The blind beggar who represents every one of us

People of the Book – Bartimaeus

The classic hymn Amazing Grace, written in the 1700s by reformed slave trader and self-professed wretch John Newton, contains the memorable verse: “I once was lost, but now am found/Was blind, but now I see.” While the reference to blindness is a quotation (my musician/composer roommate would say “sampling”) taken from the man born with that condition in Jn 9:1-41, it of course more generally refers to any number of spiritual and physical maladies which Jesus heals in the Gospels. The passage in John is in all likelihood connected to the earlier one in Mark 10, that of blind Bartimaeus.

In that account, we read the story of Jesus’ encounter with a blind beggar on the roadside near the city of Jericho. Mark translates for his readers the fact that the poor man named Bartimaeus is literally bar-Timaeus (the “son of Timaeus” – a construct we see elsewhere, as in Jesus referring to Peter as Simon bar-Jonah, “Simon, son of Jonah.”) This is not an insignificant, for educated readers of the period would in all likelihood have been familiar with the classic text of Plato called Timaeus, where the Greek philosopher compares the proper working of the eye and vision to the cognitive functions of the soul. Some, but not all, biblical scholars see an intended allusion to the much older work in the Markan text here.

Regardless, this son of Timaeus keeps crying out to the passing entourage, “Son of David, have pity on me.” Those surrounding Jesus tell this ragged annoyance to have some proper decorum and quiet down, but this only makes the man longing to see all the more persistent.

Many of the scriptural references to agricultural life or a culture where slavery was rampant are understandably lost on contemporary Americans. This passage, however, is much more approachable than much of the talk of wine skins and wicked servants that appears elsewhere.

Almost every one of us has had that uncomforting experience of an encounter with crushing poverty or a severely disabled person or a terminally ill cancer patient or a despised outcast, prisoner, or immigrant – those people from whom society tells us (implicitly usually) to avert our eyes and without whom we would be better off. But as Elie Weisel has said in reference to the more intense concretization of such a mentality in Nazi Germany: “We must always take sides. In every case silence helps the oppressor, never the oppressed,” “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference,” and “No human person is illegal.”

Jesus pays attention to this marginalized figure and instructs his disciples to call the man. They say to him “Tharsei” which is translated as “take courage,” “trust,” “be of good comfort” or “cheer up.” (The Spanish ¡Animate! perhaps better captures the enlivening spiritual power of encouragement which the term frequently reflects in the New Testament – Mt 9:2, 9:22, 14:27, Mk 6:50, Jn 16:33, Acts 23:11). In response, Bartimaeus casts aside his cloak and allows himself to be led to the Lord. Even the meager possessions he has clung to for so long are left behind when he is finally given the opportunity to have his eyes opened, both figuratively and literally.

Jesus asks him what he seeks and Bartimaeus unhesitatingly responds, “Rabbi, I want to see.” Of course, he means primarily to have physical sight, but also much more than this. Do we not all echo his request these many centuries later? Does not every person want more than anything else to perceive with clarity the paths he must walk in life, the reason suffering exists or the ultimate meaning of his or her existence? Whether in Armani suits or tattered rags, we all stumble along the dusty roads of our dizzying world seeking some sort of vision, an organizing principle which allows us to see meaning, either discovered as inherently present as Christians believe, or fabricated as other philosophies assert. And even though Jesus tells Bartimaeus, “Go your way. Your faith has healed you,” we must admit that we are not in every sense so lucky. For, as St. Paul puts it, we must continue “to walk by faith and not by sight.” But, this is not something to lament. Christians take with utter seriousness both Christ’s words to Thomas, “You believe because you have seen, blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” and those of St. Peter: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and though you do not see him now, you have faith in him.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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