Last week, I spoke to the theme of the suffering of the innocent as found in Job, and also in many other Biblical passages, as it is such a universally shared concern. Today, the follow-up reading from Job summarized his response to the sovereignty of God, and gave a happy ending to the otherwise depressing book. We also read a story from Mark, in which Jesus restored the vision of a blind man. This made me think of how much the miracles of Jesus, in fact, have in common with the wisdom literature. Each miracle does deliver a happy ending to some person’s miserable existence, yet, in the process, raises many of the same, difficult questions with which the sapiential texts are concerned. What causes the suffering of these people in the first place - “their own sins, or the sins of their parents”? Why only some are healed, and what is different about them? How is the healing accomplished - is it by their faith, or by God’s grace alone? And what is the extent of Jesus’ knowledge of the power that he felt coursing through him whenever he touched or spoke to the people in need of healing? Do you have an awareness of this power working through each of us as well, “doing infinitely more than we can ask or imagine”?
Of course, each group of Jesus’ miracles also has its own symbolism, depending on what it affects. What associations, specifically, do the sight-giving miracles evoke in you? It’s worth noting that Jesus is not the only miracle worker mentioned in the Bible (cf. Elijah), and not even the only man who was presumed to have healed people miraculously in 1st century Palestine! Yet, in the scriptures, only Jesus is said to be giving the gift of sight to the blind. This has got to be significant on so many levels, from understanding the identity of Jesus to that of the effect of faith on our existence. Recall the language used in Isaiah to connect the metaphorical healing of the nation of Israel with the coming of her Messiah -- the king who many believed would one day be reinstated on the throne of Israel, even though her monarchical structure crumbled 400 years BC. Compare the notion of the Beatific Vision we may obtain in the afterlife with the OT idea that those who see God should die. And, think of all the times we equate the clarity of vision with having the knowledge, and the biblical theme of turning darkness to light (cf. Isaiah’s Christmas passage) and faith opening/enlightening the “eyes of our hearts” (Eph 1:18).
So, the gospels record 8 instances of vision-giving miracles -- more than that of any other type of healings. Of these, only the man in today’s passage had a name (Bartimaeus); some occurred in pairs (Mt 9:27-31, 20:29-34) and some in groups (Mt 15:29-31, 21:14); one person had additional afflictions of demonic possession and muteness (Mt 12:22-23); but only one person was explicitly congenitally blind. These healings took place in various locations: Bethsaida (Mk 8:22-26) and Jericho (Lk 18:35-43, and two men in Mk 10:46-52, one of which was Bartimaeus, that could refer to the same event). Jesus employed various methods of healing the eyes, including spitting or putting mud on them, and even working from heaven by proxy, when Saul (soon to be Paul) was healed by Ananias’ hands (Acts 9:3-18). Note that all but one of the gospel accounts of vision restoration (Jn 9:1-41) occur in the synoptic gospels, of which none ever record Jesus claiming to be God. These early gospels present Jesus as a human miracle worker, a rabbi offering the latest and best interpretation of Judaism, and an apocalyptic prophet announcing the imminent coming of God’s Kingdom (hence, the urgent need to engage in ethical training acclimatizing us to its standards). In them, Jesus performed his miracles, yet humbly said, “your faith has made you well”. Now, John’s gospel is a drastically different document, written a few decades after the others at the time when first Christians began to proclaim that Jesus was, in fact, God. So it is only in John’s account that Jesus giving sight to a man on a Sabbath prompts the whole discussion about whether or not he had the right to do so, and who sinned in order to have caused the man’s affliction and so, could Jesus effectively remove sin in order to remove blindness. So it is only here that Jesus actually claims to be the Son of God; only in John, Jesus ever says things such as, “for judgment I come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind.”
Notwithstanding the biblical variety of answers to the central questions of our lives, I think we should still continue to ponder them, and pray for continued enlightenment of the eyes of our hearts, while recognizing that our experiences, knowledge, and circumstances will also contribute to our understanding. In my case, two memories come to mind re. the restoration of sight. First is the time I had my own laser eye surgery. My sight was actually worse for a few days after it than it was before, and nothing could be done about it any longer, not even wearing glasses, because the problem was now with the swelling and not the general shape of my cornea. So I was, for a while, like the man who, first, saw “people like trees” (Mk 8:24). Second is the book “Blindness” by the Portuguese writer Jose Saramaga -- a disturbing story of a rapidly ensuing and then suddenly disappearing epidemic of blindness, that caused a near total societal breakdown: deplorable quarantine conditions, overwhelming filth, disease, and crime, lost relatives, and competition for food, resources -- and, power. Our current pandemic has not caused the world to spin out of control quite as much; but, we have, at times, stopped “seeing” each other and the world as we used to. Yet, we have also seen many things in a new light; so, like my vision, temporarily made worse and left without the previously available solution, maybe there is something to be said about our initially blurred and now gradually renewed sense of vision, collective and individual.
Regardless of how Jesus SEES himself, simply look at what he does: 1) he “sees” the men before they see him; 2) he encourages his followers to act compassionately, as opposed to worrying whether the person was at fault for causing his affliction; and 3) he touches these men, whom others simply pass by or maybe toss them a token of alms. Jesus’ actions not only model how we should treat one another as part of the Kingdom living, but also remind us of how God establishes a connection with us. How did God touch you, before you saw God for the first time? How was God trying to touch you before you reached back to God for the first time in a while? Who do you think God sees when looking at you? In which contexts of your life do you see God more clearly? How are we motivated in our compassion: do we need a good reason to help, or a proof of innocence in suffering, or is it enough that we see the face of God in each person? Conversely, does the image we project of ourselves through our words and behavior allow others to see the image of God in us? These questions are still difficult, but at least they are more readily answerable - with God’s help. Amen.