Blind

Sabbath Day Thoughts – Mark 10:46-52

The girl was so wild that they kept her in a cage.  She bit and scratched, screamed and spit.  They didn’t know what was wrong with her, but the Tewksbury State Poorhouse was the end of the line for the orphaned and the indigent.  There was no place else to send her.  She was eight-years-old.  Her mother had died of tuberculosis.  Her father, overwhelmed and unable to cope, had surrendered her and younger brother Jimmie to the state.  Jimmie had died within months of their arrival at Tewksbury.

If it hadn’t been for the kindness of an elderly maid, Annie might have stayed in the cage.  Seeing the little girl so cruelly confined, the older woman felt compassion.  It didn’t seem right that a child should live like that, even if she was disturbed.  The maid baked a little cake.  She left it outside the cage, just within Annie’s reach.  The suspicious child devoured the cake and a bond was forged between the little girl and the old woman.

With the calming influence of the maid, doctors examined Annie.  They learned that she suffered from trachoma, an eye disease that had left her almost totally blind.  All at once, Annie’s behavior made sense.  She was a terrified, grieving eight-year-old, unable to cope with the death of her mother, the abandonment of her father, and the loss of her brother.  The doctors treated Annie’s trachoma and operated on her eyes, restoring some of her vision.

We don’t know how Bartimaeus lost his vision.  Perhaps it was gradual, the world dissolving bit by bit into shadows and darkness.  Perhaps it was all at once – a blow to the head or a workplace accident that robbed him instantly of his sight.  We don’t know how long Bartimaeus had sat roadside, earning his living in the only way left to a first century blind man: wrapped in his cloak and begging, depending upon the kindness of neighbors who might share a few alms.

We do know that Bartimaeus had heard of Jesus.  Maybe, one day a leper had come through the Jericho gates, boasting of the healing he had known at the hands of the Lord.  Perhaps disciples, who had once followed John the Baptist, had hurried past Bartimaeus on their way to Galilee, whispering that the Messiah had come at last.  One day, news had come to Bartimaeus that Jesus had healed a blind man in Bethsaida.  Jesus had spat into his hands, rubbed the blind man’s eyes, prayed powerfully, and the man had then seen everything clearly.

As the Passover drew near, a rumor came to Bartimaeus from pilgrims traveling down the Jordan Valley.  Jesus was coming to Jericho.  Jesus and his followers were going up to Jerusalem for the Passover.  From his seat on the Jericho Road, Bartimaeus, who had long ago given up hope, began to imagine that his life could change if only Jesus would pass by.

We tend not to see them until they trouble us.  Dressed all in black with big boots and a leather jacket, she shouts obscenities into her phone non-stop while her dog poops on our front lawn. 

In Kinney Drug—or was that Stewarts, he stands in front of us in his grimy jeans with a mask pulled down below his nose.  We look at our watch while he buys about a billion lottery tickets and some smokes. 

She hasn’t left her house in years.  Her son brings her the essentials and Meals-on-Wheels makes weekday deliveries.  I hear she has cats—lots.  Sometimes you see her scowling from the porch, turning away when you say, “Hi.”

He squats in a doorway with unkempt hair and a wild beard.  He’s always having an argument in a garbled voice with someone who isn’t there.  They’re everywhere.

She might have been legally blind, but Annie could see that the Tewksbury State Poorhouse was a one-way ticket to a life of poverty and misery.  Occasionally, children left.  Those who showed promising intelligence were sent away to school, but Annie was legally blind.  Where was the promise in that?  When the State Board of Charities sent a commission to investigate the awful conditions of the poorhouse, Annie saw her chance.  She told the commission that she wanted to go to school.

As an illiterate fourteen-year-old, Annie was sent to the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston.  There Annie found that her struggles would be greater than her visual impairment.  Institutionalized from the age of eight, Annie lacked social skills, table manners, and appropriate hygiene.  She alienated her fellow students, and her quick temper put her at odds with her teachers.  Despite her difficulties, Annie was tremendously bright and hard working.  She put her prodigious gifts to work and excelled.  Six years later in 1887, Annie took top honors as valedictorian upon graduation from the Perkins Institute.

When Jesus and his friends passed Bartimaeus on the Jericho Road, the blind man knew that this was his big shot.  Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, and odds were good that he wasn’t coming back.  If healing was going to happen, it had to be now.  So, Bartimaeus began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!  Hey, you!  Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 

Bartimaeus made the biggest scene imaginable.  It was embarrassing.  The neighbors told him to pipe down, but the more they told him to stop, the more he yelled.  Folks began to look away.  They turned to one another and shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders as if to say, “Can you believe this, guy?”  If the neighbors had had their way, Jesus wouldn’t have stopped.  Instead, the good people of Jericho would have cheered Jesus on and sent him up to the Holy City where meaningful and important things were surely waiting.

We don’t know if it was the “Hey, you!” or the “Son of David” or the “Have mercy on me,” but I’m sure everyone was surprised when Jesus stopped.  As Jesus called Bartimaeus over, the neighbors, who had been so anxious to silence Bartimaeus, had a change of heart.  Suddenly, they were all help and smiles.  “He’s calling you!  ‘Atta boy!  Get up there!”  For his part, the blind man was so confident of his impending healing that he leapt up and left behind the tools of his trade.  His cloak and begging bowl were forgotten on the roadside.

One day, we suddenly knew we were blind.  We were volunteering at the Food Pantry when she came in with her dog in a stroller.  We cried when we heard that her folks had put her out and her dog was sick and she couldn’t afford the vet bills. 

One day, we had a flat tire and he pulled over to help us.  He got out of his rusted-out pick-up, followed by the miasma of cigarette smoke and unwashed hair.  While he helped change the tire, he told us how his grandparents raised him after his Dad ran out, and he never really learned to read, and he does odd jobs to make ends meet, and that’s ok.

One day, we saw the police and paramedics go in after the ambulance arrived without any siren.  Later, we saw the stretcher come out with its quiet, shrouded contents.  The EMTs talked to the cops while the cats cried piteously.  Last spring, the house sold, but they say it was a nightmare to clean out.

One day, we read an article in the paper about mental illness. and we realized how impossible it is to find decent care for big-time disorders in the North Country.  Folks just flail until they become a danger to themselves and others and the police get involved, which may get them off the streets for a couple of weeks, but healing never happens.

One day, we opened our eyes.  One day, we knew that we had been blind to the hidden world of need all around us.

The head of the Perkins School helped Annie find a job after graduation.  The Keller family of Tuscumbia, Alabama had written, looking for a governess who could help with their daughter Helen.  A high fever at the age of eighteen months had robbed Helen of both vision and hearing.  Helen was every bit as wild as Annie herself had once been.  No one knew how reach the child, how to help her communicate with the outside world.  Annie Sullivan went to Tuscumbia.  With patience and persistence, she taught Helen Keller.  Most of us may remember the powerful scene in the award-winning play and film The Miracle Worker when Annie signed “water” into Helen’s left hand while holding Helen’s right hand beneath the bright, wet flow gushing from a hand pump.  Suddenly, a light turned on and Helen Keller, who would never see, finally saw what Annie was doing, and the world opened up for her.

We don’t know how Bartimaeus’ eyesight returned.  It could have taken a few minutes, like a darkened theatre that slowly brightens as the audience rises to leave.  It could have come back all at once—a bright, mind-blowing flash of sun and sky, landscape and people.  It could have started with a bright point of light that grew until the whole world was illuminated like a kaleidoscope shining all about.  Afterward, Bartimaeus, who was no longer blind, saw everything clearly.  So clearly in fact, that when Jesus told him to “go,” he knew he had to come.  He knew he had to follow Jesus, even if suffering and death awaited them in Jerusalem.

Maybe someday we’ll see what Jesus saw all those years ago on the Jericho Road.  Maybe someday we’ll know what Annie Sullivan knew when she walked into the Keller home in Tuscumbia, Alabama.  A hidden world of need is all around us—all the time.  We can be blind, or we can choose to make a healing difference.  Can we see? Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us.  Amen.


Resources

Jarvis, Cynthia. “Pastoral Perspective on Mark 10:46-52” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Galloway, Lincoln E. “Homiletical Perspective on Mark 10:46-52” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

–. “The Story of Helen Keller & Anne Sullivan” in The Helen Keller Society.  Accessed online at http://helenkeller.org.za/HK1/index.php/about-us/the-miracle-and-miracle-worker

Biography.com editors. “Anne Sullivan Biography” in Biography, April 2, 2014.  Accessed online at https://www.biography.com/activist/anne-sullivan


See the source image
Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (1962) from Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Image accessed online at https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056241/mediaviewer/rm4062820864/

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