My life was defined by one word – Blind. I was of no practical use and among the crowd I was unexceptional, if not invisible. My name, Bar Timaeus, means Son of the Outsiders, so I knew my worth to the world. I carried my father’s name, Timaeus, but in truth it was I who had been a burden. I was a Son of the People; one of The Countless Ignored; The Great Unwashed. You can name it what you will, but I had no place to call my own. I would sit near the gate of Jericho and listen for any passerby to ask them for a crust. Travellers and traders gave a little out of their purse and others out of compassion or the guilt I heard in their voices. Most, however, left me, you might say, in the hands of god. But I used to think god was blind too. I figured if those who professed to know god did not notice me, it stood to reason that this god would treat me in much the same way, right? Could this god see my blindness or did he choose not to? How could I pray to a god who was either unmerciful or incapable? These questions beset me as much, if not more, than the people who regularly told me to clear off.
Then one day as I was begging, a large crowd approached from within the city walls. As the anticipation of the crowd built around me something was also building inside me. I heard in the murmur that Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples were close by. At that moment, my anguish erupted from the pit of my stomach. I would be ignored no longer, so I vented my spleen, “Jesus, Son of David’s People, do you see me?!”
Well, this caused such an uproar! Many people hastened to shout me down and shut me up. But I continued to shout vehemently, “Look at me! Son of David’s People! Do you see me?!”
Then, between my outbursts, I sensed a shift in the crowd and then someone called to me, “Take heart son and on ya feet! He’s calling you!”
Sure enough he had stopped for me and had said to his disciples, “Call him.” Without delay I threw my cloak aside and jumped to my feet. I fumbled my way towards Jesus. When he was with me Jesus simply asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Now face to face I said, “Teacher, I want to see.”
Jesus said, “You may walk freely – for your spiritual sight is now matched by your physical sight.”
And that is what happened! Immediately I could see! I’ll never forget the first face I saw, the face of Jesus my healer – from whom I had received, well, everything. I kept company with him and his followers towards Jerusalem and I marveled at every new sight along the way. But mostly I marveled at how certain I had been that the one they called Jesus of Nazareth would ignore me like all the rest. How wrong I turned out to be!
I fell in step with his followers and was able to hear many of their stories concerning Jesus. I was especially interested in hearing from Peter and James and John, for they had been with Jesus from the beginning of his travels. Perhaps I asked it outright or perhaps they knew my question intuitively, but what I really wanted to know was ‘Could I be a disciple too, like them?’ They were eager to share and freely admitted when they too did not understand. The three of them reported all they seen and heard. As we hiked and as we rested, sometimes they looked over their shoulder, sometimes they spoke in hushed tones and at other times they simply shook their heads, as if to clear their minds of a fog.
The apostle Peter told me about another man whom Jesus healed and restored sight to not long before me. I listened intently to his story:
“It was when we had come to the town of Bethsaida. Some people brought a man who was blind, like you. They wanted Jesus to touch him so that the man would be healed. Jesus led the man by the hand to the edge of town. I don’t know what he did exactly but it involved spitting and the man’s eyes and those hands of Jesus that touched so many. Jesus then asked, ‘Has anything changed. Can you see?’
“Lifting his head the man replied, ‘I see the movement of shapes – I cannot tell if they are people or trees.’
“Clearly a second touch was needed, so Jesus again put his hands on the man’s eyelids. When Jesus took his hands away the man opened his eyes and it was obvious that he could see. Restored, his eyes were able to focus and you could see him take everything in. Jesus immediately instructed him to go home, saying, ‘Best you keep this from the neighbourhood gossips.’”
“We went from there to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. At one point along the way Jesus asked, ‘How do the people see me? What do they call me?’ We replied, ‘Well, some say John the Baptiser; others say Elijah’s back; and still others have you as some new prophet.’
“Then he asked us straight, ‘Well, what about you? Amongst yourselves what do you call me?’
“I answered for everyone, ‘We say you are the Christ.’
“Then Jesus knocked the conversation on the head. He warned us to keep our understanding to ourselves.
“Then he began to teach us something new concerning himself. He said that the People’s Favourite Son would suffer many things and that the elders and chief priests and the teachers of the rules would reject him. Not only that, he said that he must be killed in order to breathe life into death itself – for after three days lying dead he would get up again. Jesus was giving it to us straight about this when I shepherded him a little distance away and began to take him to task over it. But Jesus would have none of that. He broke free of me, and coming back to our group, put me in my place with a sharp word, ‘Satan belongs behind me and so do you! You are not focused on the matters of God but on the matters of men.’
“Jesus then opened up his teaching to include the crowd beyond the twelve of us. He said, ‘How you see discipleship must change. As a disciple follows his teacher, you will become familiar with abandoning yourself like a man carrying his crossbeam on a short trip to his grave. Mark this: whoever white-knuckles life will see it torn from his very hands, but whoever holds his life as soft as a beggar’s hand for me and for the good news, will see his life come into its own. What good is it for a man to gain everything he desires if he does not have this one thing – his very life? Think of it this way: what if you were to watch the value of a man’s soul being weighed against all he owns? What could possibly be weighed that would even come close to the worth of that life? It’s priceless!
“‘Anyone who is tempted to sideline me, my example or my words, know this: This generation doesn’t know the value of fidelity with God or the worth of a godly life. When the People’s Favourite Son arrives your petty concerns will fade into obscurity, because there he will be –Scentre-stage, accompanied by his holy angels, and clothed in his Father’s glory.’
“And then he said to us all, ‘Be sure of this: some who are standing with me now will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God made powerfully visible.’”
Peter then hesitated as if deciding whether to share the next story or not. He began to relate a mountainside encounter with Jesus, saying,
“Soon after, Jesus came to James, John and I and invited us to come away with him. It was the sixth day since he first spoke to us about all of this carrying of crossbeams and lying dead for three days before rising up business. It was almost a week since he rebuked me and all this talk about the weighing of souls and abandoning ourselves and foretastes of great anguish alongside God’s splendour and might.
“Anyway, we found ourselves high in the mountain reaches, in complete solitude together. Right there, in that place Jesus changed before our very eyes. He appeared with this, this magnificence that defies description. With whom can I compare this man who was revealed before us? Even his clothes made you raise a hand to shield against their too-blinding-white. No bleach wash could ever produce such an effect. What is more, two figures that we took for Elijah and Moses were with Jesus and began to speak with him!
“I cannot begin to tell you how frightened we were. Put it this way, I started speaking nonsense, saying, ‘Teacher, here we all are –what luck! Say the word and we’ll stay here! Look, we’ll build three shelters –bone for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’
“Then suddenly we were immersed in thick cloud. I heard a voice from within the cloud affirming, ‘This is my Son; see my love in every fibre of his being. Give him your full attention!’
“Then as fast as the cloud had come, it left. My eyes fell on Jesus, who was again as plain as you see me now. He was alone but for us, his three bewildered companions.
“We came down the mountain together. Jesus spoke first, telling us not to breathe a word to anyone about what we had seen until the People’s Favourite Son had risen from the dead. Well, we don’t know what it means, this ‘rising from the dead’ and we continue to discuss it among ourselves.”
I interrupted Peter and inquired, “Doesn’t Elijah have to appear before the Messiah? Isn’t that what the teachers of the rules say?” James, John’s brother answered for him. He replied,
“Exactly –that’s the very question that we asked Jesus and he put the answer to us. He said, ‘Yeah definitely, this “Elijah” leads the way, and puts in order what is out of kilter. But they have done everything they liked to the “‘Elijah’” that came to them and it ended as the prophets said it would. So you see the question of suffering remains. What makes you think that what is written about the suffering and rejection of the People’s Favourite Son will not follow in the same way?’”
“When we descended the mountain to join the other disciples, we were met by a large crowd in the midst of a quarrel. The other disciples were in the middle of a heated argument with the teachers of the rules. As soon as all the people saw Jesus they responded with wonder. Overwhelmed by his presence they ran to welcome him. They ran to him as children run to a father.
“He asked, ‘I see you are arguing with the teachers. What’s this all about?’
“A man in the crowd answered, ‘Teacher, I brought my son to you. An evil spirit oppresses him and robs him of speech. It seizes him without warning and throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, grits his teeth in pain and he becomes stiff as a board. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit but they couldn’t get rid of it.’
“‘Oh you blind lot,’ Jesus replied, ‘How long shall I lead you by the hand? How much longer must I endure your short-sightedness? Bring the lad here.’
“So they led the boy through the crowd. When the spirit saw Jesus it immediately threw the boy down into a fit. He lay on the ground and shook uncontrollably and spittle formed at the sides of his mouth.
“Jesus asked the boy’s father, ‘How long has he been like this?’
“‘From a very young age,’ he answered. ‘The evil spirit has often tried to burn him to death in the fire or drown him in water. Pity us and help us –that is, if you can do anything at all.’
“I watched Jesus’s face as he answered, ‘If I can? Where there is belief there is every possibility.’
“At once the boy’s father took up Jesus’s prompt, ‘I’ll accept that! But you’ll have to bear my unbelief!’
“Well, by then more people were running over to join the crowd. Jesus saw them coming and acted quickly, rebuking the evil spirit. ‘You powerless spirit,’ he said, ‘Though you are deaf you’ll heed my command and though you are mute my word will open your mouth! Come out of him and do not ever return!’
“The spirit let out a shriek and shook the child one last time before leaving him. The boy lay completely still and had the pallor of death about him. Many gathered there whispered, ‘I think he’s dead.’ Jesus however crouched beside him. He took the boy’s hand and as the boy came to himself Jesus lifted him to his feet. Finally the boy stood unaided.
“We left the crowd and went with Jesus to the house where we were staying. Once we were alone with him we asked the obvious question. ‘Why couldn’t we drive out that demon?’
“He replied, ‘A life given to the sacraments of emptiness and openness before God will repel this kind – there is no other way.’
“His teaching continued as we left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus didn’t want anyone to know our whereabouts because he still had more to teach us. He said to us a second time there: ‘The People’s Favourite Son is going to be hung out to dry by those he trusts. Those who cannot wait to get their hands bloody will be satisfied. They will kill him but after three days he will rise.’ We don’t fully understand what he meant by these words and we are too afraid to question him further.”
As the disciples told me—Bartimaeus—their stories, it seemed that Jesus had such a capacity to bear with the slowness of their understanding. I couldn’t help but sense clarity would come in good time, much like a blind man who needed a second touch. I too had many questions as we made our way toward Jerusalem. I fell in step with the apostle John and asked him what else Jesus had been teaching them along the way. He shared openly with me,
“Jesus took every opportunity in the houses we stayed in to teach us privately. Whether it was our questions or the questions of others, he answered like a True Son of the People.
“I remember when we came to Capernaum. As we rested from our day’s journey he asked us a question, ‘Hey back there on the road –what were you lot arguing about? Truth be told we had wanted to find out who was the most gifted among the twelve of us. Each man had tried to put himself forward to better all the rest and hot tempers had led to regrettable words. When Jesus highlighted our behaviour, nobody wanted to admit to such a conversation, so we said nothing.
“Jesus sat down and drew the Twelve of us in. He said, ‘Listen, if you want to outdo one another, work to be last where it counts –in reputation. There you will find the heart of the true servant.’
“He called for one of the children of the house and asked him to stand in the centre of the room. Putting his arm around the boy he said to us, ‘If you are going to use my name, then it’s the irrelevant ones like this, you must learn to hold at the core of what you do. This alone will honour me. What’s more, when you honour me at the core of what you do, you are really honouring the One who sent me.’
“There were other things we had to unlearn too. Once I said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, there was this stranger using your name to drive out demons. We told him to stop because he wasn’t one of those specially tasked to do that.’
“‘Oh, no don’t stop him; let him go for his life. A mouth that speaks honour in my name in one instance cannot turn around and dishonour my name the next, for whoever is not opposing us works alongside us. Be sure of this: Anyone who sees that you belong to Christ and gives you so much as a crust to honour my name will not go unnoticed or unrewarded.’
“Jesus continued, ‘What say you were on the fringes, yet you accepted who I was and acted on that belief? Imagine then, being stopped from doing this good work. What a travesty it would be for you to turn around and oppose me. It would be better for those who stopped you to themselves be cut off–hand thrown into the sea with the anchor.
“‘Be ruthless with anything that ends in sin. Go for the proverbial knife on stuff like that! If anything you put your hand to ends in sin, cut off that hand! Best that you are released into life with the stark reminder of your escape, than incessantly reach for the pain of your choice–why, that’d be hell! Likewise, if you tread even with one foot into sin, cut off that foot! Best that you are released into life with the obvious reminder of your escape, than walk freely carrying the burden of your choice – why, that’d also be hell! And again, if you even glance in the direction of sin, take the closest eye and gouge it out! It’s best that you are free in the kingdom of God, even without the gift of full perception. Otherwise you will stare helplessly at the consequences of your choice as they lead you to certain destruction. And you know what Isaiah said about that:
“‘“The maggots wriggle and writhe in their work and the flames dance destruction.”’
“‘And what’s more: As fire proves metal and salt cures – so everyone will go through testing.
“‘Salt is useful for many things, unless it were to lose its saltiness. Why, then you could no longer call it salt; it would merely be grit! You are people of salt, so let the peace you share—your essence—be what makes you distinct.’
“We left that place with Jesus and went into the area of Judea and crossed over the Jordan River. The ever-present crowds flocked to him and so his teaching too became like walking well worn paths of wisdom.
“One day some Pharisees came and tested his salt. ‘A man can divorce his wife,’ said one. ‘The law allows it,’ said another. ‘But what do you say?’ventured a third.
“Jesus replied, ‘Well, what did Moses set out for the people to follow?’
“They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to obtain a divorce from his wife –this would scribe and seal her fate.’
“‘For sure Moses had to cut deep with that rule, but only because your hearts were as tough as leathered calf skin!’ Jesus countered. ‘This was not the vision at the beginning! It was creation—you know, “male and female he made them”—and “Here’s the reason a man will leave his father and mother: two will become bound as one.” So under the same sun as creation, this man and his wife you speak of are no longer two but one. Don’t you see – God has scribed and sealed their union? What then, is papyrus and ink?’
“We waited until we were behind closed doors again before asking Jesus about all this. He answered, ‘Anyone who divorces from his wife and marries another, sins against that first woman –it’s adultery! Likewise, if she writes him a divorce and marries another, she sins against that first man –why it’s adultery upon adultery!’”
“About this time the crowds were dangling small children in front of Jesus wanting him to bless them. We told them to get lost. Jesus was gobsmacked by our oversight. He said to us, ‘Let them. Let them come to me. Don’t get in the way. These are the very ones the kingdom of God takes hold of. Be sure of this: anyone who will not hold lightly the kingdom of God like a little one, will never know the freedom of it.’ With that, he drew the children into his arms. Then, with a touch and a word of blessing, he released them.
“Jesus was poised to move on but again he was interrupted. A man unconcerned for his own reputation ran up to him and knelt down right in Jesus’s path. ‘Virtuous teacher,’ he asked, ‘I see the great hope of humanity, the kingdom of God, but how do I grab hold of it? I have to know what to do and how do it – now.’
“‘Virtuous you say? What would give my character away as good?’ Jesus answered. ‘Who goes around describing themselves as good? Is that not for God to reveal? Now, you know the commandments: “Don’t kill your brother, don’t cheat with your brother’s wife. And stealing from your neighbour is definitely out. And for goodness’ sake don’t be loose with the truth or rip off those you do life with. Also, it goes well when you give your father and mother respect …”’
“‘Teacher,’ he interjected, ‘I’ve kept all these rules since I was a lad.’
“Jesus really looked at the man and I could tell right then that he loved all of him.
“‘You sense something is missing,’ Jesus said. ‘Now, here’s what to do: sell all you have. Yes, embrace emptiness and live for the poor and see what kind of riches God fills you up with. Then the path will be clear to follow me.’
“Well the man was dejected; his face said what was etched in his heart. I watched him leave and not once did he turn and look back, for he had chosen to hold onto his life of great wealth instead of living to reveal great virtue.
“Jesus turned to us, his disciples, and said, ‘It’s so hard for the rich to get this! How unlike the kingdom of God is the wealth prized by this world. One frees a person and the other binds them!’
“We were dumbfounded by his words but Jesus said again, ‘Little ones, it’s so hard for the rich to get this! How unlike the kingdom of God is the wealth prized by this world. One frees a person and the other binds them! Indeed, it is easier for an eel to escape an eel trap than for a rich man to be released into the kingdom of God.’
“Well, at that point we were completely undone. We mused aloud, considering the impossibility, ‘Who then can be freed?’
“Jesus looked at us with the same look he had given the man of wealth. He said, ‘Impossible is a word used by people, but not God. All manner of possibilities begin with God.’
“Peter then blurted out, ‘We’re following you – and we’ve left everything!’
“‘Here’s the truth of it,’ Jesus replied, ‘Anyone who lets go of what they hold close to their heart, whether it is home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or livelihood for me and this good news, will receive a hundred-fold again in this present age. You will know what true abundance looks like. The places you call home will enlarge and the field will widen even as you work it. Those who you call brother and sister and mother and child will multiply, and yes along with them, persecutions. Consider too the age yet to come. There will be so much more –eternal God-filled-life. But many who are in prime position now will have to wait and those who are used to waiting will suddenly find themselves in prime position when it counts.’”
I was struggling to process all that John had told me. As a blind beggar I had been used to waiting. I had waited for years and years. What would I now be first to witness? All I knew was that this man, Jesus, had given me back my sight when he and his followers had passed through Jericho. Now we were on our way up to Jerusalem. Jesus led the way. His disciples followed, clearly impassioned by what was before them. Those of us who followed at more of a distance exchanged fearful glances.
Once again Jesus took the twelve disciples into his confidence. They were out of earshot, but I could see that he was telling them again what would happen to him. He would be telling them, “This is it; we’re going up to Jerusalem, where the People’s Favourite Son will be handed over to the chief priests and teachers of the rules.” I could see from his disciples’ reactions that he was talking of his death. They would tell me later that he had been very specific –the Jewish leaders would condemn him and let foreign powers administer the sentence. He would be covered in insults and spit and be brutalised by the whip and then be subjected to the public death of a criminal. As before, he added that three days later he would rise.
Not long after, there was a squabble between the sons of Zebedee and the other ten disciples. Apparently James and John had asked Jesus for a special favour and the others had taken offence. The two had approached Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do this one thing for us.”
When I heard the reply Jesus gave them, it touched me deeply, because the last time I had heard it I was blind. He had said, “What do you want me to do for you?”
I asked James and John, “So what did you ask for?”
James confessed, “We said to Jesus, ‘Allow one of us to sit at your right and the other at your left when you’re in power.’ To which he replied, ‘What nonsense! Can you even put your lips to the cup waiting for me?” Jesus turned to John and demanded,’“What about you? Can you even touch the baptism I am to go through?’”
I asked them again, “Well, what did you say?”
John confessed, “We said, ‘Yes we can.’ To which Jesus replied, ‘That much is true. You will bring the same cup I drink to your lips and you will enter the same baptism I am to go through, but this talk of sitting in places of power with me is not for me to decide. Power belongs to those who have been specifically prepared for it.’”
Jesus called us together and spoke to everyone gathered there:
“You know the rulers of the Gentiles are only obeyed because of their stand-over tactics. They in turn are ruled by overbearing officials. This is the way of ruling by force and coercion. But this is not the way I will set before you. Instead, you will see how it’s all turned on its head – whoever among you finds true greatness must be willing for it to be obscured by servant-hood. Likewise, those who find true and lasting power must be willing for it to be obscured by complete surrender. For even the People’s Favourite Son did not come to be play lord but to truly serve. He will lay it all down—his reputation, his dignity and even his very life—for everyone to take from him what they need. Many will count this very act of ransom as the day they were released into absolute freedom. They will mark it as the opening up of whole-souled salvation!”
Well, I was filled with wonder as I listened to all this. I would often recall these words as I witnessed all that took place there in the days that followed.
I remember when I first laid eyes on Jerusalem. I stood still and beheld the city as it spread out before me. Then I whispered Jesus’s first ever question to me and my humble response:
“What do you want me to do for you?”
“Teacher, I want to see.”