Our Savior ‘Brought Life to Light,’ and Gave Life and Light to Bartimaeus
SCRIPTURES & ART: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
As we continue the consecutive reading of Mark’s Gospel, we encounter today the healing of the blind man, Bartimaeus. By this point in the Church year, given that we have been reading Mark since last December, the characteristics of a “Markan” miracle should be apparent: Jesus heals because he touches the whole man, body and soul; Jesus’s miracles reflect his identity and mission as Redeemer who restores man to God’s design of man fully alive; Jesus’s miracles presuppose and confirm faith.
All those elements are present in this pericope (Gospel extract). We already read a Gospel passage on healing of a blind man back on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, but that passage was from John and remains the optional passage for Lenten scrutinies. If we had followed the entire Markan lectionary instead, we’ve had heard of many healings and many invitations to “come and see,” but this is the first healing of a blind man in our Markan cycle.
The healing of the blind is important in the Gospels because it is a Messianic sign. The Messiah will “open the eyes of the blind” (Isaiah 42:7). He will release prisoners (including those imprisoned in sin) “from darkness” (Isaiah 61:1). Jesus and his Spirit opens man’s eyes to the truth about sin and righteousness and justice (John 16:8), because our world has grown used to calling evil good and good evil.
Jericho is one of the oldest cities in the world, on the northern shore of the Dead Sea, about 100 miles northeast of Jerusalem. Joshua entered the Holy Land in its vicinity, and the Battle of Jericho was critical to the Israelites taking possession of the land.
Bartimaeus is a beggar. That should not surprise us, as for most of human history the lot of the disabled has been bad. It is interesting, however, that Mark’s blind man has a proper name — many others who receive their sight in the Gospels from Jesus are generically “blind men.” At its very minimum, “Bartimaeus” means “son of Timaeus.” Some Biblical scholars want to go further and say the root of “Timaeus” is “clean” or “noble,” while others note it can also be read as “unclean.” We won’t go into those questions.
Bartimaeus has apparently heard of Jesus and pins his hopes to him. What can he lose? He asks for mercy (“pity”). The crowds try to silence him, since he’s “only” a troublesome blind beggar. Again, with nothing to lose, he calls out all the more, gaining Jesus’ attention. Interestingly, Bartimaeus uses one of the less-used titles for Jesus: “Son of David.”
Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy of Jesus as “son of David, son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). (Mark opens his Gospel about Jesus, “the Son of God” — 1:1). Those titles point to Jesus’ Jewish and Messianic roots: Samuel had promised David that the Messiah would come from his line (2 Samuel 7:13-16). Bartimaeus’ call already reflects something of his faith and Jesus’ identity.
Now that Jesus summons him, the crowd takes up a theme not uncommon in the Gospels: don’t be afraid! “Take courage, get up! Jesus is calling you.” That verse (10:49) should be the motto of every Christian.
The miracle itself is relatively terse. Jesus asks Bartimaeus what he wants. He says he wants to see. Jesus heals him by his faith and he follows Jesus.
This week’s artistic illustration of the Gospel is a two-fer, largely because I disagree with one of the paintings. The first is from the workshop of Fernando Gallego, a 15th-century artist working in Spain. The second is by a 19th-century Czech artist, Václav Mánes.
The Gallego work is from a series that formed an altarpiece in Ciudad Rodrigo, Spain, and is now on exhibit in the University of Arizona Art Museum in Tucson. It is entitled “The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus.”
Gallego produced this panel as part of a larger altarpiece for the cathedral in Ciudad Rodrigo, southwest of Salamanca on the route to Portugal. After its movement in the early 19th century, the work apparently fell into disrepair and was eventually acquired, via Britain, by the Kress Collection, which gave its 26 panels to the University of Arizona.
The artist is described as “Hispano-Flemish,” because there are elements of medieval Spanish and of Netherlandish style in his work. (Remember that the Low Countries belonged at that time to Spain).
The kneeling blind man is the center of focus of this work: five main figures (including Jesus on the left) are arrayed on either side of him. An additional two figures are in the back right corner, but the perspective is arranged to diminish their impact on the scene.
If Bartimaeus was a beggar, he would have to have collected a lot of charity to keep him in the vesture Gallego dresses him. (He apparently also kept his cloak in Gallego’s work).
Why I disagree with the title of the painting are the two bands, in Latin, coming from the mouths of Jesus and a disciple. They function something like the balloons in cartoon strips, giving us dialogue. The disciple is asking, “Rabbi, who sinned?” Jesus answers: “that the works of God be made manifest.”
The dialogue is from John 9:2-3, the healing of a blind man in Jerusalem. The Johannine text is connected to Jerusalem because Jesus sends the blind man to wash in the Pool of Siloam, which is in that city; there is no such reference in the Bartimaeus story (and it would be a long trip to Jerusalem). The Markan account of Bartimaeus’s healing mentions no gestures on Jesus’s part, only words; the Johannine healing of the man born blind speaks of Jesus smearing the man’s eyes with mud (9:6), not apparent on Gallego’s work.
Perhaps Gallego’s work was intended as a conflation of various healings of the blind in the Gospels: I would need more research on this work. From what we can see, however, the depiction on the altar piece, the title notwithstanding, does not tally with Mark’s account of the event.
That’s why I offer readers a second choice this week: Mánes’s healing of the blind man.
Mánes, like many artists of that period, spent time living and working in Rome. His work is considered to be on the border of classicism, which was ending, and Romanticism, that was ascendant in Central Europe.
Is this blind man Bartimaeus or one of the other anonymous blind men healed in the Gospel? It might be hard to say as, again, we have a gesture (Jesus’ touch) not mentioned in Mark’s account. On the other hand, the walls of an ancient city on the left (which are symmetrical to the hills on the right) could be Jericho. In any event, the center of action is the encounter with Jesus, the impending touch for which the blind man is (and has been) searching.
The reach of the blind man for Jesus and Jesus for the blind man is not just the element of this miracle but the essence of every encounter between Jesus and the human person. The angles of the figures — those on the left towards the right, those on the right towards the left, serve to refocus our attention on that central act of encounter. Like the Gospel account, there seems to be some support in this painting from the “crowd” (or at least the two people closest to the blind man). And, unlike Gallego’s blind man, this man’s clothing is more that of a beggar.