HOMILY FOR SUNDAY OCTOBER 24TH
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream”. So runs the opening line of our responsorial psalm today. Can you imagine what it will be like, brothers and sisters, when the Covid virus has finally passed away, and we are no longer having to wear masks or socially distance, or be afraid of catching the virus or passing it onto members of our family? I’m sure we will be pinching ourselves, and thinking we must be dreaming. At last, we can go out and enjoy ourselves in freedom, as before!
Perhaps the more cynical of us are beginning to believe that this life of freedom will never return, not in our lifetime at least. Well, put yourselves in the shoes of the people of Israel 2600 years ago, who had been held in exile in Babylon for 70 years, and who, despite the prophetic promises of liberation by the likes of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel, feared that they would never be able to return in freedom to their own country. And yet they did. The responsorial psalm today records the wonder, the joy, the note of almost disbelief that this incredible thing had happened to them. And so felt the other nations round about, who couldn’t believe either that the Israelites had returned. Because no one ever comes back. History tells us that. The great civilizations of the past: the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, even the British Empire – all of them, had their day in the sun, flourished in might and majesty for a time, then disappeared forever. Yet the people of Israel returned to their homeland and rebuilt their country, and once more flourished, strong and free. Because of their God, because of Yahweh. Yes, it must have seemed to them, at that time, that they were in a dream.
The prophet Jeremiah, in our first reading, predicted those days of return, of new freedom. He is usually associated with prophecies of doom and gloom, so much so that, even in these days, we call someone who consistently looks on the dark side of things as a “Jeremiah”, someone we would prefer not to associate with, because they are always so negative. Yet here in our first reading, he at last gets to speak a positive message to the people of Israel. He prophesies that the people in exile are going to be delivered by God, and will come back to their own country, and even that those who are usually left on the side of the road, the poor, the vulnerable, the defective, mothers and pregnant women, the blind and the lame will be right there at the center of the return, sharing in the joy and disbelief of restoration, where before there had only been tears.
And that is why our gospel today, the story of the blind beggar Bartimaeus and his healing by Jesus is so significant. It recalls those heady prophecies of Jeremiah. Because here is Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, God’s Chosen instrument of salvation, doing what God has always done for his people throughout the centuries: saving and delivering them from captivity. Where do we find Bartimaeus at the beginning of our gospel story today? He is sitting by the roadside, out of the way, disregarded by the large crowd assembled around Jesus, people wanting to be in the “in crowd” around Jesus, including his disciples. They have no time for the likes of Bartimaeus. They consider him to be “cursed” by God, stricken blind because he is a sinner, someone who should be seen, but never heard.
Except that this beggar refuses to be silenced. The more they try to shout him down, the more his voice rises up above theirs. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” That title “Son of David” is a title for the Messiah. Bartimaeus, the nobody, the stupid one, the blind beggar, acknowledges that Jesus is that one promised by the prophets of Israel long ago, the one who comes to save, to deliver, to heal. The vast majority of people around Jesus , who see him with their eyes, who have seen his miracles , are still on the fence about whether Jesus really is the Messiah or not, Even his own disciples are beginning to have doubts about this, as they see their leader talking about going to Jerusalem to be arrested and crucified to death, which is not at all how they imagined Messiah would fulfil his God-given destiny. They thought in terms of victory, power, glory, with themselves right at the heart of it. They never thought in terms of suffering, death, humiliation, rejection for their leader or for themselves. So, they are hanging back more and more as they approach Jerusalem, already, it seems, weighing the opportunity to run away and leave Jesus, should things get sticky for them.
In such a mood, they have no time for the likes of Bartimaeus. I am sure the disciples are among those who try to shout him down: “Leave Jesus alone. He has a lot on his mind. He has no time for a sinner like you.” And that stops Jesus dead in his tracks. He has spent the latter part of his journey to Jerusalem, impressing on his disciples that they must not look for present and political notions of glory, of great fame, of being admired and adored by the crowds. No, they must see themselves as servants, as being among the least of all, of being as powerless as children, in short being regarded as a nobody. And here they are, confronted with this “nobody”, this blind man, and they are forgetting everything Jesus had ever told them. And so, he is going to teach them a lesson in humility, in generosity, in honoring nobodies. When he calls the blind Bartimaeus to him, much more is going on than Jesus wanting to simply heal him. That is taken for granted- we know, and Bartimaeus knows, that Jesus is going to heal him. Because that is what the Messiah does, if he is a true Messiah. He does what Jeremiah says in our first reading, and what the prophet Isaiah had promised, in an earlier era- to heal the blind and the lame and the deaf and the mute.
But much more than that. Jesus, as Messiah, coming on behalf of his Father God, is doing what God has always done for his people – he saves them. Those words translated as “your faith has made you well” is a poor translation of the original Greek words. They should be translated as “your faith has saved you”. Because Bartimaeus has declared, and shown, faith in Jesus, as Messiah, as Savior, he has been brought, not just from blindness to sight, but from bondage to freedom, from condemnation to salvation, from hell to eternal life. That, really, is what Jesus’ mission is all about. It is one thing to heal a person, quite another to save them. And yet, healing is also an important part of his work, as a sign that Jesus comes to be savior of all our being: body, mind, heart, soul and spirit. And the greatest healing is the healing of that sickness of our soul, which we call sin, and which, unless dealt with, will cast us into hell. And so, the healing of Bartimaeus is but a sign of the total healing and salvation which Jesus will perform at the Cross in Jerusalem, where Jesus goes to make atonement for our sins, and to save us from the peril of hell.
The name of the beggar, Bartimaeus, is also incredibly significant. That name, Bartimaeus can mean either “son of uncleanness” or “son of value”. Both are appropriate here. Bartimaeus would have been considered “unclean” by most Jews, who thought blindness, as well as other physical sufferings, to be punishment by God for their sins (John 9). But Jesus sees “value” in Bartimaeus that other people overlooked. So, because of Jesus, the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, goes from being a “son of uncleanness” to becoming a “son of value” (fruit in market). This is what Jesus does in people’s lives. He sees value in us that no-one else sees, and, despite our sin and our failings, Jesus is able, as our second reading affirms, to “deal gently” with us in our weaknesses, because he himself, as one human, understands human weakness.
Bartimaeus, when called by Jesus, we are told “throws off his cloak”, the sign of his inferiority, of his “uncleanness”. He has already decided, even before his healing, that he is not going back there. When Jesus calls us to be his disciples, when he heals and saves us, he no longer holds our past against us. And again, this is what his Heavenly Father, is always doing with his people. In Isaiah 43: 18, God tells us, his people, to “no longer remember the former things, or consider the things of the past” for He “is doing a new thing for us “. He is “forming us for himself, to make us a people for his praise”. (Isaiah 43: 21). As we declare what God has done for us, in forgiving us our sins, and calling us to be his disciples, this enables others to recognize the “great things God has done for us “and want to know this God of ours. Which is our opportunity to bring them to know and love Jesus in a personal way, to evangelize them in other words. Testimony is the heart of the new evangelization, to which each and every one of us is called in our day and age. Each of us has a story to tell, a personal witness of how we have come to know Gods’ love for us, through our faith in Jesus. We should be able to tell this story in a simple way, without being “preachy” or condescending. We want others to say “Oh, that is marvelous. I want to know Jesus in the same way as you do“.
There are people amongst our neighbours, our work colleagues, our friends, who feel themselves to be people of no value, who are longing to be brought to know Jesus as the One who wants to save and heal them, and reveal them of a “son (or daughter) of value”. Are we willing, brothers and sisters, to be used by God for this purpose? As we “journey together”, following the theme of our synod, are we able and willing to recognize those who are “on the side of the road”, ignored and despised by others, and restore their sense of “value” by inviting them into our hearts, our lives and our communities?