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Over the last 6 weeks, a number of us at Prince of Peace have been reading and discussing the book, “Short Stories by Jesus” by Amy Jill Levine. In the book, Levine asks us to re-examine the parables of Jesus and think about how they would have been heard by Jesus’ original hearers, and not just as, perhaps, we’ve always thought about them.
And one of the questions she always asks is, “who do you identify with in the parable? Who do you feel sympathy for?” It’s a good question for parables, but also for other stories that we read in the Bible.
For example, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus and his disciples are traveling through Jericho, and they’re about to head up to Jerusalem. A large crowd is following Jesus, but a blind beggar on the road hears that Jesus is in town, and cries out for help.
We don’t really know much of anything about this guy, except that he’s blind. He can’t work. And he’s crying out for help. As we read the story, most of us probably feel sympathy for this guy. We feel sorry for him. And we hope he gets help. After all, who wouldn’t feel compassion for him and want to help him?
Well, actually, it appears his neighbors in Jericho don’t! In fact, they don’t seem to like him all that much. Actually, they seem downright hostile towards this guy. Consider that:
- Nobody uses his name – he’s called “Bar-Timaeus”; but in Hebrew, the word “bar” simply means “son of”; so “Bartimaeus” is really sort of a last name; but nobody used his given name; they knew his dad, and were willing to remember him, but it’s sort of like, “oh yeah, this is that no-good kid of Timaeus.” They won’t even take his name upon their lips. He’s just referred to as a son-of-a- Timaeus!
- In most other healing stories, people in the town bring those who are sick or demon possessed to Jesus. But these folks don’t! In fact, they tell him to sit down and shut up! Multiples times!
- The son of Timaeus seems to know that people don’t like him, because after Jesus restores his sight, he happily follows Jesus up to Jerusalem. He’s not sticking around Jericho any longer.
Folks in Jericho don’t seem to like this son of Timaeus. Why? Well, Mark doesn’t tell us anything about him. But what if, before he was blind (after all, he tells Jesus he wants to “regain” his sight), what if…
- He had been a nasty neighbor to those around him? Did he cheat people in his business? Did he try to take advantage of his neighbor’s weaknesses? Was he a generally un-trustworthy person?
- He was loud and obnoxious? I mean, we can understand why he shouts out to Jesus in this particular situation. But what if he’s always like that, and always has been? What if he’s always been the loudest, most obnoxious person in room, sucking all the oxygen out of every conversation because everything has to be all about him?
- He was callous and completely indifferent to the suffering of others? What if he had been the person who once told blind people to sit down and shut up?
I don’t know. Mark doesn’t tell us. But what if people didn’t like this son of Timaeus for these reasons or others like them? And what if somebody had told Jesus all these things? After all, a large crowd (presumably including people who knew the son of Timaeus) were walking with Jesus.
And what if it didn’t matter to Jesus? What if, indeed, nothing this son of Timaeus had done before separated him from Jesus’ love and compassion? What if Jesus was willing to help this son of Timaeus even he had been – and still was – a person who was unliked for very legitimate reasons?
In fact, that seems to be what happens. “Call him here”, says Jesus. And Jesus heals him, without interrogating him about why his neighbors don’t like him, or if any of those things are true. It doesn’t matter to Jesus. Jesus simply sees this son of Timaeus as a person whom God loves and who needs help. And so he restores his sight.
But something else miraculous happens even before that. When Jesus says, “Call him here”, suddenly the neighbors also see with new eyes. For at least that moment, they appear to see the son of Timaeus as Jesus sees him. And instead of telling him to sit down and shut up, suddenly they encourage and help him. “Take heart”, they say, “he’s calling you.” And then, clearly, they help him get to Jesus because he couldn’t have gotten there by himself.
And what if that’s the real miracle of this story. It’s not so much that the son of Timaeus could see again, but that the neighbors in Jericho are able to see him as Jesus sees him. And what if that’s the point that Mark wants us to get from this story?
Because, indeed, it’s not so hard to have sympathy and compassion for people who we like or feel sorry for. But what about people who have been nasty to us, or to our friends and family? What about people who are loud and obnoxious and self-centered? What about people who have been callous and uncaring towards others in need?
Can we see them as Jesus sees them? Are we willing to have our eyes opened, and be people who encourage and help people like that to also come into the love and presence of Jesus? Are we willing to hope for Jesus’ love and compassion for folks we may not like? And are we willing to trust in Jesus’ love and compassion for ourselves at times when we’re not very likable ourselves?
I really don’t know why people in Jericho didn’t particularly seem to like the son of Timaeus. And unlike this son of Timaeus, they didn’t ask Jesus to help them to see differently.
But they did want to experience Jesus in their lives. And they did try to listen to what Jesus said. And because of that, they, too, were able to see things differently. Their attitudes got adjusted because of what Jesus said. And when they heard Jesus’ call, they were willing to go and help even someone they might not have helped before.
And so maybe the most important part of this story is to remind us that being open to experiencing Jesus in our lives – and listening for his voice – isn’t important so that we can feel good and holy. Instead, experiencing and listening to Jesus is important so that Jesus can open our eyes, and help us to see things as Jesus sees them. Experiencing and listening to Jesus is important so that Jesus can adjust our attitudes – especially about people we don’t personally like. And experiencing and listening to Jesus is important because sometimes, even when we aren’t realizing it, we’ll be willing to get up and help in ways that we wouldn’t have without Jesus in our lives.