It’s 7 am on a Sunday morning. I drive off the Route 263 ramp onto Sixth Avenue, on my way to the 8:00 service. There aren’t many people about yet. As I wait at the light, I notice a blanket in a doorway. It’s covering something lumpy, and two worn-out sneakers are sticking out of one end. You know what’s under that blanket: one of our homeless neighbors trying to get some sleep.
The blanket serves several purposes: it keeps him warm, it disguises his identity, it protects some of his belongings from theft, and it blocks out the light from the cars, the street, and the rising sun. That blanket is a treasured possession for anyone who lives outside. It might even give its owner a measure of invisibility, less likely to draw unwanted attention.
In the days before sweaters and jackets were invented, a cloak was part of everyone’s wardrobe. For a homeless beggar, the cloak fulfilled all of those functions I just listed for the blanket, and when it was spread out, it served as a landing place for his sole source of income, the coins people might throw in his direction, especially important for someone who was blind. So, in many ways, the cloak symbolized his whole life.
So now imagine blind Bartimaeus, sitting on the ground, wrapped in his cloak, listening to the traffic around him, disregarded by everyone and unseen by most. It’s generally safer to be invisible when you are that vulnerable. He hears sounds of festivity, a crowd approaching. He hears someone say “Here comes that wonder-working rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. He cured a blind man, you know.”
An impossible hope is born in Bartimaeus; he starts to yell at the top of his voice, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Uh-oh, now people are noticing him, and it’s not good. “Shut up,” they say in threatening tones. But Bartimaeus won’t shut up. He yells all the louder, until Jesus himself hears the desperate voice and stops in his tracks. “Tell him to come here,” he says to his companions. The people change their tune: the celebrity has something in mind for this insignificant man. “Cheer up, on your feet, the rabbi wants to see you.”
Bartimaeus doesn’t just get to his feet: he springs up, discarding his treasured cloak like an old rag as he is guided to the center of the crowd. In the very moment of being called by Jesus he is ready to leave behind his old life, to risk everything, to put his whole trust in this person whom he, and only he thus far in Mark’s Gospel, has identified as the Messiah, the long-promised Son of David who will redeem God’s people from oppression.
This blind man sees what others, even the closest friends of Jesus, have failed to see. And for this leap of faith, this spiritual clarity of sight, Jesus gives him back his physical sight and with it opens a whole new life to him. And we are told that Bartimaeus immediately follows Jesus on the Way, the way of faith and freedom, the way to Jerusalem, the way of the Cross, the way of eternal life.
Now, some might say that Bartimaeus was blind for a reason: so that Jesus could demonstrate his divine power of healing. I don’t buy that. I don’t accept a theology of suffering that claims that God inflicts pain on us for God’s own purposes. That doesn’t fit with the God of love whom I know. And that’s why I have a major problem with the book of Job.
Maybe you didn’t notice, but today’s passage from Job is the fourth and final installment of a much abridged summary of that book. Four weeks ago, the lectionary gave us the beginning of Job’s story, how he was happy and prosperous until God and the Adversary started playing a sort of sadistic game, taking everything he loved from him, to test his faith.
The following week we heard a passage from Job’s lamentation, where he demands a hearing before God to learn why he deserves this suffering. Last week we heard God’s answer, summed up as, “Who do you think you are to question my actions?” And today we get the happy ending. Once Job humbles himself and acknowledges the unplumbable depth of God’s sovereignty, repenting his impertinence in dust and ashes, everything that he had lost is restored with interest, and he lives to a ripe old age.
That’s all we get of Job, like a pebble skipping across the surface of a deep lake, barely making a splash. We hear nothing about his awful friends giving him bad advice; we hear only a snippet of his rage and grief.
There are 42 chapters in Job, and 40 of them are all about unrelenting suffering, inadequate pastoral advice, and bad theology. For many of us, those 40 chapters hold far more meaning than the first or the last.
The theology of Job doesn’t work for me. In this story God rewards Job only once his loved ones have died, his property has been destroyed, and he has admitted defeat. I don’t much like this God; even the tidy ending is unsatisfactory. We know that suffering doesn’t always end with joy. Virtue is not its own reward. We won’t get rich by abasing ourselves before God. And having a new family doesn’t make up for the loss of the first one.
Job’s story does teach us that we are permitted to rage at God when awful things happen. We are allowed to voice our fury at injustice. It’s OK to reject all attempts to rationalize pain. Over these four weeks we have raced through Job and now breathe a sigh of relief at the end. But that’s not good enough. That gets us off far too lightly. So let’s sit on the ash heap for a minute and join Job in his lament.
Hurricanes. Auto accidents. Wildfires. War. Stillborn babies. Cancer. Mental illness. Addiction. A friend whose older siblings have one by one succumbed to dementia and he is wondering when it will be his turn. People of faith gunned down while they are at worship. A transgender teenager bullied and kicked out of the family home. There is no shortage of undeserved suffering in our world. How does the story of Job help us get through all this?
Job’s great virtue is his persistence. He remains in relationship with God and his regrettable friends no matter what, and he speaks up courageously for what he believes. And ultimately he is transformed by that persistence, maturing from a victim who demands to know why he’s being punished, to a man who accepts that sometimes there just isn’t an answer, but God remains God.
Suffering doesn’t happen for a reason, but sometimes unexpected grace emerges. Matthew Shepard’s murder 20 years ago started numerous efforts to end the persecution of young LGBT people, and on Friday, finally, he was laid to rest with honor in our national cathedral, in a service attended by several bishops and thousands of others, both in person and watching online. There is some grace in this final chapter of Matthew’s story. And grace can transform us, as the old song gives credit, I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.
The story of Bartimaeus receiving his sight is the last healing miracle in Mark’s Gospel. After several stories that illustrate how blind the disciples are to Jesus’s mission and how difficult it can be to open our eyes to God’s love, we are given a story where healing is as simple as telling Jesus what we really want – and being ready to step into a new way of life.
The next episode in this Gospel is the story of Palm Sunday, the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem where he will demonstrate, once for all, just how much God loves us. He will do it by undergoing undeserved and horrific suffering, not because God wants him to suffer, but because he is willing to give up everything, so that we will , the grace and gift of love, liberation, and abundant life.
October 28, 2018
The Very Rev