Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’
The blind man [Bartimaeus] said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again’
Sometimes the world is not very helpful to the differently-abled, especially the blind. For example in that story from Mark’s Gospel I read a moment ago. Here’s how it all goes down. Jesus has spent the last four or five days walking with his little band of merry men from Galilee, way up in northern Palestine, to Jerusalem, in southern Judea; it’s about 120 miles. Jesus’ friends all think he’s going to Jerusalem on an obligatory pilgrimage to celebrate Passover in the Holy City, but Jesus knows that he himself is the Passover Lamb and that he is going to Jerusalem to die.
Walking south, they finally get to Jericho, about 11 miles northeast of Jerusalem, and spend the night there, then head out in the morning on the last leg of the journey. Huge crowds everywhere. Everyone going to Jerusalem from the north for Passover spends the night in Jericho on the way; it’s sort of a ritual.
And so, of course, the lame, the deaf, the halt, the blind, the leprous, and the just plain impoverished, sit there lining the road out of Jericho hoping for a handout because after all these crowds leaving Jericho just now are all religious pilgrims and they will be in a generous mood before meeting God in Jerusalem.
So the supplicants all sit there on the sidewalk with their tin cups held out and their hand-lettered cardboard signs telling their pitiful stories, or playing bad renditions of Amazing Grace on violins or guitars, with their instrument cases yawning open at their feet to catch quarters, and Blind Bartimaeus is there too, with his coat spread out on the ground in front of him to catch the coins tossed at him by the religious pilgrims.
If you have any Jewish friends, you know that the name Bartimaeus—Bar Timaeus—means ‘Son of Timaeus,’ and if you took a philosophy class in high school—probably most of you took welding at Votech—but if you took a philosophy class in high school, you know that Timaeus is the title of one of Plato’s dialogues, and you might even know that the name Timaeus means ‘valued’ or ‘precious’— Bartimaeus doesn’t look so valued or precious, but that’s what the name means. And if you’re a really astute student of the Bible, you might notice that Bartimaeus is one of those rare miracle recipients who actually gets a name in the Gospels.
You might have noticed that Jesus performs 37 miracles in the Gospels, and that we know the names of only three of those beneficiaries; Bartimaeus is one of them, and if you can tell me the other two named miracle recipients in the Gospels without looking it up on Google, I will take you to dinner at the restaurant of your choice; it just has to be in North America.
You know why Bartimaeus gets a name? Among all those anonymous miracle recipients Jesus was kind to in his ministry, how does Mark know Bartimaeus’ name? You know what it has to be? Bartimaeus must be a member of Mark’s Church, don’t you think? Every Sunday morning when they read Mark’s lean little Jesus biography at worship, Bartimaeus, is sitting out there in the congregation. This is Mark’s shout-out to his buddy Bartimaeus.
Well, so much for that game of Bible Trivia. The point is that Bartimaeus is blind as a brick, so he’s sitting there with all the other supplicants on that Jericho sidewalk waiting for a handout from these religious pilgrims headed to Jerusalem for Passover.
When Bartimaeus somehow discovers that Jesus of Nazareth is among the religious pilgrims exiting Jericho in the direction of Jerusalem—Jesus who by this time has become famous for making lame beggars walk and blind men see and schizophrenics to stop acting like crazy people—when Bartimaeus learns Jesus is approaching, he leaps to his feet and starts shouting “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
The crowd tells Blind Bartimaeus to pipe down. Mark tells us that “many sternly ordered him to be quiet.” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet.
Sometimes the world is not very helpful to the differently-abled, especially the blind. “Hey, World,” shout the blind, “have mercy on me, will ya?” I need a talking cross-walk signal outside my apartment. I need Braille signs in public buildings. I need a computer that talks to me. I need a job!”
But the world just says, “Would ya chill out? Would you shut up! Why can’t you accept your limitation and be happy? It’s not so bad.” “Many sternly order them to be quiet!”
The world isn’t always helpful to the differently-abled, especially the blind. A woman goes into her local bank to cash a check. She does this every week, but this day the teller is new and doesn’t know her, so the teller asks for some identification. The woman tells the dog to sit and leans her white cane against the desk and fishes through her purse for a plastic card. The only thing she can find is her Braille Institute Membership Card; it’s emblazoned with huge letters: “Legally Blind.” The teller has never seen an ID card like this, and doesn’t like it. “Don’t you have a driver’s license?” she asks. Sometimes the world is not very helpful to the differently-abled, especially the blind.
Lloyd Burlingame was a set designer on Broadway and taught design at NYU until he went blind. He lost his sight gradually; it took ten years. One day near the day of his total darkness, Lloyd was waiting to cross Seventh Avenue in Manhattan and someone standing next to him at the crosswalk told him it was safe to cross, and then laughed when Lloyd stepped into the intersection and was almost hit by a taxi. Sometimes the world is not very helpful to the differently-abled, especially the blind.
Lloyd was so humiliated and so scared by that experience he pretty much stayed in his apartment for six months, until a friend told him about the seeing-eye-dog school in Morristown, New Jersey. A yellow lab named Hickory was one of the few dogs unflappable enough to handle the sirens, horns, crowded sidewalks, and bike messengers of Manhattan.
Hickory is a good dog, except for that time Lloyd took Hickory to Carnegie Hall, and Hickory started howling the instant Renee Fleming opened her mouth. A couple of years ago, Lloyd wrote a book: Two Seeing Eye Dogs Take Manhattan: A Love Story.
The world is not always helpful to the differently-abled, especially the blind. “Many sternly ordered Bartimaeus to be quiet!” But this just makes Blind Bartimaeus mad as hell, and he shouts all the louder, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
This finally gets Jesus’ attention, and he calls Bartimaeus over to him. Bartimaeus gropes his way haltingly to where Jesus is and when he gets there, Jesus asks, “What is it you want me to do for you?” Which is really an odd question, don’t you think?
There’s no such thing as a stupid question, they say, but this one comes pretty close. Don’t you think Blind Bartimaeus might have thought to himself—not said out loud, but thought to himself—“What is it I want you to do for me? Oh, not much really. Can I have your autograph? I’ve already got King Herod’s. What do I want you to do for me? Rabbi, I want to see!”
And instantly, he does, and Mark tells us that Bartimaeus decides to follow Jesus. But not for long.
Because this is it. This is The End. This is The End of Part I of Mark’s Gospel. This happens in Jericho, 11 miles from Jerusalem. This is the last scene of the last act in Jesus’ ministry proper. The next day he will borrow a donkey and ride in triumph like a king through the Holy City, where they will laud his honor and shout his glory: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
I love the story of Blind Bartimaeus. There’s not much to it. It’s a little flat. It lacks some of the color and drama of other miracle stories. It’s only 157 words, or about a quarter-page in a collection of short stories, but somehow it just seems fitting that Jesus will end his ministry in just this way, with an act of mercy that will change a broken life forever.
“What do you want me to do for you?” It seems a silly question, at first hearing. But he’s been asking it of us ever since. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asks. And with a white cane in one hand and the harness of a guide dog in the other, behind our Mr. Magoo Coke-bottle glasses, we say, “Rabbi, let me see again. Give me eyes to see the royalty in the beggar I step past to get to the office every day, or in the shoeshine boy who blacks my boots.
“Give me eyes to see the multiplicity of benedictions that spangle the landscape of my life like a dust of stars across the night sky.
“Give me eyes to see that as the year creeps to its close at Thanksgiving, the trees go to sleep in flashes of fire and flame and fury, reds and rusts and rubies that no one ever deserves, not ever. Give me eyes to see it.”
“What do you want me to do for you?” he asks us. “Save us from ourselves,” we answer. “Save us from danger and from malice and from every evil way.”
The next day, he enters The Holy City, and those acclamations of “Hosanna!” morph quickly into spasms of virulence. “Kill him in the name of our God,” they will shout, just as the pious in Paris shouted “Allahu Akbar!” at the Bataclan Friday night.
It is stunning what the world will do when it encounters absolute innocence—isn’t it?—with a cross of wood and nails of iron, or with a basketball in a Chicago alley, or an AK-47 in a crowded theater.
Most of them were 20-something. They were at the zenith of life’s joyfulness. They were with friends or lovers or brothers or sisters or sons and daughters. What could be finer than a soccer game or a glass of wine or a concert in Paris on a Friday evening in November? It’s the happiness, the cheer, the joie de vivre itself that the extremists seem to hate most, isn’t it?
William Butler Yeats’ brutal poem sprang instantly to my mind:
…Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity….
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
But then I stopped myself, and I scolded myself. This is not the end of the story, I reminded myself. You can drown the ceremony of innocence, but it always revives. You can crucify the Christ, but you cannot keep him dead. Bleeding the life from his body just sets him free to colonize the whole earth with his unkillable goodness.
He is afoot in the streets of Paris even now.
Can you see him at Sacre Coeur on Montmarte, the Mountain of Martyrs, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, beating always for love of the world?
Can you see him on the bank of the beautiful river at Notre Dame, Our Lady holding her infant so proudly as Madonna, or cradling his corpse so sadly as Pieta?
Can you see him as an infant with his mother in Leonardo’s painting at the Louvre?
Can you hear him in the organ at the church that doesn’t look like a church, La Madeleine, where Saint-Saëns played his Organ Symphony and Dubois his Seven Last Words, and Fauré his immortal Requiem?
He has gotten into everything, and his towering goodness will always defeat titanic malice, because this is God’s world, and God’s son is afoot among earth’s cities.