30th of the Year, 24th Oct 21
One of the most inspiring blind people of our times is David Blunkett, now Lord Blunkett. He’s a politician who was Education and Employment Secretary and then Home Secretary during the Blair and Brown years. He was born in to a poor family and further hindered by the death of his father in an industrial accident when he was only 12 years old. Despite this he got to his local university in Sheffield and overcome many barriers to achieving high national office. Such success is made immeasurably harder by his blindness but he has not been shy of making a joke of it at times. He admitted once in an interview to being quite boring and bookish at university but despite this was offered drugs once. To which he answered, I think I’ve got enough problems getting around without taking any of that!
In our reading today Jesus heals Bartimaeus, one of the few recipients of this healing grace in the Gospels whose name we know. His faith in Jesus is profound and won’t even be dulled by those who around him who tell him to be quiet - a lesson to us all when those around tell us the practice of our faith doesn’t matter! We must not be hushed by them! Notice how Jesus asks Bartimaeus what he wants. Now, Jesus is God and already knows what the blind man desires, as He knows the desires of all our hearts, but it is important for the man to articulate it, to cooperate, to acquiesce, to choose. God’s grace cooperates with our free will, it does not obliterate it, strong enough though it be. The healed man lives the life to which Jesus calls us all, that of following Him.
In the Scriptures, blindness was often seen as a punishment (eg. Samson in Judges 16:21), sometimes one even meted out by God (Deuteronomy 28:28). During Lent sometimes we hear from St John 9 where our Lord heals the man born blind. The assumption among the religious leaders of the day is that someone must have sinned resulting in the blindness. Jesus rebukes these assumptions, saying, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” What a noble vocation and one we must all share and strive for, to let God’s glory be known in our life! So it is that we as Christians do not believe blindness to be some sort of punishment.
The healing of the blindness further reinforces the New Testament’s teaching that Jesus is God. Not just a good bloke or a prophet or a miracle worker or God’s right hand man, but God Himself. This is important for us to hold on to when so many around us will say they love Jesus but do not know Him as God. Bartimaeus knows Jesus to be the Messiah, hence he calls Him Son of David. Bartimaeus knows Jesus to be a great teacher, hence he calls Him “Rabboni, Master.” Bartimaeus knows Jesus to be the one who forgives sins, hence he says to Him, “have pity on me.” Again, if we read this healing alongside the different occasion in John 9, here we read, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind,” (v.32). The response of the formerly blind man, unnamed in this instance, is to believe and to worship (v.38). Only God can be worshipped and He worships His only Son whom He knows rightly to be God.
The healing of blindness in the Scriptures is never rarely just about a physical condition. Bartimaeus asks for mercy, as we’ve already heard. The mission of the Messiah was not just about physical healing though: He is to “be a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind,” (Isaiah 42:7). God promises in this same passage from Isaiah 42 “to lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known I will guide them” (Isaiah 42:16). While few of us suffer from physical blindness we all suffer from spiritual blindness, probably by its very nature we’re not aware of how blind we are. One of the things people often notice after their cataracts are done is that they hadn’t realised how bad their vision had become. So it will be with our spiritual blindness, we don’t know how much we can’t see. This should trouble us.
This blindness sometimes involves not seeing the consequences of our actions. We’ll all have been victims of the person who’s trodden on our foot on the bus without realising it or the person who’s said something unkind without realising it. If we’ve been victims of such then it is pretty safe to assume we have been perpetrators of the same. In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol when the three visitors appear to Scrooge in the night they are lifting his spiritual blindness, reminding him of his past, opening his eyes the plight of others in the present and showing Him the fate of all human beings, death. This narrowness of mind is only really lifted once our life on earth has ended and we are enlightened fully with something of the knowledge that God enjoys perfectly now. Part of our life after death, journeying towards Heaven will be coming to terms with the harm we’ve done to others, including that which we didn’t realise we had done. There can be no regrets or sorrow in Heaven so we need to shed it before we get there.
I want to suggest now some possible remedies to this mindset.
We need to cease to trust in our strength and our own reserves. It’s when our arrogance makes us think we’ve got our relationship with Jesus sorted that we are most in danger of being blind for the simple reason that we stop looking for something further to improve. A sense of helplessness mustn’t however lead us to despair, thinking there’s nothing that can be done. Trusting in God means relying on what we know to be true, the basics of our faith, that God sent His only Son to die for the Church, which is filled with life by the Holy Spirit today; how we must read our Bibles and receive Holy Communion so we can be close to the living God.
This simple desire to be close to Jesus will lead us also in to a better appreciation of His Mother, Mary. All sorts of things could have kept her from the Cross of her Son: after all what could she have done, she couldn’t have changed anything. Besides, it was dangerous, they might have arrested her and then she’d be even worse off. And where were Peter and the rest of the Apostles, if they weren’t going then why should she? She could have said, I’ll go tomorrow, that will be safer once everyone’s gone away. But she doesn’t: she’s there at the Cross of Her Son and her Saviour. And if she hadn’t been there at the Cross our Lord could not have entrusted her to St John the Apostle, nor given him to her. We would have been less clearly told that she was to be our Mother, the Mother of all who keep vigil with the Lord and weep at His death. In her simple desire to be with the Lord she could be nowhere else.
One way to ward off spiritual blindness is to seek advice. One of the most frustrating things for those who are physically blind I suspect is the dependence on others to get around and do some of the basic things. Our pride, our negligence stops us asking advice from others. One of the bits of advice Tobit gives his son Tobias as he sets off on his journey is, “Ask advice of every wise person,” (Tobit 4:16). Hopefully that person might be able to open up our perspective. When we read some of the narratives in the Bible it can be a good practice to imagine how each person felt, a particularly good way of reading the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for example (St Luke 15:11-32). How does the dad feel in his old age and perhaps torn loyalties between his two sons, who have treated him quite differently but whom he still loves. How does the older son feel who has been faithful and perhaps taken for granted? How does the younger son feel as ashamed he returns to the family home, to the unknown. This appreciation of a bigger picture stops us seeing things just from our perspective. “I’ve chosen this and therefore it must be right and I’m a good person therefore it won’t hurt anyone,” is an attitude we can’t afford to have.
Sadly the internet, which can do so much good, can also do a lot of harm. The algorithms of search engines, it seem widely acknowledged, mean we get answers that reflect our concerns, we are lead down a silo, into a cul-de-sac, an echo chamber where all we hear and see is what is reflected from ourselves. This exacerbates spiritual blindness. In contrast, Jesus as Head of His Church leads us to a great city, the new Jerusalem, where we’re constantly jostling into others and encountering difference. And on that journey we need to recognise the harm we’ve done to others unintentionally. We pray as we gather round the altar kneeling before the Lord that He will open our eyes that we may see His sweet face. May we be given too the wisdom to see the harm we’ve done to Jesus and to others, that we might repent and believe.