My grandfather had some favorite sayings that he would repeat over and over to me when I was small. Every time he saw an ant crawling across a sidewalk, he would wave me over, bend down, tilt his head toward me, remove his pipe from his mouth, and say “See, there’s an ant. The ones with the big noses are the uncles.” I didn’t get it until years later. Here’s another of his favorite sayings: Whenever he had some new revelation, he would say, “I see said the blind man, as he picked up his hammer and saw.” I didn’t get that one, either, for a long time.
Not getting it means not seeing in a metaphorical Jesus’ disciples didn’t get what Jesus was trying to teach them, despite the long journey and the Sermon on the Mount and the healings and everything else that they experienced. As we saw last week in the verses that precede the healing of blind Bartimaeus, the disciples were still fighting with one another over who was the greatest. They were unable to see who Jesus was and they were far from comprehending his message.
Bartimaeus, in Mark 10, was sitting by the side of the road because that is where blind people were expected to be. Blindness defined and determined their place in a society where sensitivity to persons with special needs was not a priority. There was no option for Bartimaeus other than to hold out a cup and receive the charity of passersby.
Physical blindness was considered a curse then that was somehow well-deserved. Today we understand blindness to be an unfortunate occurrence over which one usually has no control whatsoever. In Bartimaeus’ day, the common wisdom said that blindness was an indictment. When Jesus met another blind man along the way, his disciples naturally asked him: Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” In that instance, Jesus challenged the common wisdom and pointedly refused to assign blame. In the gospel stories, Jesus always seems ahead of the curve in terms of compassion and basic good sense.
Because Bartimaeus was pushed to the margin as a result of his handicap – literally, to the edge of the road – he was in the right place to be close by as Jesus passed through town. Bartimaeus couldn’t see the ragged band of travelers, led by Jesus, but he could sense that Jesus was near. He heard the commotion in the street, and he believed that Jesus could help him. So he shouted out, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” He waited for a response and it came quickly. The problem was that it wasn’t Jesus who responded at first, but the crowd surrounding him who didn’t think Bartimaeus deserved Jesus’ attention. They told him in not very polite terms to be quiet.
Finally Jesus, too, spoke. He stopped in the road, he stood still, and he invited Bartimaeus to come close. The crowd had tried to block the way but Jesus opened the way for Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus said to Jesus, “I want to see again.” In those moments, at the edge of the road, Bartimaeus received the healing touch of Jesus. His sight was restored, and in gratitude he became one of Jesus’ devoted followers.
The crowd really didn’t see Bartimaeus. They were aware of his presence by the road, and they heard his shout, but they certainly didn’t see him as a human being or as a person worthy of their attention or Jesus’ compassion. In that sense, it could be said that their blindness was more profound than the blindness of Bartimaues.
I wonder who we routinely do not see. For me, if I’m really honest with myself, it probably includes those who are at the edge of the road in our own community. Many of the women and men of our homeless population stand at street corners with their signs, pleading for donations. I literally see them, of course, but I often feel overwhelmed by my inability to give money to each one and my uncertainty about whether that is the best way to help, and so I find myself avoiding eye contact and wonder if in doing so I am dehumanizing them or communicating the same lack of regard as those who told Bartimaeus to keep quiet. It’s easier to talk with and affirm and hopefully help those who come to the Community Table for a meal, but how can I really see others out in the community or on the corner for who they are as persons of great value?
In the last two weeks or so, at least six primarily African American churches were set fire near Ferguson, Missouri. It wasn’t until the fifth church was torched that the media began to take notice. Small faith communities of color are not on the radar of many. One of the experiences commonly noted by African American persons is that they often feel invisible. That’s not surprising, since our society at large is often blind to the racism that continues to manifest itself through all manner of injustice that keeps people of color at the side of the road and urges them to stay quiet.
This week I was part of an online discussion about the intersection of preaching and politics and the social issues of our day. While I agreed with those stating that partisan politics is rightfully out of bounds for the pulpit, I was confounded by those who insisted that any mention of social ills is a betrayal of our mandate to preach the gospel. In an attempt to challenge that, I mentioned gun violence, believing that everyone would agree, regardless of politics, that the number of recent mass killings and incidents of random gun violence was a problem that we need to discuss in our churches. In return, I was told that gun violence is a made-up problem and is the result of hyperbole by the media and liberal activists. I think we have the ability as humans to be blind to whatever we don’t want to acknowledge or whatever is not consistent with our belief system. I tend to think that is true of those who are more socially conservative than me, but I need to ask what I might not be seeing due to my own beliefs and commitments.
Have you ever had the experience on a multi-lane highway of deciding it’s time to switch lanes… and then checking the rearview and side mirrors and signaling with your blinker… and then moving smoothly toward the other lane… and then getting blasted by the horn of someone who is suddenly right there!? You zip back into your lane and watch as the people in the other car glare and make impolite hand gestures as they pass you by. What happened? You had a “blind spot” that prevented you from seeing the other car.
Everyone has blind spots, the areas of our own lives that we just can’t or would rather not see clearly. A worthy goal is to become increasingly tuned in to the ways we avoid or otherwise manage not to see truth about ourselves. Blind spots hurt us, but they often hurt those around us even more. I’m convinced that the areas where we lack self-awareness contribute significantly to our inability to see others. If I am not aware of the ways in which I harbor aspects of prejudice, for example, I will perpetuate bias and never fully become an ally for those who experience discrimination.
We are a church that cares deeply about social justice. Enthusiasm for social action needs to be carefully matched with the internal effort that helps us to identify what motivates us in that work and also helps us to develop more fully as compassionate persons. One of the things that attracted me to this church was the balance of contemplative spirituality and social action. That is a pretty unusual combination for a church, and it is something for us to both be proud of and to develop further.
Buddhism also stresses the importance of self-enlightenment which develops through confronting one’s self and one’s own experiences honestly and is strengthened through meditation. That kind of internal work is difficult but is liberating.
Bartimaeus wasn’t afraid to acknowledge his blindness. He brought it to Jesus’ attention, and in fact he shouted until Jesus heard him. He said, “I want to see again.” His faith that something better was possible in his future was honored. He began to see with renewed eyes. May we not be afraid to acknowledge our limitations to ourselves and others – not to berate ourselves for not seeing what others see, but to grow in our awareness, our insight, and our compassion, so that we will be able to show love and mercy to others, just as Jesus did for Bartimaeus.