Our mission is to clothe the hungry and feed the naked. — From “Funny Church Signs”
The story of one of my favorite bible characters, Bartimaeus (Mk 10:46-52), is being skipped for Reformation Sunday this year. That is sad indeed. Somehow, for no particular reason, in my minds eye, Bartimaeus sits on some sort of bridge when Jesus and Co. approach. Then the whole situation plays itself out: He calls for Jesus, he is told to shut up, Jesus calls him over, he leaves his coat behind and comes to Jesus, he is asked point blank: “What is it you seek,” he responds: “I want to see, Jesus grants that prayer, saying: “Go; your faith has made you well,” and he follows the throng of disciples and hangers on.
It is reported that people who have their sight restored by modern medicine after a life of being blind have a rough time at first. Their brains have no idea how to deal with the input that is now flooding it via the optic nerve. They have no concept of distance. They have no way of correlating the visual clues of texture on an object with their tactile experience. They have anxiety attacks similar to agoraphobia when taking in the vastness of the open sky. Distance and space are strange to them. I would suspect they might even wonder why the wind that they have felt all their life has no direct visible manifestation but can only be discerned by the effects of its passing.
It makes us admire infants who have to likewise program their little heads to do the same thing. We are made to do it by our nature and we all got it done fairly well. But, maybe this phenomenon, learning to see, learning to make sense of all the things your eye send into your brain, is why infants often seem to stare at the world with an expression of utter amazement and fascination.
What might it be like, I ask myself, to have your eyes opened for the first time and the first signal into your head is the face of Jesus? That is Bartimaeus’ story after all.
Connected to that, the story of all the disciples and all the authorities and bystanders in both, the 8-10th chapters of Mark and many places in John (cf. ch9) is one of blindness to Jesus’ nature and mission. When and how are their eyes opened? Bartimaeus knows as much about Jesus as does St. Peter. He calls him by the proper title: “Son of David,” just as Peter called him Son of the most high. When Peter does it, he is commended by Jesus, when Bartimaeus does it he is rebuked by the crowd. After Peter is commended he tries to instruct Jesus and he is rebuked, after Bartimaeus is rebuked he is shown mercy and is given eyes to see Jesus.
Blindness as a symbol to being oblivious to the reality of Jesus Christ and the Gospel are all around. Luther, as he commented on John 8:31-36, our texts for Reformation Sunday, noted that the Gospel is always popular. People hear it and immediately imagine themselves as bishops and popes of it. (He wrote this commentary at the tail end of the peasant revolt) They hear it and imagine themselves as lords, as people owed a fortune. They imagine it as the call to battle and glory. They are as yet blind. Having heard the word they have yet to ask: “Please, let me see.”
Without that prayer fascination with the work of Jesus ends the moment that following him is actually asked of us. Everyone is happy to impose the Law of God on their neighbor but having ones eyes opened to the truth of Jesus Christ demands that we first of all bow to the law ourselves for the sake of the neighbor. (Freedom of the Christian part 3)
Having our spiritual eyes opened reveals a landscape that our brains have to slowly make sense of. Luther, again commenting on John 8, would say: “Christ makes everyone a sinner.” What stark words. To be a Lutheran is to walk around with that truth about ourselves. Not an easy sight and not an easy thing to have our spirit get used to. It is equally true, Luther continues, that, having declared and exposed us all as sinners before a mighty God who in olden times has shown that sin goes
not unpunished, Christ also gives us life by bearing that very punishment on our behalf. We have a place in the kingdom of God in spite of ourselves by invitation of the Son of God and that invitation is written in his blood at Calvary. He, the Son, set us free and we are free indeed and part of the household from now on. (Jn 8:35-36)
When Luther said: “We are all beggars,” maybe we need to understand that all things belong to the house we live in but not to us, including ourselves. We are rich because God is rich, not because we are. We are priests and bishops and popes because we can dare ask the head of the house, who has made us his and gave us a place there, to have mercy on the world for the sake of the one who set us free is the great high priest who has made the sacrifice that assures that mercy. (Heb 4 & 8)
I wonder if blind people get scared crossing bridges. They cannot see the hight or the terror below after all. I see Bartimaeus on a bridge for some reason as I meditate on Mark 10. It seems fitting somehow. He meets Jesus at the very moment that Jesus and his disciples cross from the comforts of seeing healing and demons put to flight to the stark reality of what the Gospel requires of Christ. Past Jericho and Bethany there is testing, tribulation, trial, and cross. Who wants that? Sinners whose eyes are opened, that’s who. For without there is only sin and an angry God. With them in sight we are all babes in a state of amazement and fascination.