Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 30
October 24, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Jesus's encounter with Bartimaeus demonstrates respect for Bartimaeus' innate humanity as a child of God. The response to Bartimaeus by others in the crowd seems to address only his perceived disability.

When Matt Hay learned he was going to lose his hearing, he prepared in the ways you might expect. He took a sign-language class. He learned to read lips. He also tried to anticipate what things he might miss about being able to hear. Near the top of that list was music. As he prepared for a day when he may not hear, Matt made an independent study of all the music that he loved. Imagine learning you would never hear your favorite song again. Matt made it his mission to memorize every crescendo, every lyric, every riff of all his favorite songs.

When Matt finally did lose his hearing completely, it wasn't exactly the experience for which he had prepared. There were other things he missed: the sound of his wife's laugh, hearing the words, "I love you," his unborn child's first words. It was also harder to implement all the things he thought he would need. He didn't seem to remember enough signs and ended up finger spelling or writing everything down to communicate with his wife. He didn't realize it would be hard to express a feeling or have an argument or even just communicate what he needed. He worried about being "that guy" who needs the accommodations when he spent time with friends or family. When Matt's doctor offered him an auditory brian stem implant to restore some of his hearing, the technology was still new. Uncertain about the benefits, Matt ultimately decided that it would be worth it because of all the things he would miss, he did not want to miss out on hearing his children laugh or cry.

Just as he did not lose his hearing all at once, neither did the surgery restore Matt's hearing immediately. His brain had to relearn how to hear with the new device, and the device needed to be constantly "tuned," sort of the audiology version of getting fitted for eyeglasses. Matt would be given certain sounds to identify, and an audiologist would "tune" his device based on what he could hear. Suddenly, all those songs Matt had memorized became useful in a way he could have never predicted. Having such detailed knowledge of so many songs gave him the perfect opportunity to practice hearing sounds again.1

One striking aspect of Matt's story is that his preparation for becoming deaf was also his preparation for hearing. Now think about Bartimaeus, the blind man in our gospel reading, Is it possible that Bartimaeus' blindness was also his preparation for seeing?

Sighting Jesus, seeing Bartimaeus

In the short span of this story, Bartimaeus is on the receiving end of the range of responses many people with non-normative bodies might receive: dismissal and disdain ("Shut up, Bartimaeus!") and pity ("Cheer up, Bartimaeus"). None of the onlookers asked what Bartimaeus needed, why he was shouting or even more incredibly, how he knew it was "Jesus, Son of David" who had just come to town. The way they address Bartimaeus is as someone who is in the way, too troublesome or asking for too much.

When Jesus hears Bartimaeus calling for him, he stops. Others were telling Bartimaeus to pipe down, but Jesus stops and asks others to find the man calling for him. When he addresses Bartimaeus, he treats him as a human being, not as a perceived disability. Jesus simply asks what he can do for Bartimaeus. He makes no assumption that Bartimaeus is his blindness, or that his blindness is something that needs to be "healed." But when Bartimaeus tells Jesus of his desire to see, Jesus does heal him.

We're not told what happened to Bartimaeus after that day, only that he followed Jesus. The responses to Bartimaeus' blindness are remarkably similar to the responses people will soon have to Jesus' death and resurrection. Dismissal. Disdain. Pity. Just as they had assumed that Bartimaeus' blindness was a disability with no possibility of cure, so also will they view Jesus' death as an ending without any future possibility.

Did the experience of having a non-normative body enable Bartimaeus to better understand Jesus, the Son of David, as one who also has a non-normative body? Bartimaeus probably could not predict that the man who just cured his blindness would soon be crucified and rise from the dead. Still, had his blindness given him a sixth sense for others who do not fit the expectations of those around him?

We do not know for how long Bartimaeus followed Jesus, or where or how exactly he followed. We do not know if he was at the crucifixion, or if he was one of those who met the resurrected Christ. We only know that he recognized Jesus without seeing him and knew enough to buck the social expectations of blind beggars to get Jesus's attention. The resurrected Christ was someone also with a non-normative body. Was Bartimaeus' experience of blindness his preparation for sighting Jesus?

As Matt's aural acuity improved, he sang some of the songs he had memorized as lullabies to his children, well before they could appreciate the words or even the effort it took to learn them and to be able to sing them once again. Matt had hoped the music would help him remember a time when he could hear, but now those same songs had attached themselves to new memories with his children. He never could have anticipated that this music would evoke anything but loss.

Disabling "disability"

Often the things we identify as disabilities, or disabling, are things that are simply not normative. On a tour of a facility with others, a woman with a prosthetic leg came prepared with her crutches, her prosthetic and a wheelchair. The guide was sort of taken aback by all this equipment. The confusion on his face said that he was trying to anticipate all the places the group would be visiting and whether there were stairs, ramps or elevators. He was also silently trying to figure out how the group could lug all this "gear" for the duration of the tour.

Being pretty perceptive to how people saw her, the woman assured the guide she had seen every sort of situation and was confident that she could navigate the tour. Then she added, "The problem is not actually how I will navigate the space - I am able to adapt to many spaces. None of you can adapt like I can. The problem is that your built environment is only for one type of body and I don't have that kind of body." She confronted head-on the idea that she had a non-normative body. Had we, as a society, decided that people with prosthetic legs are "normative" we would have built environments that actually worked for more people. Expanding our inclusivity and accessibility expands our possibilities for all people.

Fully human

When Jesus heard a blind man shouting to him, he stopped. He spoke directly to the man and asked what he needed. Jesus expanded his circle to include someone who wanted to be part of the group, not just hover on the fringes. Jesus included Bartimaeus without making exceptions, caveats or excuses for Bartimaeus' blindness. He included Bartimaeus just as he presented himself.

No one will escape being non-normative in some way. We will all find ourselves on the fringe of something. Sometimes this will bear greater consequences than others. Some of us will find ourselves perpetually on the outside of what society is willing to tolerate in ways that make living life difficult. If we can only ever see how bodies are different, how will we recognize the risen Christ in his non-normative body? How will we know the power of miracles? How will we believe that we can be healed? How will we know that Jesus will stop for us, too?

When everything must fit into binary categories, we risk missing the God that is right in front of us. Jesus drew a wide circle around his community, wide enough to be inclusive and accessible to everyone. Don't miss the opportunity to meet the Christ before you just because the meeting does not fit your expectation.