I really like stupid stuff on the Internet, like stories from local newspapers which just leave you scratching your head. This is one of my favourites, from the Wigan area, regarding a competition to name a new leisure centre in the town of Selby.
Just think of the work Steve Wadsworth must have put in to thinking of that name! He truly is the Shakespeare of our time!
Seriously, though; Wigan Leisure and Culture Trust will have invested time and money into the promotion and judging of that contest, plus the cost of the prize, when the obvious answer was staring them in the face!
We all do this at some stage. The glaringly obvious is right under our noses, yet we’re totally blind to it. Sometimes we’re just being daft, sometimes we are too wrapped up in other things and sometimes we just don’t want to see what’s right there.
Bartimaeus wanted to see. More than anything else, he was desperate to overcome the disability which, in first century Judean society, will have left him as an outcast, reduced to begging outside the gates of Jericho.
This story is clearly one of a physical healing. Bartimaeus asks Jesus for mercy, Jesus asks what he wants and, through the blind man’s faith, gives it to him.
However, there is so much more to this than the physical healing of a man with a disability, the last healing Mark tells us about.
In literature there is a type of narrative structure called an “Inclusio”. It’s where two very similar events bookend a passage, often with a story or set of stories in the middle which can be related to them. This story is the second bookend of an inclusio. The first is at Mark 8:22-26 when Jesus heals another blind man at Bethsaida.
In between are several stories taken along Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, some of which have a lot of similarities. See if you can spot a theme in these stories:
• Jesus predicts his death, but Peter rebukes him for it and is put in his place as a result.
• Jesus is transfigured on a mountain, where he is joined by Elijah and Moses. Peter’s response is to offer to build some tents.
• Jesus heals a boy possessed by a demon after the disciples are unable to do it.
• Jesus predicts his death again, but the disciples don’t understand him and are too afraid to ask him about it
• The disciples argue over who is the greatest.
• The disciples tell a man to stop driving out demons in Jesus’ name.
• Jesus explains the reason for laws governing divorce, but the disciples need to ask him to explain further.
• The disciples rebuke those bringing children to Jesus.
• A rich man finds himself unable to give up everything to follow Jesus.
• James and John ask to be seated at Jesus’ side in glory
Ten stories in between two accounts of Jesus healing a blind man, all of which involve people simply missing the point. They have sight, but are spiritually blind, unable to see the wonders of the Kingdom of God, even with the very Son of God living alongside them, teaching them for three years.
How many of us can honestly say that we have spiritual 20/20 vision? Do we live every day in the absolute certainty of what God wants in our lives, our homes, our world? Or do we stumble around in the darkness; uncertain, getting things wrong, trying our best, but living like a Christian version of Mr Magoo; the cartoon character who refused to admit his short sightedness, so wandered around totally missing everything which happened right in front of him?
The stand-up comedian Milton Jones, who is himself a Christian, wrote a book called 10 second sermon. It is genuinely hilarious and rather profound at times and I recommend it to everybody. My favourite is “I used to believe in evolution. But then one day I joined a Baptist Church and I could tell I was going to have to adapt in order to survive”.
He said a few things about missing the point in the book:
• What’s rarely mentioned by either side in the creation versus evolution debate is that it’s not the most important thing.
• What’s rarely mentioned by either side in the homosexuality debate is that it’s not the most important thing.
• What’s rarely mentioned by either side in the women priests debate is that it’s not the most important thing.
This is one of the things which blinds us. That distraction from the central message of the Gospel by side issues which, whilst important, should never be enough to divide the Church. I’ve seen and heard comments in all of these debates which are so ungracious, so disdainful or even hateful, that it makes you want to cry at the thought that it’s Christians saying these things. We can all get drawn into the trap of being negative about people because of the position they take on certain issues without realising that, no matter how important the issue may be, it’s not the most important thing.
Bartimaeus realised what the most important thing was. Despite the crowds, the noise and his low status, he knew that he had to shout out
“Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!”
Bartimaeus, the one man outside Jericho with no physical sight, is the one man there with the spiritual sight to see Jesus as the Son of David, God’s Messiah, and to ask him for mercy. That, above all else, is the important thing, but sometimes we miss that.
When we miss that point it’s because we have become spiritually blind.
I heard a story recently of a man who received an email telling him that he had been left a stake in a business in China following the death of the owner. He believed it, partly because he had spent time working in China, but also because this stake was £38 million, so he wanted to believe it. He met the people involved, in Paris, and they exchanged details. He then received another email saying that he needed to pay £120,000 as release tax in order for his £38 million to be sent to him. The money was to be sent in bits to banks in China, Thailand, Indonesia, America… really alarm bells should have been ringing. However, he raised the money and sent it. He then received another email asking for a further £175,000. He went around friends and family who, because they knew and trusted him, lent him the money on the promise of a tripling of what they gave him.
Now, hopefully, most of you have twigged that this was a scam (if you haven’t, this is a valuable lesson). There was no deceased Chinese businessman, or £38 million. The man is awaiting trial for defrauding his friends and family (albeit, unintentionally). Yet he still doesn’t get that it was a scam. During police interviews he told them that he was in the process of selling his house in order to send yet more money to the con men.
He was also blind. Blind to the obvious con which he was falling victim to. And all because of greed and the desires of the world.
This is one of our greatest dangers, the desire to have more and more. The pressure of obtaining social status, money, things. The mantra of western society, echoed in the 1980s film Wall Street, “Greed is good”.
We have these voices telling us that we need more stuff. We see the adverts with the beautiful people driving beautiful cars, wearing beautiful clothes and wearing perfume from a beautiful bottle (which smells, I presume, beautiful).
And while these voices are shouting at us, so are the ones telling us that God isn’t there. God is dead. You don’t need God, you just need your own values, your own morals, your own inherent goodness.
It becomes overwhelming. We become weighed down with the race to be the richest, or most popular, or best dressed, or most successful.
Even the disciples fall victim to the voices of the world. When Jesus asks Bartimaeus “what do you want.” It is the exact same question he asks James and John a few verses earlier. Only, their request (they wish to be seated by Jesus’ side in the Kingdom) is selfish, driven by a desire for status, not a desire for righteousness.
These voices, the voices of the world trying to drown out God, are like the voices trying to drown out Bartimaeus as he yells out his plea to Jesus. Yet Bartimaeus, despite his physical blindness, was not blinded in his focus on Jesus. He kept shouting until Jesus stopped and asked him what he wanted. Then, Bartimaeus approached him humbly and asked for one simple, but powerful thing – sight.
Once Bartimaeus received his sight he also took drastic action. His spiritual sight allowed him to “jump” up and “throw” his coat off. He was desperate for Jesus and, when he could finally see, he followed him “at once”. He was so eager to follow Jesus with his new found sight that he seemingly left behind his coat, possibly the only worldly possession he had (in contrast to the rich young man earlier, who felt unable to do this).
Even Job, through all of his suffering, is able to say to God that “my eyes have seen you”. All of the worries of the world, all of the suffering, all of the bad advice given by his friends, yet Job has not taken his eyes from God.
That is what real spiritual sight looks like, an eagerness, desperation to follow Jesus that all of the material things of the world, those which blind us to God’s glory, lose their importance to us. Those voices which once tried to beat us down to conform with the ways of the world are silenced and all we hear or see is Jesus. A fixation on God through everything life can throw at us.
I don’t know what is going on in all of your lives, but I know that some will be going through times which will make focusing on and worshipping God very difficult. I know that some will be going through illness, family problems, financial difficulties, work problems, social problems; or even doubts about your faith, about whether you even believe that all of this is true. All of these can blind us to what is there in front of us because, well, we’re human and can only handle so much by ourselves. Remember, though, what the writer of Hebrews said,
“He is not like other high priests; he does not need to offer sacrifices every day for his own sins first and then for the sins of the people. He offered one sacrifice, once and for all, when he offered himself.”
Jesus offered himself. Whatever we are experiencing in terms of suffering, fear, ridicule, peer pressure, pain or isolation, Jesus has experienced it. For us. For you. All these things that can blind us to him are things he went through so that we could experience life at its fullest.
So whenever the fog descends, whenever that blindness starts to return, we just need to focus on one thing, the cross. It all happened there for us and, when we look at it and realise what it’s all for, suddenly our eyes are opened.
We were blind, but now we see.