The four Gospels all tell the story of Jesus in different ways: for Matthew Jesus is primarily a teacher, extending and enriching the Law; for Mark he is an apocalyptic figure, ushering in a new age (just don’t tell anyone about it); for Luke he is a prophet with deep concern for the marginalized; and for John he is the very incarnation of God’s Wisdom and Glory. But despite the different ways they frame Jesus’ ministry, the Gospels are unanimous in presenting Jesus as a healer. In particular, the stories they tell revolve around Jesus healing faculties that don’t work as they should: eyes that can’t see, legs that can’t walk, minds that can’t reason. Today’s Gospel reading, from the end of Mark 10, offers us a classic healing tale, the blind man Bartimaeus. And so I thought it would take the opportunity to this reflection today to continue my current series on different biblical images for sin and salvation, focusing on the image of blindness and sight, and the motif of healing more generally.
To start off, let’s look at today’s story in closer detail.
Jesus is leaving Jericho, the last major stop on his journey to Jerusalem — indeed, the passage that directly follows this is the Triumphal Entry, so this represents the last ‘normal’ moments of Jesus’ life. Leaving the city, a blind beggar named Bartimaeus calls out to him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowds try to quiet the man, either out of simple annoyance or out of embarrassment that he’s addressing Jesus using messianic language. But Jesus summons Bartimaeus and ask him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He answers, “Let me see again, teacher!” Jesus sends him on his way telling him that his faith has given him his sight.
So what does this story tell us about how blindness and sight relate to sin and salvation?
First, it’s important to note that in Jesus’ day, blindness was understood to be not only a physical problem, but a spiritual and therefore social problem as well. Spiritually, there was a prevailing belief in the culture of the time that disability was a punishment for sin. In John 9, the major point of Jesus’ healing of a blind man is to dispel this superstition and the stigma associated with it. Added to the limitations blindness created for how people made their living in that culture — mostly farming or work in the trades — this stigma meant that those living with blindness or other disabilities were often cut off from society itself and unable to be full participants in community life. This means that none of Jesus’ healings were ever ‘just’ physical; there was always a social and spiritual side to them. Healing touches the whole person.
This makes healing a wonderful metaphor for salvation. And it also allows for this metaphor to be commonly deployed in the Scriptures with ironic effect that makes us ask ourselves what it really means to ‘see’ and ‘hear’. A famous example of this is from Isaiah 6, where upon commissioning Isaiah with a message of judgment, God says to the people of Judah:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’ (6.9f)
This ironic use of the image of blindness is in full force in today’s Gospel. Of all the crowd who sees Jesus leaving Jericho, it is only the blind man who sees him for who he really is. This reading is reinforced if we zoom out a bit and look at the reading in the context of this section of Mark. In Mark, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem begins and ends with the giving of sight to blind men, beginning with the man at Bethsaida (8.22ff) and ending here with Bartimaeus. In between, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection three times and all three times his followers fail to understand what he’s saying and who he is. Who is it who is truly blind?
One of Jesus’ famous sayings is ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen’. We might add ‘Let anyone with eyes to see notice’. It’s a common theme for him that having working faculties is of no use to us if we aren’t able to understand what they’re telling us and act accordingly. Greek has a very handy word that refers to this faculty of understanding what we perceive: the nous (pronounced like ‘noose’). Nous is almost always translated with ‘mind’ and that’s probably as close as we can get, but we have to remember that it refers to a capacity of perceiving and discerning, not thinking. When Jesus talks about blindness and sight, he’s talking about spiritual blindness and sight too. In the Gospels, those who can see are all too often the ones who are truly blind, and those who are blind are the ones who can see.
Thought of in this way, blindness is an apt metaphor for sin as a kind of natural dysfunction. Sin means that our natural faculties aren’t working properly, causing us to look without seeing and hear without listening, and misinterpreting what we do see and hear. Like the metaphor of bondage we looked at the other day, it emphasizes that this is simply the state of being in the world as we know it, rather than a result of our personal choices. But it’s a profound brokenness nonetheless. The flip side of this metaphor is that salvation looks like healing that dysfunction, allowing us to see, hear, and understand things as they are. This is the heart of repentance, coming to see ourselves and the world around us as they are, with God’s eyes and God’s heart. This is what Paul was getting at in Romans 12.2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Before I end this post, it’s important to address a pretty large elephant in this room, namely the fact that this metaphor is unquestionably ableist in its assumptions. So let’s be clear, physical disability is not a sinful condition. Like Jesus, even as we use this metaphor (and it’s such a deep part of our language, it’s almost impossible not to!), we need to ensure we don’t compound problems for people living with disability. Like Jesus, we must eliminate stigma, and even more, work to eliminate the barriers those with impaired vision, hearing, speech, and mobility face in being full participants in community life. After all, Jesus didn’t heal people to show off his power, but to restore them to the full, whole, and healed relationships in community. We must not lose sight (see what I mean by how hard it is not to use this metaphor!) of that purpose.
But that said, as a metaphor, the image of blindness and sight (or deafness and hearing) is a powerful one. It reminds us that the ways of this world — its cultures, its systems and structures — make it hard for us to see what is really happening around us. God’s healing grace can open our eyes and unstop our ears and unmask the Principalities and Powers that keep us ignorant and apathetic, and which stoke conflict instead of make peace.
May God grant us all eyes to see and ears to hear. Amen.