A sermon on Mark 10: 46-52 by Nathan Nettleton, 25 October 2009
My eyesight has deteriorated noticeably in the last year or so. I haven’t had it checked yet, so I can’t put a number on it, but I can tell that it probably won’t be all that long before I am wearing glasses. I’m not in any great hurry to do something about it, partly because it is not causing me much problem yet, and partly because last time I went to an eye doctor reporting a deterioration in my eyesight, he ran me through an hour of tests and then told me that I had successfully noticed that my eyesight had dropped from 20:20 to 20:19½ and I should come back in 10 years if it got a lot worse! Well, it is more than ten years now, but I’m still feeling slightly embarrassed about that chiding, so I haven’t raced off there again. I’m a bit curious about what I may discover when I do though. Like, I don’t think it is that bad, but how do I know what I can’t see? Some of you have probably had the experience that I’ve often heard about where you get new glasses and only then realise how much you weren’t seeing before. Maybe that will be me.
Now that is a very long way from the experience of Bartimaeus in the story we heard before, or even from the experience of Robbie and John who we know here. And their experiences of blindness are different from each other. Bartimaeus had once had normal eyesight, but now he was blind; through illness or injury, we don’t know. The fact that we are told who his father was suggests that he had not always been a beggar on the street, but that’s where his blindness had left him. Robbie has enough eyesight to be able to read if the print is large enough. John doesn’t have that much, but he still has some. Bartimaeus, John, Robbie, me, and you all see the world through very different eyes. There are lots of things I can see that Robbie can’t see, and there are things that Robbie can see that John can’t see. But one of the things we can learn from the story of Bartimaeus is that there are things that John and Robbie can see that most of the rest of us can’t see. Why? Two reasons. Firstly, because seeing is not all about eyesight; and secondly, because what you can see is greatly affected by your perspective which in turn is greatly affected by what you have known and experienced of life and the world. In the later Harry Potter novels, there is a creature called a thestral which can only be seen by people who have witnessed a death. And it’s true isn’t it? The things we have experienced change what we can and can’t “see”.
Let me first show you how I see this emerging in Mark’s gospel, and then I’ll develop what it might mean for us. The interplay of blindness and sight is a constant theme in Mark’s gospel, and it is not all about eyesight. Mark creatively juxtaposes stories about Jesus restoring sight to the blind with stories of him trying to get his disciples or the religious leaders or the crowds to see things that they seem unable to see. Two and a half chapters before this story, there was another story of Jesus healing a blind man, and the material that is framed by the two stories is meant to be heard in light of them. In the first story, Jesus has to have two goes at restoring the man’s sight. After his first attempt, the man reports that he can see people, but they look more like trees walking around. Maybe roughly the level of eyesight that John has. Jesus has to have a second go before the man can see fully. Clearly it is not easy to get those who cannot see to see. And the next few chapters bear that out over and over again. Jesus keeps trying to explain what he is on about and what it is going to mean, and no one much ever seems to see more clearly than trees walking around.
Jesus asks who the disciples think he is, and Peter gives a good answer and then immediately demonstrates that he can’t really see what that means. Three disciples accompany him up the mountain of transfiguration and catch a glimpse of his true identity, but they can’t see what it means. Jesus keeps trying to explain how he will be rejected and persecuted, but the disciples just keep arguing about which of them is the greatest. He keeps suggesting that they need to look at children and slaves and the disabled if they want to understand the nature of the kingdom, but they can’t see it and keep on jostling for positions. A rich young man who has kept the commandments all his life comes and asks what he needs to do to have life, and when Jesus tells him he’d be better off without all his stuff, he turns his back and walks away. He just can’t see it. The disciples respond to this by listing all that they’ve given up to follow Jesus, and Jesus affirms this, but the next thing we know, they are jostling for positions again and James and John have asked for the top seats on Jesus’ right and left hand.
And then we meet Bartimaeus. Although his eyesight doesn’t work, there are three things that Bartimaeus can see that everyone else is having trouble making out. Firstly, Bartimaeus recognises that Jesus is not just someone who could throw a few coins into his cap, but someone who could open his eyes. Bartimaeus often called out to passers-by asking for mercy, but when Jesus comes by, even when people try to shut him up and keep him away just as they had done with the children a few verses back, he perseveres and asks that his eyes might be opened. Secondly, Bartimaeus recognises that Jesus is not just a healer, who can open his eyes, but is the new David, the Messiah for whom Israel has been longing. Bartimaeus is the first person in Mark’s gospel account to address Jesus as “the Son of David,” and this is all the more significant because this is the last story before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem where the crowds pick up what Bartimaeus has seen and begin waving palm branches and hailing Jesus as the successor to David. And thirdly, Bartimaeus can see that when it comes to following Jesus, there is no need to keep a foot in each camp and cling to the securities of the past. Other disciples had left their nets and the rich young man had been unable to leave his possessions, but Bartimaeus has no hesitation in throwing aside his cloak, the cloak he spread out to receive the coins for which he begged, the cloak that was his livelihood, the cloak he could see he would no longer need, and following Jesus on the way.
Can you see then how Bartimaeus shows us that seeing what matters is not all about eyesight? The things that really matter are just as likely to be seen by those who are physically blind. Many who have 20:19½ eyesight nevertheless have very crippled vision when it comes to seeing what really matters and what it all means. And as Jesus said a few weeks ago, you’d be better going into heaven with your eyes plucked out than to keep your 20:20 and miss out on grasping the vision of what really matters and turing your life around accordingly.
So what can we do about that? We’ve already chosen to follow Jesus, but that in itself does not seem to make everything clear as Jesus’s repeated attempts to open the eyes of his disciples shows us. If we want to see as Jesus would have us see, what are we to do? Let me suggest three things.
Number 1. Ask Jesus for help. That’s where it starts for Bartimaeus. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” You can’t open your eyes by yourself. There are things you can do to to make yourself ready and receptive for the opening of your eyes, but if you really want to see as Jesus would have you see, you need to ask him to open your eyes. So pray. Spend some time asking Jesus to show you what he wants you to see. Most of us are a bit more resistant than Bartimaeus — we’re more like the rest of the disciples — so don’t think if it doesn’t happen the first time that you might as well give up. If you can’t see more than trees walking, Jesus hasn’t finished yet. Keep asking, keep praying, keep waiting.
Number 2. Let go of stuff that locks you in to only one way of seeing. The rich young man couldn’t let go of his stuff, so he walked away blind. Bartimaeus tossed aside his cloak, no questions asked, and followed Jesus on the way with his eyes opened. Often it is the things we are attached to, the things we can’t imagine ourselves without, the things we have built our identity around, that blind us and keep us blind. They might be material things, they might be relationships, they might be habits or attitudes or behaviour patterns. But they pile up around us and block out the light, and we can no longer see or even imagine a world without them. If Jesus is calling you to toss them aside and follow, then toss them aside and follow and you will begin to see in a new light.
And number 3. Take every opportunity to see the world through the eyes of others, especially those who are not like you, and most especially those whose views are usually dismissed and discounted in our society. This has come up repeatedly in these chapters of Mark’s gospel. If you want to see the kingdom, look through the eyes of a child. If you want to see who is the greatest in the kingdom, look through the eyes of a slave. And now, if you want to see what it means to hunger and thirst for salvation, look through the eyes of a man who has known sight but is now blind.
I said at the start that there are things Robbie and John can see that we with good eyesight are blind to. If you want to begin to see those things, you will have to see them through the eyes of Robbie and John, and that means that you will have to take the time to get to know them well enough to begin to see the world through their eyes. There are a bunch of children over here listening to what we are saying while they make beautiful “eye of God” decorations. Do you know how things look through their eyes. Jesus says you won’t know the kingdom very well until you do. Maybe next Sunday you might want to sit on the floor with them and see what goes on in here through their eyes. What about finding out what the world looks like through Mark’s experience of chronic illness, or the other Mark’s experience of schizophrenia, or Simon and Maggie’s experience of finding your way as a recent immigrant in a strange culture? What about through the eyes of a refugee or an indigenous Australian or a homosexual or transgendered person?
Last weekend Pastor Rob Buckingham at a large pentecostal church here in Melbourne preached a groundbreaking sermon of love and acceptance for homosexual and transgendered people. It wasn’t groundbreaking because no such thing has been said before, but because it was being said from within a sector of the church that has mostly been known for saying the opposite. And he said himself that they key was forming friendships and learning of gay people’s experience — seeing the world and the church through their eyes and asking Jesus to enable him to see rightly. I believe and pray that his sermon will open many eyes because he had the courage to do these three things: to ask Jesus to help him see; to toss aside the things that had held him locked in to an old way of seeing; and to take the time to see the world through the eyes of those whose view had been dismissed — those who Jesus called us to pay special attention to and to learn from.
So with Bartimaeus and John and Robbie and Pastor Rob Buckingham and the whole communion of saints, before us and beside us who have had their eyes opened by Jesus and left behind the old ways to follow him, let us step blinking into the light of God’s love and follow Jesus on the way.