In Plain Sight
Text: Mark 10:46-52
In Anthony Doerr’s breathtaking novel, All the Light We Cannot See, a mysterious Frenchman asks, "What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, . . . mathematically, all of light is invisible" (Part 1, chapter 20, ‘Open Your Eyes’).
The heroine in this novel is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, whose loving father, a talented locksmith, goes to extraordinary lengths to help her compensate for the loss of her eyesight. After his daughter is blinded by cataracts in 1934 at the age of 6, he devises tiny, intricate models of the places she must go, so that she learns to navigate by touch and then by memory.
Marie-Laure had a loving and imaginative father who helped her navigate her blindness. We have no way of knowing if Bartimaeus had the same. In fact, we know almost nothing about him except that he is a blind man living in Jericho, a suburb of Jerusalem. We do not even know his name, because “Bartimaeus” simply means “the son of Timaeus.”
Earlier in the chapter, Jesus who is known as the “light of the world” in John’s Gospel, is mostly invisible to everyone he meets. Pharisees and scribes “see” Jesus as a religious imposter and they plan to expose him for his faulty theology. Then, later, in the chapter a well-do-to man “sees” Jesus as a spiritual financial guru to advise him the best way forward to “inherit” eternal life.
Lord only knows what James and John were thinking, when in this chapter Jesus again tells them that he will soon suffer and die, and they are left to infer that those who follow him might well know a similar fate. Instead, this dense duo of disciples “sees” Jesus as God’s CEO and they demand box seats in heavenly places, and the other disciples “see” Jesus in the exact same way. Ironically, the blind man is the only person in the crowd with the capacity to “see” the “light” called Jesus.
One thing more that Mark tells us about Bartimaeus is that he is a beggar; he is dirt poor and like most folks who are dirt poor, he is invisible. He is the man standing at the interstate exit with his makeshift, “Can You Help Me” sign. She is the forgotten soul setting up her cardboard tent in the empty parking lot at night. He is the person about to be evicted – again – because the rent is three months overdue and there is no money. They are the nameless souls curled up on park benches and covered with a towel for a blanket.
The harshest daily reality for Bartimaeus is most likely not his blindness that he has learned to navigate; it is his poverty that renders him invisible. His poverty is part of the local landscape that people have learned to avoid or ignore. Sometimes, people toss coins onto the poor man’s blanket, but they never ask his name. They never know his name. They do not want to know his name. Neither do we. He is among the great company of the invisible.
For almost thirteen years, I walked past Bartimaeus while I was pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. He was sitting on the front steps of the church. She was sleeping at the entrance to my office. They were leaving the Night Shelter at 6 a.m. before anyone had a chance to see them. Bartimaeus went to our Outreach and Advocacy Center to register for a state I.D. card or to hunt down a birth certificate. She then had to go to another center to get help with food and then another center to get help with shelter and then another center to get help with medical care and then another center to apply for a job. Bartimaeus always looked exhausted because poverty is absolutely exhausting. It is a full-time job just to survive being dirt poor.
Bartimaeus is poor and without sight, but his voice works just fine. He does not want to speak with Jesus. He demands it, but that, in itself is almost laughable. The invisible poor have no voice and need not waste their breath. No one sees them and no one hears them. And, if they are heard, they are told to “Hush, and appreciate all that you get for free when we have to work for everything we get! Get back in your poor, begging, posture and shut up!” That is exactly what the congregation surrounding Jesus says when Bartimaeus dares to speak out, to shout out, to demand an audience with Jesus. Mark says it much more politely, “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet” (10:28). We know what they really said.
If you love to look for miracles in the Bible, there is one in plain sight right here. While the real Jesus is invisible to everyone around him, Bartimaeus “sees” him and while Bartimaeus is invisible to everyone around him, Jesus “sees” him and hears him even above the din of the maddening crowd. Jesus does not patronize the poor by tossing a couple of coins on the blanket of Bartimaeus to absolve himself of guilt for helping to keep the poor poor.
Jesus asks the blind beggar the exact same question that he haa just asked James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?” The fumbling brothers want Jesus to provide a payoff for their hard discipleship work; they want special privileges for giving up their fishing jobs to follow him. And the rest of the disciples want the same payoff.
Before Bartimaeus opens his mouth, every person in the crowd already knows what the blind beggar wants from Jesus – cash, a roof over his head, a good meal. Instead, the blind man casts aside his blanket, the one essential multipurpose possession to collect alms during the day and to keep him warm at night. The blind beggar is looking to Jesus not to fill his collection basket or his stomach or to give him a room in the inn. The blind beggar does not ask for privilege or for spiritual payoff; he asks for healing, to see again. In one way, Mark’s ironic hand is at work here again, because we already know that Bartimaeus has better “sight” than anyone else in this chapter in which spiritual blindness is epidemic. Somehow, the blind beggar from Jericho “sees” the “light,” the “light of the world” when the real Jesus is invisible to everyone else.
The story sets us up with the moving and climactic words of Jesus to the invisible blind beggar, “Go, your faith has made you well.” It is a lovely, even pious ending, but it is not how the story ends. Yes, the beggar can now see. He can go reunite with his family, find his friends, navigate the world as a physically sighted person again. He can but he does not. Instead the story ends with discipleship words, real discipleship, “he followed Jesus on the way.”
Bartimaeus sees the invisible “light” of Jesus when he is without sight and also when he regains his sight. For Bartimaeus, there is no quid pro quo here. “You heal me, Jesus, and I’ll follow you,” like when you and I bargain with God, “Hey God, if you help me out of this tough patch or help me get this job or help me save this relationship, then I’ll be sitting in church every Sunday, give a tenth of all I have, and never curse again.” No, Jesus tells Bartimaeus that he is free to go, but Bartimaeus has seen the “light” far too clearly to do anything other than follow it.
For most of this past summer, I was living in a very dark world. To borrow the words of the Rev. Jim Forbes, I was in a “miry place.” If Jesus had stepped up on my porch and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” I am pretty sure that my response would have been: “I have worked for you for most of my life and I do not deserve to be wrongly accused and put on leave. So, make it stop! Make it stop, now!”
Looking back, Jesus did arrive at my house, the “light” did shine, but it took quite a while for me to see it. Sometimes the “light” shone in early morning emojis from friends that reminded me that I was not living in this “miry place” alone. Sometimes the “light” shone when the Cove Session wrote presbytery, unbeknownst to me, telling presbytery leaders to “make it stop.” Sometimes the “light” shone when good friends would ever so gently, but firmly, remind me that those with less privilege, who are almost always invisible, battle false accusations and unfair perceptions every day of their lives and without similar resources.
I wish I could say that I am most like Bartimaeus in this story, but it is really James and John and Peter who are my closest kin. For the past few months, in fact, I have found myself in awe of Bartimaeus, wishing that I could “see” the “light,” the “light of the world” the way he did and long before his physical sight was restored.
Maybe, I am finally approaching the place in my life in which I can “see” the James and John and Peter in me, but Bartimaeus is the company I want to keep.