Sermon Given Oct. 24, 2021
What do you want me to do for you?
Sometimes a piecemeal reading of the Bible has its downfalls. You can see that especially in our readings from Hebrews, which is confusing enough as a whole but loses a lot when read in sporadic bits and pieces. Some things are best read out loud in their entirety from beginning to end. Hebrews is definitely one of those books. Hebrews is all about trying to fit Jesus together with the ideas and ideals of temple Judaism. Some say this was written before the fall of the temple, some say after, but all agree that the community hearing this sermon, and it was most likely a sermon, were trying to figure out how to interact with the temple as people who followed Jesus. This piece comes to us at a time when Christianity and Judaism are not completely separated yet, but heading that way. When the temple falls, two sibling religions are born: a synagogue based Judaism and Christianity. They are either in the midst of the labor pains or we are joining the community right after the birth. We aren’t sure.
But what we do know is that the author of Hebrews is very concerned with how Jesus relates to the sacrificial system of temple Judaism. How does he relate? Are sacrifices necessary? They also lived in a world that affirmed many gods, all with their own sacrificial systems. On a practical level, the temple was like the local butcher. It’s where they got the majority of their meat. After animals were sacrificed, some was held back for the priests, but the rest was sold or given to the people. So practically, the sacrificial system made sense. The gods ate, the people ate, everything was made better. On a theological level though, giving animals for the forgiveness of sins and then eating them in celebration of redemption was problematic for the Christian faith. Nothing else needed to die. There was no sacrifice that needed to be made. That old way was over. There was one sacrifice, the greatest high priest ever. He gave of himself entirely, a sinless offering that ended all offerings.
The temple in Jerusalem became a relic, a historical place, but not an active necessity for the people who follow Jesus. The people who follow Jesus have their own high priest, Jesus, who gave his all for the betterment of the world. Our meals, our feasts in celebration of his sacrifice became bread and wine. We no longer offered living creatures. Nothing needed to die. Jesus had given himself, and that was enough.
Hebrews became the basis of many atonement theories, those ideas of how we are made one with God through the crucifixion. As I said last week, I truly do believe that every atonement theory has truth in it and every one has fallacy in it. I don’t think Hebrews is different in that respect. In stressing Jesus as the great high priest, the author falls into the problem of glorifying human sacrifice, something that was absolutely abhorred back then and should be abhorred today. But it’s not about human sacrifice. It’s who Jesus was in solidarity with on the cross. He was there for the oppressed. He allowed himself to be handed over and murdered by the state as one of them so that we might have the courage to stand with the oppressed too.
And Bartimaeus helps us see some of the oppressed that society can easily brush aside. Because there was nothing wrong with Bartimaeus, not really. He was born without eyesight. That was his only issue. Mark and the other gospel writers affirm that those who are born blind or with other disabilities aren’t sinful, there’s nothing wrong with them. Even with all the imagery of blindness that pervades the gospels, Jesus speaks of metaphorical blindness as a hardening of one’s heart. He doesn’t fault people who can’t see. He rather invites all to open ourselves up to God.
But blindness greatly affected every single aspect of Bartimaeus’ life. There’s a question of whether it even affected his name, as Bartimaeus literally means son of Timaeus. Did he never get his own name, or was he Tim Junior? We don’t know. But he lost many opportunities because of his lack of eyesight. He most likely couldn’t go to school. He didn’t learn a trade, many of which require sight. He ended up having to beg. There were no social supports that helped him. Was any of it his fault? No. The society in which he lived had no real place for blind people. People who were blind simply learned how to beg. They became part of the beggar class, who were looked down upon then and are still looked down upon today. The blind became one of those groups who have to plead for scraps because there’s not much left for them.
But then, suddenly Jesus appears in Jericho with his big band of followers. Bartimaeus had heard about Jesus, knew that he had healed before, that some called him the Son of David, the one who would redeem Israel. When Jesus was just leaving town, as he was walking along the road in front of Bartimaues, someone made sure that Bartimaeus knew Jesus was right there. Once he knew, he shouted and shouted until Jesus heard him. He wasn’t afraid of rebuke. He had nothing to lose. So he went for it.
And Jesus does something incredible in that moment. For all his life, people had assumed things about Bartimaeus. They assumed that he was incapable because he was blind. They assumed that he was unintelligent because he was blind. They assumed a lot based on his eyes. But in that moment, Jesus just sees him as a whole person. Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” He doesn’t assume to know. He knows Bartimaeus is blind, but blindness isn’t a sin, and it’s not something that absolutely has to be fixed. Jesus looks at Bartimaeus, sees him as a whole and complete person, and asks him what he needs. Bartimaeus is given the opportunity to ask for anything. He chooses eyesight, it isn’t chosen for him. Because he was recognized as fully human, because Jesus didn’t make assumptions based on his blindness, Bartimaeus makes another choice: to follow Jesus on the way.
I believe the reason why we have Bartimaeus’ name in the Gospel, as opposed to other people who were healed, is that he went on to make a great impact in the early communities after Jesus’ death. People met Bartimaeus, they learned about Jesus from him, and they came to faith because of Bartimaeus’ testimony. He went from being a nobody in society’s eyes to being someone whose value was readily recognized. He became a leader in the movement, helping to spread the news of the risen Christ.
How often do we today ignore the great value and worth of all people, whether or not they are able to contribute to the economy? Is the value of a person how much they can give or is it inherent in their being? We, in the United States claim it is inherent, but then also make laws that allow disabled people to be paid less in their employment. We’ve made a special kind of social security disability payment that forces people, mostly people who have been disabled from birth to live in poverty, with no ability to build up savings without risking loss of benefits, and essentially take away the ability for them to get married, as their payments decrease or even cease with marriage. The fact that these are special rules for a certain kind of disability payment, not all disability payments is telling. Those who were able to work enough, who became disabled later in life have another kind of social security disability that makes none of these demands. I know this because my household receives this kind of support. Our society bases our disability system on how much work a person was able to do, how much they gave to the economy. We penalize people for being born with a disability that makes them unable to fit into our workplaces or contribute to the economy. We make demands of them that aren’t made in any of our other disability programs in this country.
But we have also built up programs to help people out. Most blind or deaf people today go to school normally and are provided with assistance they need to do whatever job field they choose. People with mental disabilities are able to live in the community. I spent nearly a year as an aid for people with mental disabilities, coming to their homes where three roommates lived together, providing assistance with daily care needs and doing fun things with them. Medicaid funds were decreasing, and that caused stress on the organization that tried hard to help them. The pay was never good, so aides like me often came and went. They were having to increase the number of roommates in each house, going from some houses of two residents to exclusively houses of three or four. All this stressed out residents, especially since they had no choice in care aides or roommates. They were stuck with the people they were assigned. Still, the organization tried hard to support full, fulfilling lives for those who needed their care.
Our society that we live in is certainly different from Bartimaeus’. We have programs that keep disabled people from becoming beggars on the street, we have programs that allow many with physical disabilities to lead productive lives, but we still have people who are treated as less valuable because of something they were born with, a circumstance that is just a part of life. We’re decent, but we’ve still got a ways to go.
Jesus looked at Bartimaeus and saw a whole person, with value inherent simply in who he was. We must confess that it is hard for us to do the same, even when we as individuals try. Our society is not designed to inscribe inherent worth on all, ready to invest in the full flourishing of all, regardless of the conditions of their birth. We create rankings of people based on their economic value, but God doesn’t really care about how someone affects the economy. God just loves them. God is willing even to die in order to create a better life for them.
May we learn from Jesus in this way. May we work towards a more just society for all. Amen.