On Blessing the Blind Beggar
What does Bartimaeus do when he’s healed? He follows Jesus along the way — the way that leads to death and glory.
The story of the blind beggar who cries out to Jesus as he is leaving Jericho to begin his last journey to Jerusalem — where betrayal and death await him — has much to commend to readers of Holy Scripture, especially these days when blindness of a very different sort has become dangerously endemic. So, what does he want and why must he cry out for it?
There are three accounts of the episode given to us by the synoptic authors, in each of which the sheer pathosand authenticity of his appeal comes movingly across. Only in the Gospel of St. Mark, however, is he given a name, Bartimaeus, which means “son of Timaeus.” Here is someone plainly driven by a desire grown so desperate as to displace every other desire. And to be sure, he makes no secret of what he wants, calling out repeatedly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Not even the rebukes of the crowd succeed in silencing him. Not until Jesus himself instructs the disciples to go and fetch him will he cease his cries. “And throwing off his mantle,” we are told, “he sprang up and came to Jesus.
And Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you? And the blind man said to him, ‘Master, let me receive my sight.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go your way; your faith has made you well.’ And immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way (10:46-52).
The exchange is eloquent and prophetic, prompting one to ask: What is the most striking thing about this man, indeed, the defining feature of his life, his being? Is it not the obvious fact that he clearly knows what is wrong with him, that it is not an affliction he wishes to disguise, and that he knows exactly the One to whom he must go in order to put it right? How refreshing to run into someone so perfectly straightforward about his predicament! That here is someone who sees most clearly that he cannot see. Unlike so many who remain willfully blinded by their refusal to see. And more to the point, that he knows precisely what must be done to overcome it. Only that he cannot himself do it, that he requires the intervention of Another. Why else do we call him a blind beggar? These are things he knows with an absolute, adamantine certainty.
How wonderfully his weaknesses endear him to us! In fact, not to be moved when seeing signs of brokenness in our brother amounts to a brokenness of the soul far greater than any infirmity of the body. Jesus, too, is moved to pity at the sight of the blind Bartimaeus, which turns out to be the whole point of the story. After all, it is not to anyone else that Bartimaeus turns in his desperation. Neither the neighbor next door, nor the rabbi down the street, and certainly not the all-powerful Roman state, can reach right down to the very bottom of his brokenness to pry him loose. Nothing mortal can make him well. Only Jesus may give him the healing that brings wholeness. And on seeing the faith of Bartimaeus, he is moved to do so. How impressed Jesus must be by this blind beggar, who entrusts himself in the most childlike manner into his hands, whose healing he longs to receive.
But isn’t this the essence of every entreaty? Why else would the beggar extend his arms? If he were certain, entirely sure that God would not answer his cry, had no intention of ever answering this deepest desire of the heart, why would he bother, why would any blind beggar bother? Better the closed fist than an open hand if the guy on the other side is hostile to the idea of helping. Luigi Giussani was surely right, therefore, when, in The Religious Sense, he reminded us that “expectation is the very structure of our nature, it is the essence of our soul.” It is not, moreover, anything we may calculate in advance, having determined the exact amount of what we think we are owed. We are not dealing with issues of justice here, but of mercy. We are not to presume, like some poor Prufrock, measuring out his life with so many discrete coffee spoons, that in the end we’ll get the little we somehow feel entitled to have. Or like that ridiculous Ghost in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, loudly insisting on his rights, and never “asking for anybody’s bleeding charity,” only to be brought up short by the Bright Spirt telling him to go ahead and do it. “At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity,” because in the order of grace, which is the gateway to God and his Kingdom, “everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.”
Again, Giussani has the sense of it when he tells us flat out that “the promise is at the origin, from the very origin of our creation. He who has made man has also made his as ‘promise.’ Structurally man waits; structurally he is a beggar; structurally life is promise.”
And when the blessed healing takes place, lifting the scales from his eyes, what does Bartimaeus do? Why, he follows Jesus along the way, the way that leads to death and glory. And never counting the cost because Jesus, having already picked up the tab, will ensure the happy outcome of the journey.