The Blind Man Who Could See

Bartimaeus

The story of Jesus healing the blind man Bartimaeus is considered by many Bible scholars to be the closing bookend of what is called an inclusio. An inclusio is a literary device where two passages echo each other in such a way as to create bookends for the material in between them. In this portion of Mark, the two echoing stories involve the healing of a blind man. The material between these two stories is the journey to Jerusalem. The first healing (Mark 8: 22-26) takes place at Bethsaida. The second takes place as Jesus arrives at Jericho, the last stop before arriving in Jerusalem. In the intervening material the journey is punctuated by Jesus’ three predictions of his passion coupled with the incomprehension of his disciples. Each of these predictions is also accompanied by disputes among the disciples as to who is the greatest.

The blindness of the two men who need healing is often thought to represent the blindness of the disciples which also needs healing. With the man in Bethsaida, Jesus needs two tries to get the healing right, suggesting that the blindness of the disciples is difficult to heal. The much easier healing of the man in Jericho suggests hope that the disciples, though still blind, will also be healed.

I agree with this interpretation of the inclusio but there is something else that has caught my attention. This is the different ways the crowd acts in these two stories. At Bethsaida, the people in the crowd bring the blind man to Jesus and ask Jesus to touch him and give him back his sight. At Jericho it is a very different story. When Bartimaeus cries out, the people in the crowd rebuke him and tell him to be quiet. Far from helping Bartimaeus in getting a healing, they try to hinder him. In this, they act the apostles who just a short time ago had tried to keep the mothers from bringing their children to Jesus. Moreover, the crowd has shifted its focus from Jesus to Bartimaeus and in an adversarial way at that. Again, this matches the disciples who focused on each other in their altercations rather than on Jesus. If the crowd at this point is an extension of the disciples, then they badly need healing and yet, the more healing they need for their blindness, the more resistant they are to healing. Baratimaeus, in calling out to Jesus by his Messianic title shows that he sees more than those who theoretically have eyes.

Jesus’ calling out to Bartimaeus makes it clear that it us his desire to heal the blind man. The crowd is thus convicted of being contrary to Jesus’ desire. They might be surrounding him but they are not following him. We could say that the crowd at Bethsaida was a community in that they brought the blind man to Jesus. The crowd at Jericho is a—well—a crowd acting in the persecutory way that a crowd tends to act out. The contrast between these two echoing stories in the inclusio present us with the fundamental choice as to whether we will join a community of healing or fall back into a crowd that fights healing. Will we look at the blind person and at Jesus or will we fail to see either of them?

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4 thoughts on “The Blind Man Who Could See

  1. Thanks, as always, for this reflection.

    Here’s waht always occurs to me about the Bartimaeus story: the Gospel has been completely Jerusalem-centered since the turning point in Mark 8. Jesus has been saying, “I’m going to be handed over” and enough place names are included to make it clear he’s making a beeline to Jerusalem, the place where it’s going to happen. A huge crowd is following him, and now he’s leaving Jericho — the very last stop before Jerusalem. There’s a lot of narrative momentum in play — you can imagine everyone in the crowd saying, “we’re almost there — holy cow, what’s going to happen next?” But Jesus stops the whole parade for Bartimaeus, a blind beggar on the periphery of the story. And he doesn’t just wave a miracle at him and go on, he brings him out, looks him in the eye, and says, “what do you want me to do for you?” An amazing affirmation of the importance of loving the individual in front of your nose, no matter what other agenda (even a worthy agenda) you may have at any given moment. This has been something I’ve been talking about a lot lately, in response to the Pope Francis phenomenon. I think it’s the secret to his rock star status: he really cares about the person more than the controversy. When he says, “who am I to judge?” we sense he means it — he really doesn’t want to judge people, even people he disagrees with (unlike virtually everybody else). This was, I suspect, one of the things that most drew the crowds to follow Jesus, too.

    No matter what: don’t ignore the person in front of you (they may be going into the kingdom of heaven before you!), and don’t use them as pawns in some allegedly bigger battle. Ask, “What do you want me to do for you?”

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