“What Do We See?”
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
October 24, 2021
What do we see? This morning, if we had been with the disciples and Jesus, we would have seen a road, since we were on our way out of Jericho. And we would have seen all the people who were still trying to get close to Jesus. If we were residents of Jericho, we might have seen, out of the corner of our eye, the beggar who often sat by the roadside, hoping that travelers would give him some coins, or some food.
But do we really see him? Or is he just part of the landscape, part of the dry earth and the time-sculpted rocks? Some would have registered that this was Bartimaeus, (the son of Timaeus)—in other words, someone they knew. Some only saw him as the blind beggar, identifying him by his most obvious trait—blindness, in their world a sign of sinfulness, a sign of shame.
And this is where the story tilts. All of a sudden it is as if we too need to approach the story from a blind perspective. For it becomes not what do we see, but what do we hear. Bartimaeus HEARS that it is Jesus of Nazareth who is passing by. And Bartimaeus seizes the opportunity to be heard, to be seen the only way he knows. He pipes up, shouting over the crowds, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus, Son of David. This doesn’t sound like an unusual title to us. We, who are schooled in the genealogy of Jesus; we, who have heard the cries of Palm Sunday (which has yet to happen in Mark’s story) of “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” But up to this point in Mark’s gospel, the gospel with the Messianic secret, we have never heard anyone else call Jesus the Son of David. How did Bartimaeus know? How did he “see” who Jesus really was?
This shouting, and maybe the provocative assertion of a Messianic title, certainly catches people’s attention—and “many sternly ordered him to be quiet.” Don’t make a fuss. Don’t bother the prophet as he leaves town. Stop being a nuisance. Here are some coins. But Bartimaeus is having none of it. He shouts even louder, “Son of David (leaving out the Jesus part this time), Son of David, have mercy on me!”
And all of a sudden the movement of Mark, the gospel story that pushes us quickly, quickly, towards the cross, that almost runs from one “immediately” to the next, stops. We are told, “Jesus stands still.” And like a cartoon where everyone bumps into the person in front of them—I imagine the whole caravan stopping as well. “What’s happening?” I imagine them asking their neighbor. And, as Bartimaeus continues to lift up his plea, everyone hears Bartimaeus now, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus could have gone to Bartimaeus, but he doesn’t. He says to those around him, “Call him here” which they do by telling the blind beggar at the side of the road “Take heart, get up, he is calling you.” And Bartimaeus throws off his covering (what I imagine is a ratty cloak, a symbol of his being a beggar). He springs up, energetic in his need for mercy. And comes to Jesus.
Jesus asks “What do you want me to do for you?” Isn’t it obvious? But we’ll come back to this later. Bartimaeus responds, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus doesn’t put his hands on his eyes, or spit into his palms. What he does is say, “Go, your faith has made you well.” And Bartimaeus regains his sight and follows Jesus.
What does this story intend for us to see? I will share a few of my insights for this day and time.
The first thing I notice is that those of us who are sighted should take care that we actually use the sense we have. As I asked at the front of this sermon, What did the disciples see? Almost no one saw Bartimaeus for who he was; he became his disability. I just recently watched the PBS show American Masters on Helen Keller.
And they began with that iconic scene portrayed in The Miracle Worker (the play and movie) where Helen (who is blind and deaf) connects the symbols Anne Sullivan is signing into her palm with the wet stuff pouring out of the pump and says, “Water.”
For many of us, that is most of what we know about Helen. We permanently freeze her in that childlike, almost feral, state (and in fact, when a statue of Helen Keller was given by Alabama to the National Statuary Hall Collection housed in the US Capitol in 2009, she is depicted in that scene.) But that was only the beginning for Helen. She insisted on attending a college that had sighted students [and became the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree (from Harvard/Radcliff no less)]. She was an author (writing 14 books); she was a disability rights advocate—traveling to 35 countries around the world; she was a supporter of the NAACP and an original member of the ACLU. As I watched the program I kept thinking, “why didn’t I know this?” The question for me became, “Do we really see Helen Keller?” Today’s story encourages us to see people with God’s eyes, to see all of who they are.
How we see others is so important, but maybe more important still is how we treat others. Did you notice what Jesus did? He stood still. He called to Bartimaeus—because maybe he saw that Bartimaeus might not be able to see, but that didn’t do anything to the rest of his body. He had people tell Bartimaeus to come to him. And Bartimaeus did so willingly—throwing off that ratty cloak, jumping off that dusty ground, making his way through the parted crowd, to stand before Jesus.
And then Jesus asked “What do you want me to do for you?” How often do we take another’s independence, their options, away from them by doing something we think is helping. But maybe that isn’t what they want. This isn’t just true for those who are differently-abled, it is true for those who we serve in other capacities as well—true in caring for our elders, true in offering assistance to those in poverty, true (for the white community) in trying to right racial wrongs.
Acting as if those “in need” are somehow below us, less able to know what they need, or even able to help in providing. As an Australian Aboriginal activist said in 1970, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” (Seasons of the Spirit, 10/24/21)
Jesus asked “What do you want me to do for you?” He wasn’t making Bartimaeus’ mind up for him. And maybe there might have been something else that Bartimaeus wanted—but no matter, it was his choice. “My teacher, let me see again.” I’m fascinated by Bartimaeus and his use of language. To get Jesus’ attention he calls out “Son of David.” To show that he understands the full extent of the Messiah’s powers he pleads for salvation, “Have mercy on me.” But face to face with Jesus, maybe putting out his hands to touch Jesus’ face, to be able to imprint on his mind the flesh and blood of God with us, he switches to the more familiar, the more intimate, Teacher (rabboni) and even more personal than that, “my teacher.”
We don’t know if Bartimaeus wormed his way to the sidelines of crowds around Jesus before this. We hear no mention of him. He wasn’t seen (or noticed) but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t there. What we can say is that Jesus is beloved of Bartimaeus.
“Let me see again.” And Jesus proclaims “Your faith has made you well” underscoring Bartimaeus’ participation in his own healing. He is an actor in his own life. And although Jesus tells him to go, he stays, he follows, he becomes a disciple—no longer sitting alone by the roadside, but now part of the community, on the journey with Jesus. Today’s scripture encourages us to follow Jesus’ lead, and act not as saviors of others, but as participants, together, in helping to save us all, in the creation of a world of Shalom. What a fitting message for this day, October 24th, the 76th anniversary of the creation of the United Nations.
The last image I want to lift up comes from the Psalm of the day (126), and is so fitting both to this gospel story and our own time.
It is the line “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” It is a message of hope for those who are weeping, for those who are facing what seems like impossible times. The hope is that even though we weep, we recognize that we have what we need right here—we, like Bartimaeus, bear the seed for sowing. And the promise is that there shall come a time when the weeping will cease, and we shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying our sheaves (carrying the fruit of our labor, carrying the harvest of our planting that precious seed).
Yes, Hold onto hope. Let us remember that we are the ones who bear the seeds. We are the ones appointed to plant and to tend and to nurture and, in time, to reap. I never thought I would be using a quote from a member of the Cheney family in my sermon, but Liz Cheney on the floor of the House of Representatives this week implored her colleagues to vote to hold Steve Bannon in contempt. She said, "I [ask] each one of you to step back from the brink. I urge you to do what you know is right, to think of the long arc of history. We are told that it bends towards justice. But it does so only because of the actions of men and women in positions of public trust …” (10/19/21) I would amend that slightly to say that it does so only because men and women of faith act alongside of God.
Yes, we bear the seeds that must be planted, and helped to grow. We must also be willing to recognize that arc of justice, that harvest we longingly wait for, may not come quick enough in our eyes. Are we willing to see the world with God’s eyes, willing to participate in the march toward wholeness, willing to do our part in bearing seeds and being good stewards of all the good gifts God has given to us—even if others will see the harvest?
It is like the adage about planting trees (which has competing people to give credit to)—I’m going to use the wording of a French theologian Hyacinthe Loyson (who might have seen something like it in a London article which described it as an Indian proverb, and hence considered the attribution “anonymous”)
“[Blessed is one who plants trees], under whose shade he shall never sit, he loves them for themselves, and for the sake of his children and his children’s children, who are to sit beneath the shadow of their spreading boughs.”
An African proverb also warns not to expect to shorten the time needed “There are no shortcuts to the top of a palm tree.”
We have to have that hope as we weep, as we wail, as we call out to God for deliverance. We have to be ready to respond to the call to come to Jesus. We can become aware that we already carry some of what we need, some of what the world needs, right now. We can commit ourselves to finding partners who want to plant seed, and tend what has been planted. We are encouraged to have patience, trusting that if we leave it in God’s hand, there will be a harvest—maybe not on our timetable.
This morning, What do we see? What do we see as we look at one another? What do we see as we look at our church? What do we see as we look at our community? What do we see as we look at our world? “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us.” Give us faith to make us well.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.