In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we see Jesus healing a blind beggar, “Bartimae’us… the son of Timae’us,” who “was sitting by the roadside” as Jesus was leaving the town of Jericho. As is almost always the case, this story may be understood on different levels.
Firstly, and most superficially, it is what it seems: an historical account of Jesus healing a blind man. Jesus visited the town of Jericho; and as he was leaving, he healed Bartimaeus. It may sound kind of bland when put that way, but there are important inferences to be drawn even from this most basic level of interpretation.
Jesus can heal us. If we are sick or suffering or afflicted, Jesus has the power to heal us. So if we want to be healed, we should look for our healing from him; we should ask him to heal us.
But we might further ask WHY it is that Jesus has this ability to heal. And the answer to that is rooted in who he is. Jesus is the eternal Word of God who has become man. Those of you who attended our class this past Tuesday might remember Fr. Robert Barron discussing the power that resides, as it were, in words. Fr. Barron pointed out that if I walked up to you at a party and said, “You’re under arrest,” you would probably think it was some kind of joke. It wouldn’t really mean anything. But if a uniformed policeman came up to you at a party and said, “You’re under arrest,” you would take it a lot more seriously – because the policeman’s act of speaking these words brings about their meaning. His speaking the words “You’re under arrest,” brings about the state of your actually BEING under arrest.
And so it is with God – only more so. We see this from the very beginning of the Bible, in the account of the creation of the world:
“And God SAID, ‘Let there be light’; and there WAS light.”
“And God SAID, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’…. And it was so.”
“And God SAID… ‘Let the dry land appear.’ And it was so.”
Etc. God speaks, and what he speaks comes about. And Jesus IS this Word of God, the definitive Word of God, the Word that expresses God’s very self and is inseparable from God’s very self. So Jesus has the power to heal, which is, as it were, a subset of God’s power to bring about anything whatsoever by his word. Jesus’ saying to the dead man, “Come forth!” brings about the dead man’s coming forth.
And hence we may, and we OUGHT, to look to Jesus for healing and for deliverance. We should ask him to help us when we find ourselves in straightened circumstances. But as important as it is to ask for his help, it is just as important to ask that he may, by his word, bring our wills into conformity with his own divine will. This was something that Jesus himself had to do – he had to bring his human will into conformity to his divine will, and the process was a painful one for him. While sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemene, Jesus prayed, “Father, not what I will; but what thou wilt.” This is a process that we all must undergo, in Christ, if we wish to enter into life.
But just as today’s Gospel lesson reveals something about Jesus’ identity, through its relation of his power to heal, it also casts some other important facets of the spiritual life into sharp relief. Notice, for example, that even though Bartimaeus recognizes that Jesus has the power to heal him, even though he rightly calls out, “Jesus, have mercy on me!” –others try to silence him. It says: “many rebuked him, telling him to be silent; but he cried out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’” (v. 48). One Church father said, “Many rebuke [Bartimaeus] that he may hold his peace, that is, sins and devils restrain the cry of the poor; and he cried the more, because when the battle waxes great, hands are to be lifted up with crying to the Rock of help, that is, Jesus of Nazareth,” (Pseudo-Jerome).
The world, the powers that be, the restive crowd – these will try to prevent us from calling out to Jesus for mercy. In a myriad of ways, through distraction, through ridicule, through open opposition, through the infection of spiritual lassitude, etc. Our job in such situations is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who alone can help us, and like Bartimaeus, to “cry out all the more” for Jesus to have mercy on us.
Notice also that Jesus hears Bartimaeus’ prayer, and that he calls Bartimaeus THROUGH THE AGENCY OF OTHERS. The passage says: “Jesus stopped and said [to his servants], ‘Call him.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; rise, he is calling you,’” (v. 49). This is often the way in the spiritual life. Jesus calls to us through mediators. This happens when we are drawn closer to God through the action, the example, the teaching, or the prayers of other Christians – whether we know them, or just read about them; and whether they are living or dead. The saints of God, and his angels too, sometimes whisper to us, “Take heart; rise, he is calling you.” And we do well to condition our spirit to be able to hear their summons.
When Bartimaeus is told that Jesus has called him, the passage says that “throwing off his mantle he sprang up and came to Jesus,” (v. 50). The great Church father, Origen of Alexandria, said that the mantle which Bartimaeus throws off represents “the veil of blindness and poverty, with which he was surrounded…” Similarly, the Venerable Bede says that the mantle represents “the bands of the world,” which encumber us, and which we must cast off in order, like Bartimaeus, to “spring up” and “come to Jesus.” What does this mean? It means we must renounce the world the flesh and the devil. We have to forsake, and for sake again, and continually forsake, those things that hinder our progress toward God. There are many such hindrances, and a catalogue of them will be different for each Christian. But they can be habits, attitudes, relationships, addictions, resentments, commitments, associations, compulsions, money, power, status, or a desire for these things, etc. etc. etc. The mantle we must cast away is ANYTHING WHATSOEVER that keeps us from drawing closer to the Lord, that prevents our life from being conformed to his will. And this is why regular sacramental confession is so important – because it requires us to take this reality seriously, to search our lives for the things that keep us from the Lord, and really to renounce them in the presence of a witness.
Notice what Jesus asks Bartimaeus: “Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’” (v. 51). That may strike us as a peculiar question to ask a blind beggar crying out for help. But there is an important spiritual lesson here too. Jesus invites us to clarify our desire, to get serious. “What do you REALLY want?” In the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus similarly asks the lame man lying by the pool of Bethzatha, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5.6) – because sometimes we prefer our infirmities, maybe because we do not want the responsibility that comes with being healed, or maybe because we feel that our infirmity entitles us to special consideration. If you’re no longer blind, you no longer have an excuse to sit on the side of the road, begging. This can be true for us when we nurse unforgiveness, when someone has hurt us and we refuse to forgive the perpetrator, preferring instead to cherish our woundedness. In such circumstances, which are really quite common, we do not really want to be healed. There is a terrific, and frightening, depiction of this in CS Lewis’ “The Great Divorce,” where we encounter the soul of a man who is kept out of heaven because he keeps demanding his rights. He can’t let go of this notion, even when one of the Blessed explains to him that no one in heaven has gotten what he deserved, and that is the whole point. We get something infinitely better than what we deserve, because God’s goodness and mercy and healing will overwhelm our sins and our wounds without a contest. God wishes to grant us this enormous acquittal, but we can’t reach out and grasp it if our hands are full of unforgiveness – if we’re clinging to our comfortable infirmities. We have to let go.
Finally notice that Bartimaeus, who had already thrown off his mantle and run to Jesus, is indeed willing to let go. “[T]he blind man said to [Jesus], ‘Master, let me receive my sight.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go your way; your faith has made you well,’” (vv. 51-52). Bartimaeus asks for illumination. St. Bede says, “the blind man looks down upon every gift, except light, because whatever a blind man may possess, without light he cannot see what he possesses.” Here too is an important spiritual lesson. We can spend a lot of time asking God to give us what amounts to useless junk. But, like Bartimaeusm we should have the wisdom and the courage first to understand and admit our infirmity, to acknowledge that we life in darkness, and to ask Jesus for what is really valuable: enlightenment, which is not only a good in itself, but also enables us to see the true value in everything else, as the ancient prayer says, “to despise what is to be despised; and to love what is to be loved.”
Again, CS Lewis put it very well. He said, “I believe [the Gospel] as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” May it be so for us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.