“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. You might remember he asked this same question in last Sunday’s Gospel lesson. Last week, it was James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who came to Jesus for a favor, asking to sit at his right hand and his left hand. Jesus did not grant their request; he told them that seating arrangements are not his decision to make.
This week again, someone else, this time Bartimaeus, is calling out: Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me! And again Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus answers, “My teacher, let me see again.” And Jesus restores his sight and Bartimaeus follows Jesus and they all live happily ever after.
But of course you know that isn’t the end of the story. This isn’t even the beginning of the story. In Mark’s Gospel, two chapters before, Jesus meets another blind man who asks for his sight, and in the first attempt to restore his sight, the man tells him, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking.” So Jesus has to try again before the man receives his sight.
And then after that story are a bunch of stories of the disciples not understanding the nature of the reign of God. It’s as if the Gospel-writer Mark put all these stories in this order to suggest that to gain understanding is like having one’s sight restored. The reign of God is a place where people are restored to community, where there is humility and welcome of others.
In the Gospel lesson today, Bartimaeus regains his sight after just one attempt by Jesus, and then Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way to the cross. Bartimaeus who had been a roadside beggar was now restored to community—a sign of the reign of God.
I want to be very careful not to call this story a “healing story”—perhaps you already noticed that the word “healing” doesn’t appear anywhere in this story. The idea of “healing” can become a weapon against people with disabilities, as if people with disabilities are not already whole within themselves.
One of this year’s MacArthur Fellows is Joshua Miele (MEE-elly), a man who develops innovative technologies for blind people, including a glove called WearaBraille that allows a wearer to type braille into any smart device without the need for a keyboard.
Miele himself became blind at age four, and his mother, Isabella, became his advocate. He said, “My mother was not interested in protecting me. She was interested in having me be as active and engaged with the world as possible.”
Still, Miele didn’t want to be defined by his disability. He said, “I didn’t want to be a blind person. I wanted to be just another guy, and avoided anything related to disability or blindness.”
But when he arrived for college at the University of California at Berkeley, he was living communally with, in his words, “the coolest blind people I had ever known in my life. Like so many other kids going off to college, I found my people and my identity in the disabled community at Berkeley and I realized that running from being blind was ridiculous and it made much more sense to be proud to be blind.”
After being awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant, Miele said, “What I do: it’s research, invention, and activism. I am proud to be blind. I’m proud of the community I’m a part of, and I love building and imagining cool technologies for blind people.”
To hear these words from Miele sure sounds like his community is incredibly important to him. I believe this is the kind of restoration that Jesus was looking for. In the reign of God, healing is what happens for people with toxic beliefs that disabilities are judgments from God or that a physical disability could separate a person from God, which simply is not true.
What if people with disabilities aren’t just the ones on the outside of the community being welcomed in, but what if people with disabilities are the leaders who are themselves revealing the presence of the reign of God? Restoration of community is the actual healing that was going on—no one is left on the roadside to beg for scraps just to live their life. Instead people are welcomed with whatever abilities they have, to be the best of who God created them to be.
Jesus asks us, What do you want me to do for you? Do we also, even if we possess the sense of sight, do we also wish to see again? Do we wish to see the world in truth, in all its beauty and also all its ugliness? Do we wish to see the church more clearly, for all the beautiful things that have been done in Christ’s name while also acknowledging the terrible things done in Christ’s name? If we could see it, could we handle it?
Here’s one example, if you dare to look. Just a few weeks ago, the Church Council of our national church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, released an Approved Declaration to American Indian and Alaska Native People. It’s a follow-up document after the 2016 Churchwide Assembly, which is the highest legislative body of the church, adopted the “Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.”