William Blake, Christ Giving Sight to Bartimaeus (c. 1800)
A few months ago, I was visiting with a friend of mine who had recently gone through a personal tragedy. In a clumsy attempt to be comforting, I said something like, “I know this must be so hard for you.” My friend – knowing that I had not experienced anything like her misfortune in my own life – looked at me kindly and said, “No, you don’t know, not really.”
Have you ever had something similar happen to you? It’s a fundamental problem of the human condition – that ultimately each of us live this life only in our own skin. As much as we might like to imagine that we understand and relate to each other, there is always a certain level of experience of another that we don’t know.
The blind man in the Gospel today is a good example. We don’t know what it’s like to be blind from birth – and we certainly don’t know what it’s like to suffer the implications of being blind in ancient times, of being forced to become a beggar, sitting by the roadside. The blindness that he suffered from was a physical condition – but as with so many things in the Bible, it’s also symbolic. He’s not just unable to see with his eyes – he’s blind in a spiritual sense. He’s lost, alone, on the fringes of society, ignored by others, even invisible to them.
But the blind man is not a nobody; he has a name – as we hear, Bartimaeus. If you think about it, it’s sort of amazing that his name has been passed down to us through the centuries. Jesus cured many people in his ministry, and he met many more, but Bartimaeus is one of the few names that is recorded by the Evangelists and passed down to us. Why him? Well, maybe because despite his handicapped condition, physical and spiritual, Bartimaeus was not helpless. He cried out to someone, someone who was passing by, someone whom he believed had the power to save him.
Unlike the crowd, unlike even the disciples, Jesus takes notice of Bartimaeus. He calls him, and he asks him a simple question, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus knows of course that the man is blind – but he asks him nonetheless. He wants him to recognize his problem, to admit how he needs help. And with what must have been great emotion, Bartimaeus responds, “I want to see.”
You know, we’re not that different from Bartimaeus. We may not be blind physically, but when we’re overburdened, overworked, distracted by the allurements of what always fails to satisfy – we become lost, confused, isolated. Whether it’s the effects of a troubled relationship, or a personal struggle against sin, or a questioning about where God is in our lives – all of us at some point experience a kind of desperation that only we truly know the depths of.
What should we do when that happens? Should we close in ourselves – because others can’t really understand what we’re going through, do we shut them out? Or do we deny that there’s anything wrong, and just try to blindly continue on our lost way? Far better that we should be like Bartimaeus, and turn to the one who can help us see again. This isn't easy – it means admitting that we need help, recognizing our problem and facing it. But when we turn to Jesus, we don’t do these things alone.
We can turn to Jesus at any time – at the beginning of our day, mindful of what we have to do; at the end of our day, reflecting on where God has been present to us; or any time that we’re struggling or tempted or depressed or lost or just can’t even. Maybe the most important way that we turn to him though is doing this – being present at Mass each and every Sunday.
Even as a priest, I know sometimes that Mass seems very routine – we sing the same songs, say the same prayers, even stand and sit and kneel at the same time. But think about it in a different way. We come together, all of us burdened by our individual problems and concerns and issues. But together, we also recognize, like Bartimaeus, that we’re not perfect – and calling out to Jesus, we are called by him. We renew our faith in him, and then he changes us – he makes us better, he helps us see again with eyes of faith, he restores us by feeding us with his very Self. And then, changed, bettered, restored, we go forth, just as Jesus sent Bartimaeus forth – no longer isolated or alone but as confident disciples who follow Jesus on the way.
My friends, as I learned from my friend, it’s a reality of our human condition that we can’t always understand the experience that others are going through, just as they can’t understand ours. But God does understand – and in Jesus he wants to heal us of our dysfunction, order our chaos, and break through our isolation. “What do you want me to do for you?,” Jesus says to each of us today. How would you respond to that? Let’s turn away from blindness and helplessness; let’s humbly name what our problem is before God and confidently claim the answer that being in relationship with Jesus provides. And then, like Bartimaeus, let’s get up, let’s go forth, and joyfully follow in the way that he leads us.