Once again this week, even twice now, our nation has been engulfed in scenes of potential and very real violence, terror, and bloodshed. We have grown so weary of it, here and elsewhere in the world! The ancient Greeks had a word for our unease, “Whence come these evils?” Job and the Psalmists pondered “why do the innocent suffer?” The mystery of evil sadly remains largely unanswered, except for the stark judgment of a later writer of scripture, faced with the challenge of belief in a God of love and mercy and the reality of unmerited suffering. In the passage that follows immediately on today’s second reading, we hear:
“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…” [Hebrews 5:7-9].
Redemptive suffering and non-violent resistance provide the subtext of the whole Letter, and it is clear to the ancient writer that such suffering is inscrutable except in the light
of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It has to do with faith and hope moved by immense love, which alone can quell the darker angels of our nature.
The passage from Hebrews is couched between the prophetic promise of Jeremiah concerning the return of the exiles from Babylon and the healing of the blind beggar, Bartimaios by Jesus. These are not unconnected snippets of scripture, but linked deeply and mysteriously. The beggar’s name itself is significant – “Son of Timaios.” A Greek name. But more importantly, when Mark supplies a name, it points to someone remembered. The early community knew who he was. And recalled his blindness.
In the ancient Law, to be born blind or to lose one’s vision was a terrible misfortune. It was often considered a divine punishment. The blind and lame were considered 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.
And here lies a subtle link to the first reading. When the Babylonians stormed Jerusalem in 587 BCE, 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 first when they were allowed to do so by Cyrus the Great. 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. And so placing Psalm 126 here, the Song of Return, is of special note. “When the Lord brought back the captives of Zion, it was like a dream…Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with rejoicing.”
Here, the compassion of God is revealed with particular concern for the most unfortunate and despised members of society – not all that unlike the thousands of poor and oppressed people struggling along the difficult route from Honduras to what they hope is “the Promised Land.” The return of the exiles was a favorite theme of the prophets, who were filled with a sense of God’s inclusive love as well as justice. In the book of the prophet Micah, God says, “I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away, and those whom I have afflicted; and the lame I will make the remnant; and those who were cast off, a strong nation; and the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and for evermore” [Micah 4:6-7].
This returns us to the story of noisy Bar Timaios, who would not take no for an answer, and Jesus, who understood that, as St. Paul wrote to his Corinthians years later: “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not ‘Yes and No’; but in him it is always ‘Yes.’ For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’” [2 Cor. 1:19-20].
Unlike the man born blind in John’s gospel, the son of Timaios wants to see again. He had lost his sight, perhaps because of the infections that were common in 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 enjoyed tormenting you.
This is at least part of the reason God’s concern for the blind and the lame was so pronounced in the teaching of the prophets. Their welfare was often taken as an index of the spiritual health of the people as a whole. And Jesus knew that restoring sight to the blind was a sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus cites Isaiah in his first sermon: “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, Luke 7:22.]
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. Let us pray that God will open our eyes widely so that we, too, may see things as God sees them. Perhaps then, we will turn away from the spectacle of sectarian division, violence, and bloodshed and so liberate the better angels of our nature in a truly acceptable year of the Lord..