Many of you, like me, have probably heard the news these past few weeks about this brave young woman from Pakistan: Malala Yousafzai. Malala is a 14 year old who was shot on her school bus by a Taliban extremist because she had the audacity to go to school. Remarkably, she survived this attack and is currently recovering in the United Kingdom with no signs of brain damage. Her father commented that she has asked for her schoolbooks to be sent so that she can continue her studies while she recovers in hospital.
What’s even more amazing about Malala is that she, at age 14, has already made an international name for herself as an outspoken activist for education and women’s rights in her home country. Desmond Tutu nominated her for the International Children’s Peace Prize. At the age of 11, she began writing a blog for the BBC about life under Taliban rule which she used to propagate her views on women’s education. Her current plan is to return home to Pakistan after she gets well and continue her activism, in spite of the risks.
People the world over have rightly expressed support and admiration for Malala. Here is a young woman who has found within herself the strength to break the chains of oppression and inequality forged by the narrow views of religious extremists in her country. That inner strength: the power to live free, even in the midst of bondage, is what I think of whenever I hear the word “faith”. And that’s why I would not hesitate to say to Malala what Jesus says to Bartimaeus in today’s gospel reading: “Your faith has made you well.”
Before I go on, let me pause and unpack what I mean by that. Obviously, Malala herself has not yet been “made well” in a physical sense after her attack. However, that word in Greek, “made well”, is sozo and is often translated “heal” or “save”. Older translations of this passage read, “Your faith has saved you.” To the ancient Jews, the idea of “salvation” or “being saved” had a lot to do with liberation and “being set free”. So, with that little bit of linguistic and cultural nuance in mind, it would not be much of a stretch at all to read this passage as: “Your faith has made you free.” And that idea would most certainly apply to Malala right now. Her resolve to live free, even in the midst of oppression, has made her free indeed, no matter what those others might say or do to keep her subservient or “in her place”. Malala is free and there’s nothing the Taliban can do to change that. So, I say to her, “Malala, your faith has made you well.”
The figure Bartimaeus in today’s gospel reading comes across as a person similar to Malala in several key respects. First of all, Bartimaeus is a second-class citizen in the society where he lives. When we first meet him, he is seated “by the roadside” as Jesus as his entourage pass by. This is more than just a physical location. It’s meant to tell us something. Bartimaeus is a person who has been “sidelined” or “cast aside” by mainstream society. Social scientists refer to this as being “marginalized” or “placed into the margins” of society’s consciousness. Bartimaeus is a panhandler who, in a world without social services and safety nets, must depend on the kindness of strangers for his daily bread. Can you imagine how belittling and dehumanizing it must have felt for him to have to be grateful and beholden to the well-off benefactors who tossed him a coin, maybe made a sarcastic comment, and then went home to families, servants, and stocked cupboards? That’s the life of a panhandler. Toss aside any romantic notions you might have about riding the rails from California to New York Island like Woody Guthrie. The life of a panhandler, in ancient Judea or in contemporary America, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes).
The next thing we can see in the text is that Bartimaeus can’t see, he is blind. His disability gives us what is most likely the primary reason for his status as a panhandler. But the most overlooked indicator of his marginalized status is his name, or lack thereof. The text tells us that he is “Bartimeaus, son of Timaeus”. Sounds simple enough, right? Maybe they just called him “Bart” for short? But consider that in Aramaic, the language of first century Judea, the word for “son” is “bar”. Bar Timaeus, Son of Timaeus. So, if he is “Son of Timaeus, Son of Timaeus”, then he is literally a man with no name, no personal identity of his own. Even as an adult, he is still just “Timaeus’ kid”.
Bartimaeus is marginalized because of his disability. Malala Yousafzai is marginalized because of her gender. Each, in his or her own way, knows what it’s like to be cast aside, sidelined, and granted second-class citizenship by the powerful. But the more amazing thing is that each, in his or her own way, has also risen above the chains of marginalization and taken back that stolen human dignity. We already heard about how Malala is doing it through her activism. Let’s look at how Bartimaeus is doing it.
First of all, he calls out. He’s not one of those polite panhandlers who just sits on the sidewalk with his hat out. He yells at you as you go by. If anything, this tactic makes you less likely to want to give him money, except that you’re so freaked out by it that you’ll give him almost anything just to keep from yelling. And let’s take a look at what he’s yelling, exactly. This is no generalized call for alms. This guy knows exactly what is going on and is determined to get in on the action. He yells, “Jesus! Hey, Jesus! Yeah, you! Son of David! Why don’t you come over here and have some mercy on me?!” Now, in the text itself, he just says, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” This almost sounds like groveling at first glance, but let’s pull that dense phrase apart, piece by piece. Bartimaeus calls Jesus by name and addresses him as the “Son of David”. This was a messianic title. The anointed one of Israel was said to be a king, descended from the line of old King David: the king who gave the Jewish people their main idea of what an ideal king should be. It’s kind of the same thing as Abraham Lincoln being held up as the model of what an ideal president should be. Furthermore, the phrase “have mercy on me” is not so much a plea as it is a call for a superior to do his or her duty. By saying, “have mercy on me,” Bartimaeus is implying that Jesus owes him something. So, if we were to put this in American terms, imagine the president’s motorcade making its way down a city street where a panhandler has his hat out. As the president’s limo goes by, the panhandler shouts over the notes of Hail to the Chief, “Hey! Mr. President! If you’re so much like Abraham Lincoln, then why don’t come over here and give me my Emancipation Proclamation! You owe me, man!” That’s what this guy Bartimaeus is saying to Jesus as he walks by.
Now, the crowd around Bartimaeus, as we might expect in this situation, is shocked and offended. They’re embarrassed for their city, that the Messiah would receive such uncivil treatment by the dregs of society here. So, they’re telling him to “shut up” and maybe calling him names like “dirty hobo” or “lazy bum”. They want him to keep his place and be grateful for what they choose to give him out of their surplus. But Bartimaeus isn’t listening to them. He’s still shouting. In fact, he starts shouting even louder than before! He shouts so loudly, in fact, that his verbal jabs reach the ears of their intended target, Jesus himself. Jesus stops in his tracks, turns around, and calls Bartimaeus over. Let’s imagine that again in present-day presidential imagery. On CNN, we see the motorcade go by with the panhandler shouting so rudely and people shouting back at him. Suddenly, the president’s limousine slows to a stop, the backseat window roles down, and one of the Secret Service agents runs over. The Secret Service agent says something into his headset and takes a step back. On our TVs at home, all we see is the president’s hand emerging through the car window, pointing directly to the noisy pan-handler, and gesturing for him to approach the car. The panhandler does so, and there’s a remarkable change in his demeanor. He never thought his cries would be heard, he just wanted to vent and get them off his chest while he had the opportunity. After all, there might have been any number of so-called “Messiahs” coming through his town recently, each one promising peace and security to the Jews, but not a single one had ever done a single thing for a lousy bum like Bartimaeus. But this Jesus guy suddenly seemed very different from the others, just by having the nerve to stop and call him over.
Let’s leave our presidential analogy and finish this story in its first century Judean setting. Bartimaeus walks up to Jesus and Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” In effect, he’s asking, “What is it that I am supposed to have owed you?” Bartimaeus responds in a very different tone than the one in which he started. He addresses Jesus respectfully as “my teacher” and then pours out the one deepest desire in his heart that had been there so long and yet seemed so impossible to obtain. He didn’t want more money or higher social status. He wanted to receive back the one thing that was taken away by his disability: his human dignity. He wanted the opportunity to live and not just merely survive anymore. He wanted to count as a real person again and not just an object by the side of the road. “My teacher,” he said, “let me see again.” And Jesus gives him exactly what he’s asking for.
But Jesus isn’t done surprising people, yet. He’s still got another ace up his sleeve. When the miracle is done, Jesus refuses to take credit for it, even though he was clearly the responsible party. Jesus says to Bartimaeus, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Jesus claims that Bartimaeus is the one who gets credit for this healing! Where others saw only an offensive and disrespectful panhandler, Jesus saw in Bartimaeus the faith that has the power to change things: the power to bring healing, wholeness, and freedom in the coming kingdom of God. Like Malala Yousafzai, Bartimaeus had the kind of inner strength that allowed him to live freely, even in the midst of oppression and marginalization. He held onto his defiant hope, even in his apparently hopeless situation and so won for himself the prize that seemed so distant and unobtainable. Many have said the same thing of Malala.
What about you? Where do you experience your marginalization, your woundedness? Where have you been sidelined, cast aside, or treated like a second-class citizen? Obviously, none of us in this church has ever been a school-age girl in a third world country or a blind panhandler in first century Judea, but each and every one of us has a place where hurt, loss, rejection, and grief have dug their arrows deep into our hearts and left us bleeding internally. Our polite, success-driven society teaches us to minimize, hide, or ignore these facts about our nature, but I believe that the gospel of Christ empowers us to face those hurts, show them, and use them for the healing of the world. Without those wounds, we would not know what empathy is. We would not know how to care for one another. How would a little child know to bring a crying playmate a soft toy to hug if that first child had never needed comfort from a favorite teddy bear after falling and skinning a knee? We all recognize pain because we have all experienced pain. There is no way to go through this life without being hurt. What each of us has to decide is whether we will hide our pain under a hardened bushel of social propriety and defensiveness or if we will let that pain shine like the light of a city on a hill. Will we face the pain and let it become a fountain of empathy and compassion? That’s the basic principle upon which all self-help support groups work: one person taking his or her experience of pain and putting it to use in helping others through their pain. That’s the only way we humans can find meaning in the midst of so much meaningless suffering in this world: we have to pay attention to how that pain changes us. Does it make us more gentle, more compassionate, more wise, more attentive to others? If so, then we can say that our pain has meaning. If not, then our pain is meaningless and no amount of explanation will ever answer the agonizing question, “Why did this have to happen to me?”
The last thing we hear from Bartimaeus in the gospel comes after he has received his sight. The text says that he “followed [Jesus] on the way.” That’s a remarkable ending. Do remember where Bartimaeus was when we first met him? He was “by the roadside.” Where is he now? He is “on the way.” His experience has been transformed. He’s no longer marginalized. He’s included in the community. He’s not an object anymore. He’s a person now. He’s “on the way.” He probably has no idea where he’s going, but by golly, I bet it’ll be interesting!
Malala Yousafzai also has a future that has yet to be written. No one knows what awaits her when she returns to Pakistan, but she has promised to continue in her fight for women’s education in her country. She has taken her crude and raw experience of pain and marginalization and refined it into fuel for the engine of equality. Thus, her suffering has meaning, no matter how senseless and meaningless its cause was.
What will you do with your pain? Hide it under a bushel or let it shine? Will it fuel your bitterness or your compassion? Will you sit back and do what’s expected by our pain-phobic society or will you stand up, be bold, and find in yourself the faith that empowers you to live freely in the midst of oppression? Find this, and you will hear Jesus saying to you also: “Your faith has made you well.”