As far as the Bible is concerned, blindness is incurable. And in fact even now, with two thousand years of advances in medical understanding and therapeutic techniques, most cases of blindness remain irreversible. There are many different reasons why a person my not be able to see, but from the Bible’s perspective they all have one thing in common, sight cannot be given to a blind person. Except for one thing. Sight can only be restored by the direct intervention of God.
According to the Bible, if a blind person has there sight, then this is a sure sign that God is directly involve. It is true that the perspective of faith is that ultimately all healing comes from God, whatever the mechanism, whatever means was used to accomplish it, all healing comes from God. It is God who the ultimate source of the knowledge which can lead to proper diagnosis and cure, it is God who supplies the skills of doctors, nurses and carers who assist healing processes, and it God who guides the hands of those who work to bring about wholeness. But God’s involvement in the restoration of sight is at whole different level. Without God’s direct intervention restoration of sight is impossible. Like a camel passing through the eye of a needle, this is one of those thing, which are as Jesus puts it:
“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God, for God all things are possible.“
So much so that there is list of things that will happen when God’s kingdom is established: the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. (Luke 7:22) And at the head of that list stands: the blind receive their sight. When the kingdom of God comes, the impossible will be done, so, the Bible argues, the blind being given their sight is a sign that the Kingdom of God is close at hand. At the heart of Christian faith is the belief that all things are possible for God. And at the heart of the God news is that God will do for humans (and all of creation) what they cannot do for themselves.
Bartimaeus is blind. There is not much he can do to sustain himself. His blindness, in that time and in that place, means that there is no productive work he can do. There is noting available to him to make a living that does require him being able to see. And he knows that this side of the Kingdom of God nothing can be done to give him sight.
So he has no choice but to beg. He has chosen the best spot he can think of. He sits by the side of the road, just as it leaves Jericho and heads uphill to Jerusalem. It is a busy location, there are lot of people who pass by just here, and many of them have reason to be generous. Many are pilgrims, who might make an act of kindness, mitzvah they call it, as they begin their final approach to the holy city. Others know the road, and are anxious that they might fall among thieves, and want to do something to ease their conscience before taking the risk of following that road. Bartimaeus is entirely reliant on the kindness of strangers. His situation is hopeless, but not entirely so. He has heard about Jesus, and he has heard what happens when Jesus is nearby. And Bartimaeus has grasped what this means, so when he hears that Jesus is passing by he cries out:
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Bartimaeus gives to Jesus a messianic title. He calls Jesus, “Son of David.” David is the ideal and idealised king of the past, who ruled justly among God’s people on God’s behalf. David’s successor, his son, is the one who will establish the kingdom of God. Bartimaeus knows that in God’s kingdom his sight will be restored. And he has grasped, unlike many others at the time, that it is Jesus who will establish that kingdom. So sitting in the dirt, by the road, on the Jerusalem side of Jericho, as Jesus goes by, Bartimaeus calls out:
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
The crowd knows what everyone knows: Blindness is incurable. The beggar’s situation is impossible. But here he is, making a row. He is interrupting their excitement and their celebration. He is raining on their parade. The last thing they want is their attention to be diverted, from the glow of someone famous passing by, to the difficult reality of suffering and need in the world. They really wish that people like this beggar would just stay out of sight, so they didn’t have to worry about them, or have their comfort disturbed by them. Besides which there is nothing that can be done about blindness. The beggar should just be realistic. He should accept his fate. He should just acknowledge that there is no alternative. He shouldn’t go chasing after rainbows, or anything as improbable and idealistic as God’s kingdom and the restoration of sight that it brings. There is no point in bothering them, or bothering the celebrity teacher, with his problems. They want him to be realistic, and despair. They know that blindness is incurable:
Many sternly warned him to be quiet.
But Bartimaeus knows different from the crowd. He knows who Jesus is, and what that means. He cried even more loudly, “Son of David have mercy on me!”
Crowds are fickle. They are prone to changing their mind. But seldom has a crowd done quite such a rapid about face as the one beside Jericho on this day. With one breath they are telling the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, to be quiet, to give up hope, to be realistic and despair. With the very next breath they are saying to him:
“Take heart, get up, he is calling you.”
When Jesus hears Barimaeus’ appeal, the crowd’s attitude changes. They begin to anticipate being witnesses to something remarkable. They have heard what Jesus has being doing in other places, even if they haven’t added up what that means. They too want to see the spectacle of a blind person being given sight. Though a lame person walking, or a deaf person hearing would have excited them just as much. Perhaps seeing the miracle of a resurrection from the dead would have been too much to ask. The crowd want to see Jesus do one of those things which have made Jesus so famous. They want to see a miracle, they want to be amazed.
Taken as isolated occurrences, viewed as one off events, miracles cannot fail to seem arbitrary and even cruel. The question always hangs over them: why this miracle? Why was this person healed? And more pointedly: why weren’t all the others who suffer restored to wholeness? Why was Bartimaeus’ sight restored when there were some many other beggars who were still blind? It seems so arbitrary: Bartimaeus just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Another day and Bartimaeus might not have been his spot on the road. Or Jesus could have just used a different route to get to Jerusalem and never passed by where Bartimaeus always begged. True Bartimaeus’ faith has a role. In contrast to the crowd he has understood who Jesus is. He knows what the things Jesus does mean. But that doesn’t reduce the arbitrariness and cruelty of miracles seen in isolation. What of all the other suffers who had just as much as much faith as Bartimaeus whom Jesus never passed by? What of all the others who prayed out their need just as fervently and just as persistently, and never received the answer they were longing for? Viewed separately, in isolation from each other, miracles cannot fail to make God seem cruelly capricious. And we know that God isn’t that.
Miracles don’t happen to satisfy the hunger of the crowd for novelty or excitement. They do not occur to leave us startled, or amazed, or impressed by the one who does them. Jesus miracles don’t take place one at a time, separate from one another. Jesus’ miracles are integral to who he is and to the whole of his mission. At the very beginning of his ministry Jesus had announced: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” (Mark 1:15) Jesus’ miracles are the sign that God’s kingdom is breaking through. They are a sign and a foretaste of how things will be when God’s reign is fully established. God’s love is not a lottery where the lucky few get what they need, and the rest must suffer. Finally all suffering will be at an end. Every tear will be wiped from every eye, and even death itself will be no more. Just now and again God’s reign breaks through into the here and now and transforms the lives it touches. Just now and again we become witness to the power of God to do what we usually judge to be impossible. This is not to regret all the impossible situations which have been left untouched in the meantime. But it is to give us hope that this is how it will be when God reigns. It is to give us hope that we do not have to be silent, or that there is no alternative. It is to enable us to take heart and follow Jesus into the impossible kingdom which he is establishing. When Jesus passes by the kingdom of God, and all the impossibles which that kingdom make possible, come very close indeed.
Immediately he [Bartimaeus] regained his sight and followed him [Jesus] on the way.
The Impossible, The Sign of God’s Kingdom by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0