Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

October 25, 2009

St. Agnes, Cincinnati


(Based on Mark 10:46-52)


Jesus says to Bartimaeus, (and he says to us), “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus replies, “Master, I want to see again.”


If we are to appreciate fully what a dramatic event this is in the life of Bartimaeus, we have to do our best to put ourselves in his shoes and imagine what his condition of blindness and total dependence was like.


Apparently Bartimaeus had once enjoyed the gift of sight and had lost it in some way. He asks to be able to see again. That must have made the reality all the more painful. He has lost all chance of caring for his own livelihood and is totally at the mercy of passersby who are strangers to him.


As difficult as his situation is, it’s important that we not romanticize it. You know, we use language like ‘that poor blind fellow.’ Actually Bartimaeus is not someone with whom we might be comfortable. He’s aggressive. He shouts out when people try to shut him up. He is, quite frankly, a pest. It would be easy to imagine ourselves in that crowd saying, “Can’t anybody shut this guy up?” He just won’t be put down.


You know, it’s easy to deal with the romanticized poor. They ‘know their place.’


A very fine sociologist-nun, Sister Maria Augusta Neal, worked at raising peoples’ consciousness to social issues. She used to do an exercise with her class or an audience where she was speaking. She would give people a list with a variety of kinds of people on it and ask which ones they viewed favorably. There were people like the pope or the president; doctors and lawyers and trash collectors and nurses – categories like that. Buried in the list was ‘the poor.’ And they always rated high on the participants’ favorability list. It’s what we know we should answer. Then she would give them a second list, with a slight variation: it had on it ‘the organized poor.’ And the favorability score for people like that would go way down.


The poor are fine in their place. When they organize; when they agitate to change the unjust social order that keeps them poor, they make us uncomfortable. They challenge us.


So the crowd around Jesus tries to protect him from this unseemly guy. (His disciples even tried to protect him from himself, remember.) The scene is reminiscent of the managers, the ‘handlers,’ of our political candidates: we can’t let him or her actually be accessible to the people, can we?


But Jesus is not going to be captive to their needs. This is what he came for, to be with those in need. Bartimaeus proclaims his belief and trust in Jesus. And he is immediately cured.


At his point we need to go back to that other cure of a blind man, the one we prayed about a few weeks ago. Remember, Mark places a cure of a blind man at each end of the journey by which Jesus is going up toe Jerusalem. And on that journey he reveals – three times! – what his messiahship was all about: life born out of death.


In that first cure the blind man hadn’t declared his faith. He hadn’t even asked to be cured, himself. Unnamed ‘people’ brought him to Jesus and asked for a cure.


And after curing him, what happened? Jesus just sent him home. Back to his village. End of story.


In the case of Bartimaeus, what a difference! Jesus declares that it is his powerful faith that has cured him. And Bartimaeus leaves everything on the spot to follow Jesus ‘on the way.’ On the way. Mark’s expression is not a throwaway line. He’s referring to the way that Jesus had proclaimed in those intervening chapters. The way of life out of death.


When Mark’s audience heard this gospel they knew it was more than the story of one man. It is a parable in action, revealing what the process of spiritual conversion and growth is all about. For them and for each of us.


Like Bartimaeus we begin in darkness. But there is a difference between physical and spiritual darkness. In the darkness of the spirit we don’t even know our blindness. The first stage of conversion is for the Lord to show us what we are missing, where our darkness lies. Without that, we can’t be healed, we just go on comfortably in our blindness. Think of how we describe a common experience. We’ve all had near misses driving a car, when we don’t even see that another car was in our ‘blind spot.’


So we have to ask the Lord to show us where we are blind. Where are we missing the call of the Gospel?


Maybe we can help ourselves to focus the question more clearly if we think more concretely about the experience of Bartimaeus. What was the first thing he saw the moment his eyes were opened?


He saw the face of Jesus.


The face of Jesus. So maybe that’s the question we need to be asking: Where are we blind to the face of Jesus in our world? We have received the gift of recognizing him many times before. Like Bartimaeus we have enjoyed sight in the past. But where are we blind now?


We each have people in our personal worlds that we simply put off our radar screen. People who for one reason or another make us uncomfortable. Their lives make a claim on us.


And we have blind spots as a nation, as a people. In the 19th century white folk were totally blind to the effects of slavery – because their belief was that black people weren’t even human. They couldn’t see them as fellow human beings, with the same cares and needs and hopes that they had.


And today? Where are we living in the dark without knowing it?


Maybe it’s the blindness that allows us to accept the state-sponsored killing of our brothers and sister through capital punishment. You know, we are one of only a few countries on our planet that hasn’t abolished this barbaric practice.


A few weeks ago sister Helen Prejean spoke at Xavier. You know her from the book and movie Dead Man Walking. In her talk she spoke of her personal conversion. She used to hear people speaking out for social justice and thought they were a bunk of kooks. Then one day she did a simple thing: she wrote a letter to a man on death row, someone she didn’t even know. It led to a face-to-face meeting and then many more. It put her face-to-face with the man’s victims. And eventually it brought her to the execution chamber, where she has accompanied six convicted criminals to their deaths. It changed her whole life. It was no longer possible to be blind.


And we need to be clear: she doesn’t romanticize these men. In most instances they are as guilty as all get-out. They have done vicious deeds and caused immense pain. But they remain flesh of our flesh – if we can see it.


Or maybe our blindness shows in our acceptance of the power of the NRA to give handguns to our children so they can kill one another on our streets – simply because we can’t muster the political will to do what we proclaim we want to do.


And in our church? Does our blindness lie in accepting the demonization our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and the marginalization of women? Are they perhaps the face of Christ asking us in our blindness: “Do you really want to be cured? Do you want to see?”


Let’s turn back to our brother Bartimaeus.


He is in utter darkness, and he receives the gift of blinding light. He sees what will be the very first thing you and I will see the moment we close our earthly eyes in death: the face of Jesus. The question we have to pray over is, will it be a total surprise to us? In that scene in chapter 25 of Matthew people are shocked to discover where they had missed seeing the face of Jesus: in the hungry and the naked and the prisoners, in all those rejected and reviled, pariahs in the world’s eyes.


Bartimaeus received the gift we so often sing about:


Amazing grace! How sweet the sound

that saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost and now am found,

was blind but now I see.

 

Can we be as persistent and demanding and aggressive as he was in crying out? When the Lord asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” is our answer really, “Lord, I want to see again?” Are we ready to receive the unexpected grace we just might receive – and what it might cost us?


Amen?