “Immediately,” the Gospel writer tells us, Bartimaeus regains his sight, and follows Jesus “on the way.”
It’s a beautiful and layered story. I love many aspects of it, and I’m happy to share those here. I love that Jesus heals the spiritual blindness of the surrounding crowd. Though Bartimaeus is the literally blind man in the story, it’s the crowd — the blind man’s friends, his peers, his culture, his society — that renders him unseen. To their seeing eyes, the blind man by the roadside is invisible, and therefore expendable. His shouts and cries are not worthy of attention. His suffering is not important enough to warrant tenderness, patience, or even curiosity. When the invisible one dares to speak out, the only efficient and reasonable thing to do is to shut him up. The only priority is to restore order, re-establish the social hierarchy, and maintain a status quo that keeps the privileged comfortable.
But that comfort is precisely what Jesus renders impossible. Once the crowd sees Bartimaeus, they can’t unsee him. Once Jesus opens their eyes to his full humanity, they must respond with compassion: “Take heart; get up; he is calling you.” I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect that Jesus heals the crowd first so that they can, in turn, participate in Bartimaeus’s healing. What the blind man needs is not physical sight alone; he also needs visibility and validation within his community. In this double miracle story, Jesus grants him both.
I love that Bartimaeus — in his blindness — sees what the crowd does not. He calls Jesus “Son of David,” a title Jesus doesn’t make public during his ministry. The Gospels make clear that Jesus’s true identity remains hidden from most people until after the Resurrection — even his disciples struggle to understand who and what their Teacher really is. It might be the case that most of Jesus’s followers are too busy seeing what they want to see — a magician, a political and military leader, a carpenter’s son, a wise man — to notice what the blind man — free of all such filters — discerns so quickly: Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of God.
We might say, then, that this is one of the rare and beautiful moments in the Gospels when Jesus himself is truly seen. Bartimaeus sees Jesus as wholly and purely as Jesus sees Bartimaeus; the gaze and the recognition in this story are mutual. I wonder if Jesus stops and stands still precisely because the blind man surprises and delights him with this visionary gift. “Teacher, I see you.”
I love that Bartimaeus “throws off his cloak” and follows Jesus “on the way.” A cloak is both a beggar’s covering and his livelihood. I imagine it’s a cloak he wraps around his shoulders every night for warmth and security. A cloak he spreads out on the ground every morning to collect coins from passersby. A cloak he folds again to gather up each day’s meager earnings at nightfall. I am in awe of the trust Bartimaeus has in Jesus by the end of this story — a trust deep enough to enable him to cast aside what’s most familiar and safe, in exchange for “a way” that is new, and full of uncertainty. In shedding his cloak, Bartimaeus sheds his identity. In setting out on “the way,” Bartimaeus becomes a disciple, a traveler, a pilgrim. He commits himself without looking back. He strains forward instead of clinging to history. He is, in the truest sense, born again.
Finally — and this for me is the most precious, painful aspect of the story right now — I love that Jesus asks Bartimaeus to articulate his heart’s desire. “What do you want me to do for you?” In one sense, it’s a bizarre question. Isn’t it obvious what Bartimaeus wants Jesus to do for him? He’s a blind beggar, for goodness’ sake! How hard can it be to figure out what he wants?
But Jesus asks, anyway. He doesn’t presume. He doesn’t reduce Bartimaeus to his blindness. Instead, he honors the fullness and complexity of a real human being who likely has many desires, many longings, and many needs. In asking the question, Jesus invites Bartimaeus into the honest self-reflection essential to growth and healing. What is in your heart? What do you long for? What do you imagine I desire for you? Where in your deepest desires might we find each other?
It is at once a lovely and a terrifying question. It calls for radical honesty. Radical vulnerability. Radical trust.
One of my deepest desires right now is for my son’s healing. I want his pain to end. I want whatever neurological condition is causing his migraines to go away forever. I want him to experience relief, joy, leisure, and fullness of life. As I said at the start of this essay, I don’t know what to do with the fact that Jesus sometimes heals “immediately” in the Gospel stories. I wish he would heal my son immediately. But for now, I know what to do with my desire. I cry it out to Jesus. I sit by the roadside, hear the crowds, and cry my longing into the air as loudly and insistently as I can. I do this because I believe Jesus wants me to. I do it because the question he asks is an essential one, and I need it hear it and answer it over and over again to keep my soul alive and kicking: “What do you want me to do for you?” “What do you want me to do for you?” "What do you want me to do for you?" In his compassion, Jesus will not stop asking. And in my need, I will not stop telling him.