‘Who Sinned?’ Those Who Can’t See, or Those Who Won’t See?

Too many of us see only what we want to see, and say only what others want us to say.

Carl Bloch, “Healing of the Blind Man,” 1871
Carl Bloch, “Healing of the Blind Man,” 1871 (photo: Public Domain)

Last Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 10:46-52) speaks of Jesus restoring sight to the blind Bartimaeus. There’s two points about that Gospel that deserve further comment. I’ll call them “stifling” and “selective sight.”

First,”stifling”: As Jesus is leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus starts calling out to him. “Son of David, have pity on me!” The first reaction of people around him is to “rebuke” him and “tell him to be silent.” Bottom line: they want him to shut up.

Blind Bartimaeus was not likely a pretty sight. He almost certainly lived on what we call “the margins.” Like our society, a beggar making a nuisance of himself generally elicits feelings of passing him by as quickly as one can or getting him out of the way. Unlike our society, which is grossly confused about the connection between rights and mental health and has basically subcontracted large parts of care for the latter to the street, Jesus’ contemporaries don’t politely ignore bothersome Bartimaeus. They tell him to shut up.

Apart from being marginal because he was poor and sick, Bartimaeus was also probably sidelined in ancient Israel because of assumed moral faults. Bartimaeus is a handicapped person. He’s blind. As we learn from Jesus’ cure of the blind man at the Pool of Siloam (John 9:1-41), the mainstream thinking of Jesus’ day was that suffering and handicap were the consequence of sin. “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” ask even the Apostles.

Given that a clearer vision of the afterlife does not develop in Judaism until around Jesus’ day, if God is just and this life is essentially all there is, justice needs to be played out here. So, “who sinned?”

But while those around Jesus are ready to have Bartimaeus shuffle off to Jericho, Bartimaeus is not so pliant nor Jesus so indifferent. He calls him and he is healed through their encounter and faith. (Bartimaeus, after all, had acknowledged Jesus as Messiah in some way by addressing him as “Son of David.” He didn’t say, “Jesus, have pity on me!” or even “Jesus, son of Joseph, have pity on me!” Acknowledging Jesus’ Davidic roots alludes to the promise that the Anointed One comes from that royal line.)

People around Bartimaeus told him to “stifle it.” Nobody was pleading his cause but himself, and he kept pleading. 

As noted, perhaps in Jesus’ day people were more overt and explicit in reminding the marginal of their place, to be seen and not heard. Our polite society would probably not do that even if, like Jesus’ society, it would not do anything else for Bartimaeus, either. 

But a priest friend, Father Matt Zuberbueler, made an interesting observation. Maybe people around us no longer try to suppress today’s Bartimaeuses ... but how often do we stifle ourselves?

Prayer should be an open and unreserved encounter between me and God. When Jesus called God Abba, “Dad,” and told us to call him “Our Father,” he gave us the model of what our prayer should be like. It should be an open conversation with a Father. Filial piety should, of course, filter the “I wannas” from what we really need, but that is a process of growth and maturity on our part, of “putting away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). But the fundamental truth remains: prayer is a trusting and open conversation with the Father.

Is that what our prayer is like? Or do we “stifle” it, engage in self-censorship, not speak up as readily and as persistently as Bartimaeus did?

Second, “selective sight.” As the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees (John 9:35-41) after the healing of the blind man at the Pool of Siloam shows, the question of “sight” cannot be limited just to the physical capacity to see. In contrast to the blind man, the Pharisees claimed no vision problems: they probably would have scored 20/20 vision at the local eye doctor. Their problem was not what their eyes showed them, but what they wanted (and didn’t want) to see.

The Jesuit spiritual exercise of the “examen,” normally a part of Night Prayer, asks to look at the preceding day not just from the viewpoint of an examination of conscience of the sins we may have committed, but as an assessment of everything that occurred — good, bad and seemingly indifferent — from the perspective of how God sees our lives. The examen therefore strives, asking for the grace of the Holy Spirit, to see ourselves truly as God sees us.

Without the grace of the Holy Spirit, that is impossible. We are often prone to see ourselves as we expect God sees us. We are inclined to call our vision of ourselves — often a selective and myopic one — “God’s” vision. 

We also err by surplus and defect. As for the former, not willing to reckon with the consequences of sin and our evil habits, we err by calling our self-aggrandizing vision “God’s.” As for the latter, not willing to recognize that as long as we are alive, we can change our ways (and God wants us to), we succumb to diabolical temptations of thinking we are unlovable. God doesn’t love that the sheep is lost, even less that he might stupidly persist in his errant ways, but God still loves that sheep. That’s why he keeps looking for him. That’s why the “Hound of Heaven” chases him “down the arches of the years.”

Neither vision — that we are better or worse than we are — is God’s. That is why it is a challenge to seek to see ourselves as God does rather than as some self-projection of ourselves on to God. The Delphic maxim “know thyself” was wise advice for a pagan, but devilishly hard without grace. We otherwise fall into selective sight, seeing what we want to see, projecting our preferences on to God.

It’s the same thing that St. Augustine warned about when he cautioned, “Be careful what you pray for; you just might get it.” How often do we ask God for guidance or help and, when he gives it, we walk away sad, like the rich young man, because that guidance or help demands us to give up something we don’t want to? That’s just another variant of selective sight. God will heal us, but not on our terms and not by canceling the Ten Commandments to do it.

So, in asking for sight — like Bartimaeus — be brave enough to take a look at what you see. Because receiving sight should remove the luxury of averting one’s eyes.

(Thanks to Father Matthew Zuberbueler for insights incorporated into this essay).