I love books of old photographs, and I particularly like the classic works of such as Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier Bresson. I recently came across two photos placed side by side, and they made a powerful impression on me. The first one was the sort of thing you get in magazines like ‘Hello’ or ‘People’. It was a society photo, a cocktail party, with lots of wealthy, well-dressed and fashionable people. The camera had captured and frozen in a moment the look in their eyes. Some looked blank and miserable, others just bored, glazed, jaded and empty.
The second photo was of a young woman in a wheelchair being pushed through a forest. The camera had caught her just as a stream of sunlight had struck her face. Her beautiful eyes were alive with joy and delight. Beneath the two photos were the words; “Who in the world are the truly handicapped?”
Have you noticed how important eyes are for communication? I don’t much like long phone conversations, partly because you are just talking to a voice and you can’t see the person’s eyes. We see each other with our eyes, the ‘mirror of the soul’. Our eyes can be hard and cold, or gentle and compassionate, or bored and glazed, sad and tired or brilliantly alive and dancing. I often wonder what Jesus’ eyes must have been like. So many passages in the Gospels speak of Jesus looking, with love, at those on need. He looked and he saw, not just with perfect sight, but perfect insight. As John puts it in Chapter 2 of his Gospel, Jesus saw ‘what was in men’s hearts’. And what he saw were men and women who were blind. They could see the physical world around them, but were blind to the spiritual. They longed for God but couldn’t see or reach God. Hence those terrible words from Isaiah this evening, ‘You grope like the blind along a wall…groping like those who have no eyes.’ And when they went to their religious leaders for help, things got worse. The Pharisees simply burdened them with rules and regulations, and what was worse, the Pharisees did not realize they were blind; ‘Surely we are not blind are we?’ they ask with terrible irony in John Ch.9. And Jesus was filled with anger and sadness towards these leaders; ‘Woe to you’, he repeats in Matthew, ‘Woe to you, for you are blind guides.’
Into this world of spiritual blindness, Jesus was born. In LukeCh.4, we reads that he goes to the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath, picks up the scroll, and reads these words from Isaiah; ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind.’ Jesus came into the world to open the eyes of the blind, that we might see God. Our Gospel today recounts one of the great stories of the restoration of sight. Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus, in Jericho. For me this whole story is so vivid, that I can see it as it were a succession of Cartier Bresson photographs! Jericho was the last main town before Jerusalem, just 15 miles away, and it was seething with people on their way to the Passover celebrations. Thousands of priests were attached to the Temple, and many of them lived in Jericho, so it was a highly charged crowd through which Jesus and his disciples made their way. The crowds would be doubly eager to see this rebel Jesus, who was about to ‘invade’ Jerusalem. You could imagine a camera capturing many cold and bleak and hostile eyes in the crowd that day. ‘You look but you cannot see.’ And then at the northern gate sat a beggar, Bartimaeus. He heard the tramp of feet, and asked what was happening. They told him Jesus was passing by. And he cried out and shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.’ They tried to shut him up but he shouted all the more.
I started with 2 photos: the cold empty eyes of the cocktail party, and the bright joyful eyes of the girl in the wheelchair – and the question, ‘Who in the world are the truly handicapped?’ Here I see two photographs; the cold, hostile, staring eyes of many in the crowd, and the excited cries of this physically blind man, yet who has the spiritual insight to cry out to see Jesus. These 2 photos pose the question, ‘Who in the world are the truly blind?’
For the disciples, coming to full sight was a long process. And Mark’s Gospel is full of sometimes embarrassing snapshots of disciples who simply can’t see: two of them still arguing about which of them is going to be the greatest, Peter trying to stop Jesus from going down to Jerusalem. In chapter 8 they completely misunderstand what the feeding of the 5000 was about, and Jesus says in exasperation, ‘Do you still not perceive – do you have eyes and fail to see?’ Immediately after Jesus has said this, Mark, with consummate skill, places the story of the healing of the other blind man. As if to highlight metaphorically the still only partial sight of the disciples, this blind man only gets partial sight to begin with: ‘I can see people but they look like trees walking.’ Coming to sight is a slow and gradual process. And so it is with us. I expect you have photos around the house of significant moments in the life of your family – weddings, vacations, Thanksgiving, Christmas. What would it be like if you were to compile a series of photographs marking significant moments of revelation in your life: moments when God touched you in a significant way. moments or events when you felt God had opened your eyes in a new way; you could see the truth about God and yourself in a way you hadn’t before. What would they be like? They may not just be happy, joyful occasions. Our eyes are often most opened through unhappy or painful experiences. I wonder what snapshots you would choose?
I think of all the Gospel writers, Mark has the eye of the photographer. He loves to record vivid details. He has a great snapshot of Bartimaeus in verse 50; ‘He is calling you! . So throwing off his coat, he sprang up and came to Jesus. What do you want me to do for you? Let me see again.’
There is a challenge in that picture. Is that a picture you would recognize from your own life? Have you ever heard the voice of Jesus and sprung up to follow? Was it a long, long time ago? And that marvelous detail, the cloak. He threw off his cloak. What would it mean for you to throw off your cloak? Your fears, your burdens, the other things you put your trust in, your sins? And when Jesus says to you, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ what would you say? What would you say today?
At this Eucharist, Jesus invites each of us to come to him. As you stand and come to receive Jesus in the sacrament, come with the faith of Bartimaeus. Throw off your cloak, whatever it might be, and as you eat the bread and drink the wine, hear Jesus asking you, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’
And tell him.
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