There is a problem in Christian hymnody with the way blindness is used as a metaphor.

Here are a few examples:

“Amazing Grace” – v. 1:

Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
T’was blind but now I see

“Just as I am” – v. 4:

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind…

“God moves in a mysterious way” William Cowper 18c. – v. 6:

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan His work in vain…

“Thou whose almighty Word” v. 2:

Thou, who didst come to bring
on thy redeeming wing
healing and sight,
health to the sick in mind,
sight to the inly blind,
O now to all mankind
let there be light.

“Holy Holy Holy” v. 3:

Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee,
though the eye made blind by sin
thy glory may not see,
only thou art holy; there is none beside thee,
perfect in power, in love, and purity.

Notice the problem?

To be blind is to be lost, poor, wretched, sure to err, sick in mind, unbelieving, spiritually dense, and unable to perceive the presence of the divine. No morally neutral human condition should be forced to bear the burden of this dark metaphoric weight.

It is important for those of us who will be preaching this Sunday to keep this in mind because many of us will be reflecting on the story of Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52.

The irony in the story of Bartimaeus is that of all the people who appear in Mark 10, the only one who sees clearly is Bartimaeus who was physically blind. He alone understands that Jesus cares for those who are marginalized. Only Bartimaeus sees that Jesus is the source of hope and healing. Bartimaeus alone understands that the only way to experience healing is for us to throw ourselves on the mercy of God embodied in the person of Jesus.

Seventeen years ago, I preached on this story and it seems that, for the most part, I was able to avoid using blindness as a metaphor for spiritual obtuseness. Here is what I said about this story in 2001 (nb: as I type this I am wearing glasses):

MARK 10:46-52

I don’t wear glasses.  For years people told me that when I turned forty I would have to start wearing glasses – now they tell me that at fifty my eyesight will begin to fail.  But, so far I remain in the rare category of that privileged minority who have made it into middle age with twenty-twenty vision.

Bartimaeus in our Gospel reading this morning was not so fortunate.  Bartimaeus was blind and his condition had forced him to resort to life as a beggar.  There is something tragic in Mark’s portrayal of Bartimaeus.  Mark says that Bartimaeus was “sitting by the roadside.” And while Bartimaeus sat by the roadside, Jesus, “and a large crowd were leaving Jericho” on their way to Jerusalem.

Jesus, his disciples, and the crowd were on their way to Jerusalem for Passover.  They would have been excited, filled with a sense of expectation.  They were going to the holy city to worship, to celebrate the deliverance of their ancestors from Egypt and to look forward with hope and longing to their own liberation from Roman oppression.

Bartimaeus was not part of the crowd.  Bartimaeus was an outsider, unable to participate in the action.  There was no hope Bartimaeus could ever make this great journey from Jericho to Jerusalem.  It would have been one more tragedy in his difficult life to never be able to join the band of pilgrims traveling to the Holy City.

I wonder what are the unmet aspirations, hopes, dreams, and expectations in our lives.  Perhaps if we are still young, we haven’t yet experienced the sense of loss that can accompany the realization that some of our visions will never be fulfilled.  But, if we have reached middle age, and our eyesight is beginning to fail, we have probably discovered that there are some journeys we are never going to make. By the time you get to my great old age, you know there are going to be certain things about your life which are not going to turn out just exactly as you might have hoped they would.

So, as we look at Bartimaeus sitting there by the roadside with the happy crowd streaming by on their way to Jerusalem, the important question is how we respond to the frustrations and failures that are an inevitable part of life.

What do we do when things don’t turn out just as we might have hoped?  How do we react when reality does not match our dreams?

What did Bartimaeus do?

The first thing I notice about Bartimaeus is that he has not given up.  He has not resigned himself in a defeatist way to his sad destiny.  Mark says that when Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was coming by, “he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’”  Even when the crowds “ordered him to be quiet,” Bartimaeus, “cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’”

The first lesson of the spiritual journey is surrender.  But, surrender is not resignation.  For all his troubles, Bartimaeus was not defeated.  There was still something in Bartimaeus which reached out for life.  He was still willing to take a risk.  He was willing to put himself on the line and launch out on an uncertain adventure.  He was eager to trust, to try something new, to swim against the flow.

The fact that life may not entirely measure up to our expectations is not a signal that we should resign from the challenges of living, sit in front of the television for the next thirty years and vegetate.  In spite of what my children may think, life does not actually end at forty.  There are things about my life which have not turned out as I may have wished, but I am still eager to learn and grow and explore and discover new ways of being in the midst of this mysterious journey called life.  Unmet dreams are not an indication that it is time to give up.  I may not be able to get to Jerusalem; but there are amazing journeys I can take right here outside of Jericho.  Bartimaeus had not given up on life.  He reached out and embarked upon a new journey.

Hearing the longing in Bartimaeus’ voice, Jesus stopped and had Bartimaeus brought to him through the crowd.

Try to see this in your mind.  Here you have this large, boisterous crowd.  They are healthy and energetic.  They are in a party mood, excited and urgent, impatient to get on their way.   Suddenly, before the journey has even really begun, they are stopped by this awful man screaming at the top of his lungs.  They try to shut him up but he will not give up.  Jesus stops the parade and tells the people to bring the man who has been calling out.  Someone goes gingerly to Bartimaeus and helps him up from the dust by the roadside.  The crowd parts as Bartimaeus approaches Jesus.  No one wants to be touched by this dirty beggar.  His clothes are tattered, his hair is unkempt, his bare feet are dirty.  Bartimaeus needs to be guided; he cannot find his way on his own.  He walks with the halting uncertainty of someone making his way completely in the dark.

Finally, Bartimaeus stands before Jesus.  Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Now I don’t know if that strikes you as odd.  But it seems pretty peculiar to me.  Jesus knew what was in a person’s heart before the person ever verbalized what he was thinking.  And yet faced with a blind beggar who has been crying for mercy, Jesus has to ask “What do you want me to do for you?

This is the question that faces all of us, particularly when we are feeling frustrated and let down by life – what do you want?

We all stand before God with our little fists clenched saying, ‘It’s not fair; things didn’t turn out the way I planned.’  And God asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”  God asks this question, not necessarily because God is going to do exactly what we order but because God wants us to face the question ourselves – what are we really looking for in life?

And we answer – I want to be the most successful preacher on earth, write wonderful books that everyone will read and have my picture on the front of some magazine.  Or we say, I want to be the best parent in the world, or to get a different job, have a different boss, be a different person, have just a little bit more money, be finished school, be married, not be married, be married to someone else, be healthier than I am, live somewhere different, and on and on go the answers.  But the only answer God is looking for is the answer that Bartimaeus gave.

Bartimaeus replies, “Rabbouni, let me see again.”  That’s what we want.  We want to have the eye of our heart opened.  We want to see reality.  All those other longings simply come down to the one desire to know God and to live in relationship to God.  We want to wake up to understand the inner depth and meaning of life.  We want to be able to do what Bartimaeus did, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way.”  That’s the longing of our hearts. We long to follow the way of life, to live by the truth Jesus embodied, and to move towards the light that is God’s presence at the heart of all life.

All of those frustrations we experience, all that sense of let down, of failure, betrayal, resentment, all the wounds we have ever known serve one function.  They all have the capacity to bring us to the place where we begin to live more fully in tune with the realities of a universe that at its heart is suffused with the presence of love.  The pain of life wounds us with the longing to know beauty and truth, so that we might find ourselves in God and know that it is in the divine alone that we find our true selves and know the meaning of our existence.

I may need glasses in a few years in order to be able to see clearly.  But, even if I do, I know that my vision will be much clearer than it was twenty years ago.  I know that not very long ago the inner eye of my heart was unable to see clearly.  I believed in the illusion that there was something out there in the world which could satisfy my longings.  I believed that there was some change in my external circumstances which could bring me contentment.  But I see more clearly now and I know that there is nothing outside of myself which can bring peace or hope.

The real journey of life is not from Jericho to Jerusalem.  The real journey of life is the journey into the heart where we see God and understand that in God alone does our contentment lie.