Today’s readings mingle themes of blindness and joy. The “Entrance Antiphon,” that psalm fragment that traditionally sets the tone of the
readings for the day, makes it clear, literally: “Let hearts rejoice who search for the Lord. Seek the Lord… [Ps 105:3]. The first reading, from the prophet Jeremiah, underscores the connection. Unlike the second reading and the gospel, it does not follow the weekly continuation for this time of year. So we have reason to pay attention when it begins, “Shout with joy for Jacob, exult at the head of the nations.” But Jeremiah quickly goes on to the second theme, citing God’s promise to bring the people back from captivity “with the blind and the lame in their midst” together with pregnant women and young mothers. They departed in tears, he says, “but I will console them and bring them back.”
The responsory psalm evokes the same images of the return of the people of Israel from captivity in Babylon: “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with rejoicing. Those who sowed in tears will reap in joy.”
It’s worth noting that when the Babylonians stormed Jerusalem in 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar had King Zedekiah blinded after making him witness the execution of his sons. Then the blind king and the entire royal court were deported to Babylon where the Jews stayed captive for almost seventy years.
From what we know, not many came back, at least at first. But out of that stock the city of Jerusalem grew up again. What’s more, the blind, the lame, and those with impaired speech and hearing were not left behind. They too were children of the Covenant, and were to be included as being of special concern.
Under the ancient Law, to be born blind or lose one’s vision was a terrible misfortune. It was often considered a divine punishment. The blind and lame were ceremonially unclean, and could not enter the sanctuary. According to Leviticus 21:18, “no one who has a blemish shall draw near, nor a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long….” Even blind or lame animals were considered accursed under the Law and could not be offered as a sacrifice in the Temple. [Deut.15:21. See Malachi 1:8].
So extending the promise of return to the blind and lame was far more important than it might at first seem. Here, the compassion of God is revealed with particular concern for the most unfortunate and despised members of society. It was a favorite theme of the prophets, who were filled with a sense of God’s inclusive love as well as justice. [See Micah 4:6-7 and Zephaniah 3:19].
This is all part of the background of the story of the healing of the blind man in today’s gospel, which appears in Luke and Matthew’s gospels as well. Jesus understood that healing the blind was an important sign of his mission. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus takes this passage from the Book of Isaiah as the text of his first preaching:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” [Isaiah 61:1.]
In Matthew’s gospel, he tells the messengers from John the Baptist, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” [Matthew 11:4-5. See also Luke 7:22.]. And so, “great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the dumb, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, so that the throng wondered, when they saw the dumb speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they glorified the God of Israel” [Matthew 15:30-31].
There is no question about the blind man in Mark’s Gospel, he was a beggar. But he, or his father, was well enough known in the early Christian community to have his name, a curious blend of Hebrew and Greek, come down to us: Bar Timaios, the son of Timaios. He was remembered. But unlike the man born blind in John’s gospel, the son of Timaios wants to see again – a nuance easily overlooked, but that is what the word used, anablepso, actually means. He had lost his sight, perhaps because of the common infections of those days, or an accident of some kind. Unless your family was wealthy enough to support you, to lose your sight at that time meant becoming a beggar, depending on the charity of passers-by to supply your needs. It meant to be at the mercy of others, including thieves and bullies. To be both blind and lame was a double catastrophe. You couldn’t even get away from those who liked to torment you. Worst of all, you couldn’t even enter the Temple.
The request made of Jesus is so simple and yet so touching. “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!” Son of David – a messianic title that appears only here in Mark’s gospel as a title of Jesus himself. Son of Timaios. His petition been taken as the basis of one of the most famous of all Christian prayers, repeated like the rosary among Eastern Christians and many in the West. It is called the Jesus Prayer: Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
When bystanders tell Bar Timaios that Jesus is near, he throws away his cloak, probably his sole possession, comes to Jesus and repeats his entreaty. And Jesus heals him – according to Mark’s gospel the last of his healings on his way to Jerusalem.
The son of Timaios only wanted to see again. In some respect, that is true of all of who have grown to a certain age. It’s not just a question of cataracts or what the doctors call presbyopia, that weakening of sight that starts around middle age and seems to arise from a certain shortening of the arms in dimly lit restaurants. No, this lack of vision is caused more by weariness. As we get older, we no longer see things the way children do – bright, clear, wonderful. After being buffeted around for a few dozen years, the color and vividness of life become diminished. We suffer increasingly from a tendency to tunnel vision, seeing only what is of immediate urgency or trouble. Or profit. The poet William Wordsworth must have had something like this in mind when he wrote,
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
That kind of blindness is a loss of spiritual vision, which is far more serious than losing your physical sight. Presbyopia is a reminder not so much that we need bifocals, but that it is time to start looking within and far, far ahead. It’s interesting that in English “farsighted” also means “having foresight” and “providential.”
And what could be wiser than, like Bar Timaios, to turn to Jesus in order that we might see again? That our eyes might be opened to the presence of God all around us, in every blade of grass, and bird song, and in those moments of human truth and suffering and joy that so easily escape our attention because we neglect to look. For revelation is everywhere, if we only know how to see.
“Look!” Jesus said. “Look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field! See how God feeds and clothes them.” “Look at the fig tree!” “Look at the signs of the times!” And learn to see in the poor, the oppressed, the blind, and the lame, the true presence of Jesus himself. When and how do we learn to see like that? “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’” [Matt. 25:40]. In St. Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells us, simply enough, “…when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind… [Luke 14:13].
The son of Timaios recognized Jesus before he saw him. The blind beggar’s faith opened his eyes before Jesus gave him back his sight. And let us pray that God will increase our faith in the wisdom and power of Christ, so that we, too, may see things newly, not just new things. Let us pray to see things through the eyes of God, especially the presence of Christ in the poor, the oppressed, and all those who need our assistance. Then our mouths will be truly filled with laughter, and our tears will turn into dancing.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. — Edmund Burke, Letter to William Smith , Jan. 9th, 1795