There is a MASH episode that finds Hawkeye on a bus with South Korean refugees. The bus comes very close to some North Korean soldiers and, in order to avoid being discovered, the driver drives it off the road and hides it behind some bushes. They are still within earshot of the North Koreans, though, and Hawkeye directs a South Korean mother to keep her infant from crying. The crying ceases and the danger passes.
Following this, Hawkeye becomes emotionally distraught and needs treatment. Here’s the rub: Hawkeye’s malaise is related to the incident on the bus which he remembers as involving a woman and a chicken. He remembers the woman smothering the chicken to death. Through treatment he rediscovers that in reality the mother had smothered her baby to death, but it was such a horrendously awful incident that his mind chose to remember the infant as a chicken. For a time Hawkeye was blind to what had occurred.
Something equally traumatic may have happened to Bartimaeus whose story we have just heard. Perchance he suffered from hysterial blindness — blindness with no organic base. We are left to conjecture because Mark tells us precious little about this man, but what we are given was enough to motivate Longfellow to write a poem he titled “Blind Bartimaeus.” His words, under the date November 3, 1841, are directed to a Mr. Ward:
I was reading this morning, just after breakfast, the tenth chapter of Mark, in Greek, the last seven verses of which contain the story of blind Bartimaeus, and always seemed remarkable for their beauty. At once the whole scene presented itself to my mind in lively colors, — the walls of Jericho, the cold wind through the gateway, the ragged, blind beggar, his shrill cry, the tumultuous crowd, the serene Christ, the miracle … (The Complete Poetical Works of Longfellow, p. 17).
The little that is in the story still offers significant yield.
Longfellow’s poem begins:
Blind Bartimaeus at the gates
Of Jericho in darkness waits;
he hears the crowd: — he hears a breath
Say, “It is Christ of Nazareth!”
And calls, in tones of agony,
“Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me.”
It isn’t hard to imagine that the opening scene was the chronic one — Bartimaeus sitting by the road begging; Bartimaeus defined by what was wrong with him — his inability to see. He wasn’t Bartimaeus who had a good ear for music, or a talent for cooking, or an ability to analyze or synthesize, or a penchant for administration. No. He was Bartimaeus who presented himself on the basis of a deficit. Here I am world, Bartimaeus the blind man.
Chances are, we have all known people like that. We listen to Mary, who has experienced a failure but who now defines herself as a failure. She has turned her life into a walking, talking failure. John discloses the agony he and his wife have known because of a son who has had great trouble getting airborne and the more he talks, the more we realize that he has measured and defined their entire life on the basis of his son’s developmental struggles. In his mind, it has erased many other notable and worthy areas in their common life and separate lives.
Institutions do that too, including church bodies. Far too easily they can take a point of institutional vulnerability and so allow that to grab hold of them that they can only see themselves through the lenses of that vulnerability. They then shift into a survival mentality and regularly shoot themselves in the foot, failing to see that their vulnerability might also be a strength.
Case in point: our congregation. Our supposed vulnerability? An older congregation. Our mean age is found somewhere in the second half of life. There is a tendency to apologize for that fact and present ourselves as tainted. But wait! Why is there necessarily something wrong with being old? And why is there necessarily something right with being young? Can there not be blessings aplenty when young people are befriended by an older congregation composed of men and women who know much about the life process and who in love can share their insights with those at an earlier point in that process?
After a time when individuals and institutions continually announce what’s wrong with themselves, others get tired of it. Have you not sat with someone for the fifteenth time, heard again about their embroiled gallbladder for which they have refused to take necessary precautions and treatment, and wanted to scream? When this tendency is taken to the extreme we have the hypochondriac who imagines that he is sick and insists on announcing this to the whole world ad nauseum. The extreme within hypochondriasis is one who manifests what is known as the Munchausen syndrome, which finds people feigning illnesses so they can enter the hospital. One man was so adroit at complaining about abdominal pain, vomiting and seizures, that he was hospitalized more than 400 times and submitted to 102 gastrointestinal tests.
Pull this enough and people will react as they did to Bartimaeus that day long ago:
Many of the people scolded him and told him to be quiet. But he shouted even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Longfellow’s mind translated this turn in the story as follows:
The thronging multitudes increase;
Blind Bartimaeus, hold thy peace!
But still, above the noisy crowd,
The beggar’s cry is shrill and loud;
Until they say, “He calleth thee!”
“Be of good comfort, rise; he calleth thee.”
For Bartimaeus illness has been a way of life, but a change appears on the horizon — the beginning of redefinition. Bartimaeus who had seen, but became blind, wants to see again. Longfellow continues:
Then saith the Christ, as silent stands
The crowd, ‘”What wilt thou at my hands?”
And he replies, “O, give me light!
Rabbi, restore the blind man’s sight.”
And Jesus answers, “Go thy way;
Thy faith hath made thee whole.”
The redefinition becomes complete. No longer blind Bartimaeus, but sighted Bartimaeus.
We have a friend who lost the sight in one eye when he was quite young. His parents were having a new roof put on their home and Wayne happened to raise his head to watch the proceedings when a shingle being thrown off the roof hit him in one of his eyes. He became blind and doctors in the 50s offered him no hope of restored vision. Wayne learned to rely on one eye and made his peace with what had happened.
A couple of years ago an opthamologist examined that bad eye (which incidentally had never been removed) and told Wayne that while he couldn’t make any guarantees, he thought there was a procedure that could restore its vision. Wayne agreed to it and, amazingly, vision returned to the eye. Imagine it! After more than thirty-five years with a dysfunctional eye, Wayne once more saw as most of us see. A wonderful blessing for him. Wayne’s experience gives me a sense for how charged and dramatic Bartimaeus’ restoration must have been for him. No longer was it blind Bartimaeus; now it was sighted Bartimaeus.
Would that sight could be restored to all people whose eyes no longer work, but that isn’t always possible. Yet the eyes of the soul can always be repaired. People on that level can move from seeing or defining themselves as deficits to seeing themselves as God’s emboldened children. Longfellow ends his poem like this:
Ye that have eyes, yet cannot see,
In darkness and in misery,
Recall those mighty voices Three,
“Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me.”
“Be of good comfort, rise; he calleth thee.”
“Go Thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole.”
Bartimaeus moved from the sitting by the side of the road to walking down the road. There is something in this story that gets into all our lives — into our fears, doubts, preoccupations, hesitations, all those ways in which we define ourselves by what’s wrong. It need not remain that way for us. That it can be otherwise is what faith sees. Hence, “… thy faith hath made the whole” (
There is a story of a general whose troops stormed into a small town. When it was secure the general asked his scouts: “Where are the children of this village?”
“They have all fled in fear,” the scouts replied.
“Is there no one left to pay tribute?” the general shouted.
“No one but the priest. He remains in the temple.”
Immediately the general marched to the temple, burst through the doors and demanded to see the priest. After a search, the priest was found reading quietly in his study. The general, angry that the cleric refused to greet him as conqueror, shouted, “Don’t you know that you are looking at one who can run you through without batting an eye?”
“Don’t you know,” the priest replied, “that you are looking at one who can be run through without batting an eye?”
For a moment the soldier stared in disbelief at the priest. Then, slowly, a smile danced on his lips. He bowed low and left the temple (Stories for the Journey, p. 95).
To be defined by what’s wrong is unworthy of God’s children. It’s tragically unnecessary. So what do we do? Like Bartimaeus we say to God, “I want to see again.” And what makes the vision return? Our faith that God can do it. What have we to lose by asking? Especially when there is so much to gain.
“Don’t you know,” the priest replied, “that you are looking at one who can be run through without batting an eye?” The general bowed low and left the temple. So, too, will all that poorly defines us when we again remember Whose we are.