30th Sunday of the Year
The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland seems to have a connection with today’s gospel. Alice follows a rabbit down a hole and finds herself in a place where different values apply. She encounters animals with a superior air who treat her as inferior. The usual roles are reversed. Alice is trapped in her narrow, human way of viewing life and reality. It is a terrifying experience but her fear is unfounded as she moves from a narrow frame of reference to view reality and see the limitations of her assumptions, judgments and stereotypes about life and people.
The disciples are also trapped within their inherited, rigid expectations of Jesus and his mission. Jesus shows them that reality is much deeper and filled with more possibilities than their assumptions permit. The Christian’s life revolves around seeing – and seeing what others do not. In recent weeks, Jesus’ encountered a rich young man obsessed with his own salvation by keeping the commandments. Jesus invited him to a change of focus from not only his wealth (his stuff) but also his beliefs, privileges, habits, and prejudices; to see that his wealth was connected to people, people who are poor; from all that he had not noticed before. We also saw how the disciples argued as to where they would sit in relation to Jesus when they realised their dreams of triumph and success. There was much that they did not see. As with the haemorrhaging woman who touched Jesus, Bartimaeus is marginalised and stands in stark contrast to the ‘in-crowd’ Jesus’ inner circle who sought power and honour for themselves.
Though considered a ‘nobody’, sitting by the roadside, he defies the gate-keepers who try to silence him. They notice him but do not see him as is the case with people who are aged, living with disabilities, homeless, LGBTIQ+ and silence them. Jesus’ question, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ is liberating. Gospel stories about Jesus’ ‘miracle cures’ imply that all disabled people can be ‘cured’ if they had more faith and prayed more, and so if there was no cure it was because the person must be sinful, unbelieving, or unworthy of healing. For the disciples then and today, a person in need can be a nuisance along the way. People in authority prefer their own agendas and timetables and talk over listening to others. For Jesus, the cry of those pleading for help is not a nuisance but a challenge. How important it is for us to listen to life!’ In the past I encountered people with a disability touched and being prayed over though unwanted. Strangers have also imposed prayers over me. This is not to critique praying with people when invited and find it comforting but many do not want or need ‘cures’ as much as being welcomed, included and accepted. In practical ways it means access to venues such as churches and other building.
Jeremiah today proclaims God’s promise to bring back God’s people to their traditional land and waters. He describes the people who will be brought back: ‘(God) will gather them from the ends of the world / with the blind and the lame in their midst.’ There is no suggestion of cured people being brought back. We hear that the blind and the lame will be included just as they are. We are reminded that disability is neither new nor rare. It is commonplace and very present in God’s realm. With Bartimaeus we see that Jesus is displacing the powers, not to occupy their place, but to make room for a different kind of reign or kin-dom where blind beggars are asked, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ That is God’s way who gets personally involved with preferential love for every person. Pope Francis rejects a purely doctrinal approach to ministry, even a purely charitable response not rooted in love. He opts for ‘closeness,’ for solidarity with the person to whom one is ministering: This closeness is being a neighbour where we bring the newness of God into the lives of our brothers and sisters. It is an antidote to the temptation of easy answers and fast fixes. It means stepping out of our circles and embracing those who are not ‘one of us’ or the temptation to wash our hands as did Pilate. The God Jesus reveals has dirty hands because this God holds our hands.
Despite Jesus saying the last shall be first in his way of doing things, his followers still push ‘the other’ to the edges of the road or the end of the line. We see this at the Mexican border. We have witnessed this as we push people to off-shore detention centres. We have seen this as we neglected First Nations people in country areas where they did not get vaccinations for Covid-19. Our churches, neighbourhoods, communities and families are filled with people living with endless challenges and suffering: grief, addictions, life-threatening illness, anxiety about loved ones, extreme poverty, unemployment and violence. Bartimaeus represents those people who are unwilling to remain on the margins, unwilling to listen to others who suggest that things cannot be different. We have seen that as women and men cry out to be heard, to be understand and seek justice when they have been abused in institutions in this country.
We are challenged today about what we see. Whom do we shun, rebuke or quieten? What games do we employ to avoid the perennial question: ‘where is your brother or sister’? Who is crying out for understanding and compassion? Whose cries are we not hearing? Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, West Papua, Palestine, trafficked children, women and men, youth and homeless people on our streets, people in the Philippines who lose their land to Australian mining companies, people who seek full recognition of who they are: Indigenous people, women, gay people. Was there not a deep disconnect in the Prime Minister’s apology to people abused as children in our institutions and the ongoing abuse of children in offshore detention centres? Our leaders refuse to see and so do not need to respond.
Jesus comes to heal the blindness that immobilises and lead us to fuller vision and move us from being passive bystanders. Whereas Bartimaeus was discouraged from approaching Jesus, we see Jesus insisting on connection. Before making assumptions and acting, Jesus asks, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ It is question of respect. People with disabilities know what they want and what is best for them and agency where they can make decisions about their bodies, minds, and spirits. Jesus prioritises relationship, human dignity and intimacy. He makes present the God who models and demands inclusion, access, and consent for disabled people. As Jeremiah proclaimed, we are called to make a level road for people with disability who are in our midst. This has not been all that evident with the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The scriptures today affirm the worthiness of people with disability.
Bartimaeus’ cry is the subversive cry of children, women, sinners, and people in need of healing. These cries reach the heart of God. They are a refusal to remain powerless and passive. Bartimaeus’ desire to see raises questions about moral insensitivity and blindness to injustice. Courage begins when we see through the eyes of God's love, touch that breaking heart as our hearts break to feel for another with God’s compassion, and know God's grief and tears over injustice. We might give notional assent to the sacredness of every human being and every living thing, but action on the behalf of others can be brief and intermittent. Our vision can be dulled by the details of daily, life, the tasks before us, counting the cost and our fears. Arundhati Roy in Listening to the Grasshoppers writes on what it means to struggle against injustice: ‘It means keeping an eagle eye on public institutions and demanding accountability. It means putting your ear to the ground and listening to the whispering of the truly powerless. It means giving a forum to myriad voices from the hundreds of resistance movements across the country which are speaking about real things – about bonded labour, marital rape, sexual preferences, women’s wages, uranium dumping, unsustainable mining, weavers’ woes, farmers’ suicides. It means fighting displacement and dispossession and the relentless, everyday violence of abject poverty. Fighting it also means not allowing your newspaper columns and prime-time TV spots to be hijacked by their spurious passions and their staged theatrics, which are designed to divert attention from everything else’. [p.17]
So we might check our own vision and our attention. We might consider whom we might not be seeing or whom we might prefer not to focus or whose voices we may be silencing, at home or overseas. Let’s cry out: I want to see… how prejudice blinds us to the goodness of people who are different to us; how living our safe and comfortable lives can distract us from the demands of justice for the poor and marginalised; how apathy and complacency allows evil to flourish because we do not want to get involved in opposing it. The hardest challenge is to learn to look differently, to look comprehensively, to see the world as God does: with empathy and compassion for all creation. Asking to see can be risky. To see can call into question many things we have believed. To follow Jesus is to see things as they really are and it might mean dismantling our beliefs, our theology and worldview. How do we survive seeing? When we see things with Jesus’ eyes we will see suffering, betray, death, many broken places in our world. When we look at what is ugliest, hardest, and fragile in our world we also see (eventually) resurrection.
Pope Francis keeps emphasizing that mercy, tenderness and compassion made concrete are what make a difference to our world. What difference it would make to our communities if we took the time to encourage people in pain to talk about it, if we made the space for them to be heard?
A final challenging quote from Arundhati Roy: ‘The trouble is that once you see it, you can't unsee it. And once you've seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There's no innocence; either way you are accountable.’