Many of us, after we’ve been kicking around in the Christian faith for a while, have got a little list, of sayings we just wish Jesus had not said. Or, if he were going to say them, we wish he’d included an indestructible set of footnotes, a bibliography, and a youtube video for the body language, so that there would be no confusion at all as to what he actually meant. “Your faith has made you well.” is one of those sayings for me.
I served as a chaplain in both an “acute, chronic, and tertiary care” hospital and a mental health facility here in Boston. One of the hardest parts of the work was when faithful Christians, of many years standing, would recount their own struggles as they quoted Bartimaeus’ story to themselves, and as they had his story quoted to them. They recounted their frustration as they told themselves, and as their friends told them, to just pray more, or just pray different, or just have more faith. They would wonder why their faith wasn’t enough, why God did not heal their cancer or their blindness or their bipolar condition. They felt that they were at fault, that they were to blame, that their condition continued. Their spiritual distress was as difficult for them as their physical or mental challenge. And so the particular story of Bartimaeus’ particular healing, taken out of context and universalized, became a stick with which to beat those who already suffered.
I do not think it is the purpose of this story to cause more suffering. So, what is the context and the specificity that might give another interpretation of this faith healing?
The Gospel of Mark has been called a Gospel of conflict. The conflicts escalate, from Jesus’ preaching and manifestation of the kingdom of God in the local settings of Galilee, to his increasing conflicts with the religious authorities and the imperial overlords that end in Jerusalem. Jesus’ teaching and acts of power are presented in the Gospel as a renewal of the people of Israel. They address the social, political, economic, and even physiological aspects of life, for a people and land subjugated by the collusion of religious authority with empire. Along the way there is also increasing conflict between Jesus and his disciples. As our readings in Mark over the last few weeks have shown, the disciples continually fail to understand what Jesus teaches and what he does. Their discomfort and quarrels with both Jesus and each other increases as Jesus leads them to Jerusalem. They refuse to accept his teaching that he must be rejected, suffer, and die before he is raised again. The story of Bartimaeus comes at the end of the part of the Gospel in which the disciples’ conflicts with Jesus are made plain. It brackets this section, along with the earlier healing of another blind man in chapter 8, vss. 22-26. Most Markan scholars agree that here the author of the Gospel contrasts the restoration of the two men’s sight with the continued “blindness” of the disciples to who Jesus is and what he does.
Bartimaeus himself is not just blind; he is a beggar. In the culture of the time, both physical impairment and poverty were often considered to be signs of God’s disfavor. But Bartimaeus, though physically blind, has insight: he cries out to Jesus as “Son of David”, the one who was widely expected to restore the fortunes of Israel as a king. Bartimaeus is also not cowed by his
marginal status: He shouts out to Jesus; the people around him “sternly” tell him to be quiet; he shouts even louder. Jesus, for his part, stops in his tracks, and calls for Bartimaeus to come to him. Now the people around him are all encouragement. So Bartimaeus, blind as he is, throws off what impediments he can, springs up, and comes to Jesus. Jesus then does not make things up – he asks Bartimaeus what he wants from him. Bartimaeus, again showing insight, names Jesus as his teacher and asks that Jesus let him see again. Jesus then tells Bartimaeus that his faith has made him well. Immediately Bartimaeus regains his physical sight and follows Jesus along the way. Bartimaeus, the physically blind beggar, sees with spiritual insight; whereas the physically sighted disciples remain spiritually blind. Bartimaeus, again in contrast to the disciples, allows himself to be taught by Jesus, so that he exchanges his old suppression for the new kingdom of God present in the midst of the people. He also is taught by Jesus so that he follows Jesus along the way; not just the way of faith but also immediately on the way to Jerusalem, where Jesus will end, not as an earthly king, but as a physically broken and executed political criminal. If Bartimaeus’ faith has healed his physical sight, the healing of his physical sight heals his faith also, as he is given a new way of understanding his life, and recognizes Jesus for who he truly is and what his mercy truly means.
Sharon V. Betcher is a theologian and a disability activist. At the age of thirty-seven, ordained, married with a child, teaching in university, she tripped, she fell, and she injured her leg. Her leg became infected, and, to save her life, it was amputated. In her book Spirit and the Politics of Disablement, she points out that with the removal of her leg, she will never be “whole” in the sense of “normal”, ever again in this life. She describes the challenges brought by her literal “fall” from cultural and religious ideals of “normalcy” and physical perfection , the challenges that are harder to bear than her physical disability itself. And she describes the challenges that stories like the Bartimaeus story posed and still pose for her and for many other people of faith, those who like St. Paul, receive “no” as the answer to prayers for the thorn in the flesh to be removed.
Betcher notes that the healing stories were told as witness to the visitation of the kingdom of God, over against the occupation of the Roman Empire, with its elitist rule, foreign occupation, heavy taxation for war and empire building, and the dislocations it brought to people and to the land. Reading or hearing these stories, early believers were challenged to believe in wonder; they could fall in love with the world again, as she writes they “could again take joy in a life from which pain cannot be cut away.” “Miracles”, Betcher writes, “get below or outside our infrastructure of tacit knowledge and may invigorate ways of thinking … may serve to break persons out of old patterns of thought.” Jesus’ compassion – as it is free from pity, disgust, avoidance, or the assumption that he already knows what Bartimaeus would want from him – Jesus’ compassion encourages Bartimaeus to chart a different course, encourages him to increase his faith, that faith healed and justified in Jesus’ acceptance of him, as he was, and now as he is Jesus’ follower. Jesus’ compassion upends the normal order of things, in which the blind to not see, and are so often not seen.
Paul Farmer, the founder of Partners in Health, writes in his book Pathologies of Power: “To
explain suffering, one must embed individual biography in the larger matrix of culture, history, and political economy … as social forces … structure … risk for most forms of extreme suffering. … Social forces ranging from poverty to racism become embodied as individual experience … translated into personal distress and disease.” In our culture the quest for physical perfection is also one of those social forces. In our fascination with extreme makeovers of all kinds, we forget the economic, political, and cultural forces at work behind the scenes.
Dominique Moceanu, at fourteen, was the youngest member of the 1996 United States Women’s Olympics Gymnastics Team, the only American women’s team to take gold at the Olympics. In her riveting memoir Off Balance, she describes the behind-the-scenes cost of her physical perfection and agility: years of emotional and physical abuse from her trainers, family discord and deceit, and physical injury and pain. Behind the Olympic gold and the national glory was a young girl in great personal distress. Even though her faith in her dream granted her physical perfection, for a long time Dominique was not well. Ironically, or perhaps miraculously, it is the discovery of a sister, born without legs, given away at birth, who also became a competitive athlete and performer, it is this sister who is of great support to Dominique in her own healing.
So, where does all this leave us, here this morning, many of us bearing thorns in our flesh, none of us getting any younger, and all of us living in a world increasingly toxic to healthy living?
At the very least, we may join with Philo of Alexandria, who wrote, “Be kind; for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” We may also affirm that whatever we carry, it is not the whole of who we are. As a woman who had become blind as a result of diabetes complications once told me: “I’m just blind. I still love to hike, to sing, to play the piano, to get together with friends and family. I still have my faith, even more since God has brought me through so much. I feel very well.”
So, Faith. Healing. Sometimes our faith does heal us. Sometimes our faith is not the issue, in our human condition. And sometimes it’s just that the answer is no. But always, Faith. Healing. the healing of our faith, is possible. It may not come easy; it is a great challenge for us, especially in our culture of denial and suppression, to learn to live with pain and loss, of any kind. We do experience the diseases of empire, and of the corporate empire building of globalization: war, pollution, economic disparity, consumerism, perfectionism; seemingly impersonal forces that become very personal, often to our great distress.
Yet God wills to meet us where we are on the road, God wills to meet us exactly as we are on the road, to help us chart a different course, to find a new community of love and inclusion, and to increase our faith as we follow along the way. As Sharon Betcher invites us to consider, we are offered a life of neither tragedy nor triumph, but of trust: trust that expects wonder, and the expected and unexpected presence of God, even, as Mother Teresa of Calcutta notes, in “distressing diguises; a life of trust that allows us to fall in love with the world again; a life of trust in which, even in a world in which pain cannot be cut away, we can still take joy. Thanks be to God. Amen.
The Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell