What Bartimaeus Believed
Sunday’s Reading: Mark 10: 46-52 USCCB Text Link
As Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd,
Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus,
sat by the roadside begging.
On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth,
he began to cry out and say,
"Jesus, son of David, have pity on me."
And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent.
But he kept calling out all the more,
"Son of David, have pity on me."
Jesus stopped and said, "Call him."
So they called the blind man, saying to him,
"Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you."
He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.
Jesus said to him in reply, "What do you want me to do for you?"
The blind man replied to him, "Master, I want to see."
Jesus told him, "Go your way; your faith has saved you."
Immediately he received his sight
and followed him on the way.
+ + + + + +
This Sunday’s Gospel, the healing of blind Bartimaeus reported in Mark and in various forms in the other Gospels, is as good an opportunity as any to discuss the term “miracle.” This is another of those “collective nouns” that embodies an incredible range of acts and attitudes. The word “miracle” was less a problem for Church and society before the Enlightenment, when the bifurcation or split between the spiritual and the physical was less pronounced in the collective psyche. Around 1600 advanced scientific observation led to the development of quantifiable and observable laws and principles of matter. The scientific method of proof took center stage, and at least in our Western culture, continues to do so as a rule. Newton defined motion’s laws with Kepler’s and others’ mathematic advances—without computers, no less—and the planets Neptune and Pluto were discovered on paper before being recognized by any astronomer through a telescope.
Thus the modern meaning of miracle is an act or event that runs counter to what we know by scientific evidence and observation. The term, when applied to Jesus in the non-theological sense, refers to his acts of healing and powers over nature. The story of Bartimaeus is actually less remarkable by this standard than Jesus driving demons into a herd of swine who promptly killed themselves by dashing into the sea (Mark 5: 1-20, if you don’t believe me.) So, in this era of evangelical fervor versus scientific certitude, can one say that Jesus actually restored sight to Bartimaeus, or fed five thousand with five high-fiber barley loaves, or for that matter, rose from the dead?
Critical observers of the Scriptures would have to admit that whatever their nature, miracles of all sorts were attributed to Jesus by four distinct reporters of his tradition. In Scripture study this is referred to as the “law of multiple attestation.” An outsider would also have to agree that these miracles are never stand-alone events. They are always connected to a movement of faith. In Sunday’s Gospel, for example, Bartimaeus manifests an enthused, confident, and energetic expectation that this “Son of David” can restore his sight, and he is not put off by the naysayers who try to silence him. Father Daniel Harrington refers to this episode as “a call story” as much as a miracle story. Jesus gives Bartimaeus an expressed opportunity to state what he needs (and, implicitly, what he believes Jesus can do.) Not only is the blind man healed, but he becomes a follower of Jesus. The relationship between faith and miracles is enhanced earlier in Mark when he reports that Jesus could not perform many miracles in his home town, due to its lack of faith.
Of course, we have not addressed the question of whether Jesus did (or could do) all the miraculous things attributed him by the Evangelists. Miracle accounts could be a metaphoric theological literary form invented by Mark and copied by the other evangelists for their catechetical value. Or, miracle stories of Jesus may be inspired by the Hebrew Scriptures and great works attributed to Elijah and others. In some cases I suspect there is truth to this. But I would propose that there is a starting point to reflections on miracles where honesty compels us to start.
In all of the Judeo-Christian tradition rests the core belief that in the beginning was God. Catholic theology has consistently held that God’s perfection and total otherness means God had no need to create. That God would undertake creation is, aside from God’s own existence, a wonder to behold, a reality that exceeds the tenets of science as we know it. It is, to be sure, the ultimate miracle. I am fully aware that there are many who do not believe this description of the beginning of being, and probably many more who give lip service in the Creed without absorbing the wondrous heart of the matter.
The best way I can describe faith to my students, and to myself for that matter, is by focusing on our point of origin. Science, including philosophy and theology, provides us with organizational tools for our reflections, but the true consent of faith—like Bartimaeus’ in the Gospel—originates in that part of us we owe to God’s creation. Over my years in grad school professors described this human faith in a variety of ways; the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich had just died (1965) and was very much in vogue at that time. Tillich had unconventional ways of making theological points; the term that has stuck with me over the years is his expression of God as the “ground of being.” I was trained in essence to approach prayer and belief as grounded in the miracle that is God; my existence and all that I do or feel or believe ultimately rounds back to this grounding in God’s mystery.
As a struggling pilgrim, the question of my faith and all of its questions revert to the one reality—or miracle, if you will—that I am, and that I sense within me my grounding in mystery. Given this miracle, are other miracles possible? I would have to say yes, but with the proviso that there is a “hierarchy” of mysteries that brings us back to the reality of being and creation as miracles themselves. I am not deeply read in Tillich’s system of thought, but my guess is that Tillich would have seen Jesus returning to his own ground of being, a man in time who is God, for whom all things are possible.
[Tillich also said, “Boredom is rage spread thin.” I love him.]
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