~ Mark 10:46-52/Isaiah 35:1-2, 5-10 ~
Perception – a way of seeing. It’s a physical phenomenon, really. Light strikes the retina of the eye and through a complex yet instantaneous nervous system process connects to the brain and we see.
But it’s also a mental phenomenon – we understand. Usually instantaneously, unconsciously, our brains make some kind of sense about what we are seeing.
But it isn’t just an unconscious process. We can consciously tell our brains to look at something differently than what we first perceived. Let me illustrate. Please turn to the very back page of your bulletin.
Optical illusions are exercises in perception. They are cleverly drawn images that show two things at once. Is it a vase or is it two persons looking at each other? You can tell our mind to see one or the other. Our eyes don’t even move but our brain goes back and forth.
The famous Victorian optical illusion is either a young woman facing away or an old lady with a rather large nose. We can tell our brain to look at either and the images imprint quite clearly. Oh, yes, that is a young woman. Oh, yes, that is an old woman.
But there is a hitch! Even though we can tell our brain to see either, going back and forth, we cannot see both at the same time. Our brain will not let us see both the young woman and the old woman simultaneously. Try it. You can’t force your brain to see both at the same time.
This is the way consciousness works. Our brains need to categorize data in order to make sense of it. Thinking consciously, paying attention, actually takes effort. Unless you are musically trained to do so, like maybe Lindsay and Candace, it is virtually impossible to tap three beats with one hand while simultaneously tapping four beats with the other. It takes lots of practice. Consciousness focuses us. Just as time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once, consciousness is nature’s way of keeping us from thinking everything at once.
But as I said, perception is not just a way of seeing, it is a way of understanding, of understanding the world. And this is where things can go awry. Again, we can’t think everything at once, so our brains sort things out, putting some stuff upfront and other stuff in the background. What is brought upfront can be the result of decisions we consciously make, although the result might seem unconscious or instinctual.
A while back I saw a news report about Ford F150 pickup trucks. The report was about a new all-electric version that Ford was introducing – quite revolutionary in its own right. In this news report it was mentioned that the Ford F150 pickup truck is the highest selling vehicle in America, by far.
Now, here in the Bay Area you might think that the Toyota Prius is the highest selling model. The other day I was waiting for Linda to pick me up after getting a haircut. As I stood there, coming down the street were three grey Priuses in a row ahead of Linda driving our grey Prius. But I digress.
I didn’t know this fact about Ford F150’s. Prior to this I hardly ever thought about Ford F150’s. But ever since I see them everywhere because now I can’t not see them. It’s as though my brain is now wired to see Ford F150’s everywhere.
But sometimes the way we think, the way we understand, can get locked into only one way. No, not just sometimes – all the time. We, all of us, view the world through the lens of our expectations of how the world should be. This has self-fulfilling results.
Confirmation bias is the psychological phenomenon of actively looking for information that confirms our preconceived ideas. We ignore or dismiss any information that contradicts our beliefs and consciously seek only that which confirms our biases, our beliefs. It doesn’t matter how much evidence there may be that contradicts we will only affirm those tiny bits of data or even outright lies to bolster our belief.
This leads inevitably to conflict with our fellow humans. The third cartoon in your bulletin shows again a cleverly drawn image.
Is this a picture of four bars or three bars? Of course, it is both. But if locked in to only one way of seeing it, three or four, arguments ensue, conflicts arise, violence may happen. We seem to live in such a world.
But it need not be that way. We, we humans, have the ability to change – to change our minds, if we but attend to it, if we are willing to be open minded.
I believe that this story of Blind Bartimaeus in the Gospel of Mark is a call to be opened minded. It is a story about changing our minds, changing our understanding, changing our perspective. It is about being healed of the blindness that hinders us from seeing the world as Jesus saw it.
This healing story plays a pivotal role in Mark’s story of Jesus. It happens right before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. This story concludes Jesus’ journey to the city, which began with the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida back in chapter 8. This whole section between these two sight-restoring healings has dealt with the subject of discipleship. Mark makes it very clear that becoming a disciple of Christ is all about having our eyes opened. Bartimaeus depicts the essential characteristics of a true disciple.
It is a story packed with symbolic meaning, based on images from the Isaiah text Janelle read. Mark is a wonderfully skilled writer and has crafted this story to incorporate these Isaian themes. He wants his readers to recall these words from the prophet: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened.” In poetic imagery, God’s work of salvation is all about the opening of the eyes of the blind. This connection with Isaiah lets Mark tap into other themes.
Because it is also in Isaiah 35 that we see the theme of God’s restoration of the wilderness: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.” Mark makes the connection with the theme of wilderness first introduced back in chapter one. There John the Baptist announced the arrival of Jesus out in the wilderness. Likewise, here as Jesus crosses the Jordan and goes through Jericho, he emerges from the wilderness experience. He is now on the verge of Zion, where God’s purposes will be revealed. What is revealed is that the blind receive sight and the wilderness is restored.
That is not all. Also, in this prophecy from Isaiah is the highway, the “Holy Way.” Notice how Mark describes Bartimaeus’s response to Jesus’ healing word: “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. This phrase, “on the way,” occurs frequently. Mark’s use of “the way” is a theological theme. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem reflects Isaiah’s triumphant march of God. Those who join with Jesus “on the way” are, indeed, following the “way of God.” For Bartimaeus, joining Jesus on the way is what it is all about.
However, this “way” of Jesus is significantly different from the typical idea people had about what the “way of God” should look like. Jesus’ way is not the way of the “Son of David” messiah, associated with pomp and glory. Rather Jesus’ way is the baptismal way. It is the way of mocking, spitting, flogging, and death. As I’ve said before, it is the way of the cross. Because of this, it is the way the disciples do not understand. Again, as I’ve reiterated before, throughout this journey to Jerusalem every incident reflects Jesus’ question: “Do you not yet understand?”
Mark wants his readers (that’s us) to clearly see the issues of discipleship. For several chapters now we have seen Jesus contend with the twelve disciples, the “insiders,” about what it means to follow him. You would think they would have gotten it by now. They are the ones who have access to the Master himself. However, they are also the ones of whom Jesus’ shakes his head in dismay because they continue to just not get it. They are the ones who ask for thrones when Jesus says seek to serve. Poignantly, Mark says, don’t look to the disciples for your model of discipleship. They are still caught up in a thirst for power and position.
Instead Mark wants us to look elsewhere. Given the themes of Isaiah, those who have come out of the wilderness and walk The Way to Zion are the blind who have received sight from Jesus himself.
When we read this story we shouldn’t look to identify with the disciples. They don’t get it. Instead, I am blind Bartimaeus on the side of the road crying out for healing. Certainly Mark wants us to catch the difference between the true discipleship of Bartimaeus and the non-discipleship of the rich man who was afraid to liquidate his fortune to follow Jesus. Yet the poor, destitute Bartimaeus throws away his only possession, his cloak, to gladly follow Jesus.
Let me try to bring all these images into a convergence. Those who recognize their blindness and seek the vision that comes from Jesus will experience healing. That healing will result, with joy and singing, in the abundant flowering of their own personal wilderness. This is the way of Jesus. This is The Way of the kingdom.
How do we see The Way? Are there blinders that keep us from seeing? From what kind of blindness do we need healing so we can follow Jesus on The Way?
We are saying that following Jesus means embracing social justice and the hard work that implies. Doing justice is more than charity, as important as that is. Charity is about fixing people so that the system will work better. Social justice is about fixing the system so that people are free to work better and thrive.
We are saying that to follow Jesus on the Way is to abandon the use of power and force to make stuff happen. It is The Way of non-violence. “Turning the other cheek” supersedes the Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye.”
We are saying that to follow Jesus is to be inclusive, not exclusive. None of us have it all figured out. All of us are blind in one way or another. The Way of Jesus is to truly invite everyone on the journey. It most certainly does not mean imposing legalistic demands that oppress and hinder.
We are saying that to follow Jesus is about loving all because that is what Jesus actually asks us to do: To love God and to love our neighbor. Love God and love people. That means forgive, over and over. That means show mercy even as God shows mercy. That means loving those who don’t believe as we. That means loving those who are outcast and sick and depressed and poor and oppressed and marginalized and on and on. It means living our lives with grace and acceptance.
Since this is a healing story, a miracle, if you will, one might think that our healing is also a miracle as well. You get saved and the Holy Spirit prompts you from that point on. But that isn’t the way it works. Rather discipleship, following Jesus on The Way, is about making decisions, conscious decisions. It is about deciding to change our minds, questioning our biases, letting go of any locked-in perspectives that might hinder our sight, removing the blinders that keep us from seeing The Way. It is a conscious, deliberate, and continual living into Jesus’ way. May we, like Bartimaeus, be healed of our blindness and gladly follow. Amen.