Readings: Jeremiah 31:7-9; Ps 125; Hebrews 5:1-6; Mark 10:46-52
I got quite a shock preparing a homily for this Sunday when we were reading Mark's gospel six years ago, in 2009. At the beginning of the gospel reading we are told that Bartimaeus is 'beside the way' whereas at the end we are told he is 'on the way'. It brought to mind the difference between bystanders or spectators who are beside the way, and agents and participants who are on the way. (Although poor Bartimaeus is neither fully a bystander, since he is sitting, nor a spectator, since he is blind.)
A good friend whom I had known for twenty five years worked on the theme of the bystander, taking his cue from Thomas Merton's book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. This friend was Breifne Walker, an Irish Spiritan priest, who lectured in moral theology in Ghana, Ireland and Nigeria. Breifne had been working on what he called 'the self-implication of Christian discipleship', that to be a Christian and to stand by when faced with oppression or injustice of any kind, is a contradiction. The Christian bystander is rightly guilty, then, and I wondered (back in 2009) if I could make something of this in thinking about Bartimaeus and his being called to discipleship.
I had not seen Breifne for over a year. Looking for his work on the internet, I discovered instead, to my dismay and great sadness, that he had died some months earlier, at the relatively young age of 61. News of his death had not reached me: this was the shock I received while preparing my homily six years ago. I could not but speak of him when I preached, remembering his quiet but persistent arguing for justice, and his stubborn refusal to stand by and turn a blind eye to injustice no matter how powerful its perpetrators or how complex its causes.
We are told that Bartimaeus is 'the son of Timaeus'. It seems unnecessary and it may simply be the evangelist unpacking the name for his readers. But St Augustine, for one, thought it was significant, and indicated that the blind beggar belonged to a family of some importance so that his present condition represented a great fall in social and economic status. Perhaps his condition is a kind of acted parable for the benefit of James and John. Just a few verses earlier Jesus had said to them what he now says to Bartimaeus, 'what do you want me to do for you?' They get it all wrong as regards glory and being at the side of Jesus. The blind man sees more clearly that what he needs is simply to be with Jesus and to receive his mercy.
In his commentary on this text, St John Chrysostom says that God does not make a promise to blocks of wood. God saves human beings but has chosen not to do that without their conscious and free participation. Hence the dialogue, the conversation, between Jesus and Bartimaeus. Jesus does not presume to tell him what he most deeply wants but instead asks him 'what do you want me to do for you?' In his writing about liberation, Gustavo Gutierrez speaks of how the poor must be allowed to speak for themselves about their situation. This is to act towards others as God has acted towards us, inviting us to pray to Him telling Him what we need. We may need further education in our desires as James and John do, blinded as they are by a mistaken understanding of power and glory. The blind man's prayer is more enlightened and comes from a place of genuine need: 'that I might receive my sight'.
Clement of Alexandria says that the blind man represents all of us in our condition of spiritual blindness, being brought to faith in Christ so that we see our situation and we see the one who is leading us forward towards the Father's kingdom. The beggar who begins sitting by the way is transformed into a disciple, one who now follows Jesus on the way. My friend Breifne delighted in all this. He devoted his life to thinking and teaching about justice and clear-sightedness, about virtue and discipleship. May he rest in peace and become a full participant in the kingdom of his Lord. And may we all be changed from bystanders and spectators into involved and courageous followers of Christ. How can we claim to love God whom we do not see if we fail to love our fellow pilgrims whom we do see?