Do you have certain lines of the bible that stick with you? I don’t necessarily mean a favorite passage or even one that you like but one that sticks in your mind, repeating itself whenever you least expect it, sort of like an earworm? I do, and in today’s Gospel we come across one of them.
It’s when Jesus asks Bartimaeus- “What do you want me to do for you?”. I guess it’s my earworm in part because the question is so incongruous. I mean, Bartimaeus is blind. It is literally the only thing we know about him when the story begins. He is a blind beggar along the road to Jericho. Yet Jesus asks “What do you want?” Is it not rather obvious- he wants his sight. And that is exactly what Bartimaeus asks for- “I want to see”.
Well, I would say to Bartimaeus, as I say to you this morning, be careful of what you ask for from Jesus. You just might get far more than you expect.
For what did Bartimaeus see once his eyes were opened?
Probably the first thing he saw, after Jesus, was the crowd. He saw the faces of the people he had been living with and around for years, as he sat there begging. Bartimaeus was no fool- he knew that some of those around him were the ones who a few seconds ago had rebuked him, telling him to be quiet. He saw perhaps the faces of some who were his friends, who had sat begging beside him all those years.
When we meet someone, our natural, instinctual reaction is to look at his or her eyes. Our eyes are the most human of all our features and the most telling. What did Bartimaeus see when he looked into the eyes of the people in the crowd? We can imagine a mixture of emotions- surprise in some, suspicion in others, suspicion in the eyes of those who are alert to trickery and fake news. Fear perhaps in those who fear change. In others, he saw jealously- jealousy and maybe even hatred of this random beggar who had his wish granted while so many others continued to suffer. Aside from Jesus, did Bartimaeus see love in anyone’s eyes?
Did Bartimaeus also look around and see the other poor around him? The beggars and homeless who lived in the city right alongside the rich and powerful? In Jesus’ time, Jericho was a winter resort for rulers and rich people. The rich and powerful had the benefit of years of practice in making the poor, the homeless and the refugee invisible. Unfortunate Bartimaeus had no such filter- so in asking Jesus for sight he had no choice but to see the poor and needy as well as the rich and powerful, to see those who have plenty to eat in the midst of the starving. It must have struck him like a kick in the gut to have his eyes opened to see the injustice of the poor living at the feet of the rich.
Did poor Bartimaeus look down and see himself? Imagine the shock of seeing yourself for the first time. Seeing your hands, your legs, your own face in a pool of water. All of us, no matter how blind, form a mental image of ourselves. How many of us actually look at ourselves in a mirror and see our true selves? Now imagine the jolt that Bartimaeus had seeing himself for the first time as he truly is.
And so I say to you, my fellow Christian, be careful what you ask Jesus for. You just might get more than you expect. If you ask for the light of faith, if you ask for his wisdom in your life, if you pray for his will to be done, he will grant it to you.
You may just find yourself suddenly seeing the poor around you. The physical poor, those who are hungry and suffer in the cold. The immense multitude of the spiritually poor who long for the word of truth. You may find yourself suddenly aware of those Isaiah spoke of in our first reading : “the immense throng of the blind and the lame in our midst”. You might unexpectedly see how few of us look upon each other with love and how many with jealously, fear and even hatred. Through the grace of Jesus, you might suddenly recognize, like a kick in the gut, the injustice of a world where the invisible poor live at the feet of the rich and powerful.
You may even see yourself for the first time. You may see yourself stripped of pretense, of false pride, of equivocations and all the stories you tell about yourself and the stories that others tell you about yourself. Stories of glory and shame, stories of holiness and guilt, stories of self-worth and worthlessness.
And this last will be the greatest grace of all. It is the grace that Bartimaeus received, the gift that far exceeded the gift of his physical sight. For in that instant, when Jesus looked at Bartimaeus and said “Go on your way, your faith has saved you” Bartimaeus saw himself as Jesus saw him. Not as a broken creature, not as a person saddled with guilt and burdened with all the stories he or others told him about himself. He saw himself loved by Jesus, loved by his creator and savior, loved not because of or despite of the way he had lived his life but simply because he is a child of God. Loved beyond all pretense or pride. Love that makes holy all pain, all fear, our grief over our fellow creatures and their hunger.
And that is where the story ends, for today at least. Bartimaeus received his sight and followed Jesus on the way. Be careful of what you ask Jesus for. Like our brother Bartimaeus, you just might get far more than you expect.