Ars Praedicandi: 30th Sunday in O.T. (B), Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

A number of years ago
I ran across a quite short yet interesting list
which reminded me that
things are not always what they seem.

That list noted that
a firefly is not a fly – it’s a beetle;
a prairie dog is not a dog – it’s a rodent;
a Douglas fir tree is not a fir – it’s a pine;
a banana tree is not a tree – it’s an herb;
a horned toad is not a toad – it’s a lizard;
and an English horn is not English and not a horn –
it’s an alto oboe that originated in Silesia.

In that same contradictory vein,
I would like to suggest that the gospel we hear today,
with echoes in that first reading from Jeremiah,
is not really a miracle or a healing story
but rather a vocational narrative
offering ancient wisdom
about the true path to discipleship.

It also is a sharp corrective to those
who might think they have the discipleship gig
down pat or securely in hand.

While Mark’s gospel is not always held up
as a great piece of literature,
Mark cleverly constructs a telling sequence of events
here in the middle of his narrative
that culminates with the healing of the blind man in Jericho.

In order to understand Mark’s literary inventiveness
we have to reach back to the 8th chapter of Mark
in which the evangelist relates the first tale
of Jesus curing a blind man,
this time at Bethsaida.
In that story, Jesus takes the blind man by the hand,
leads to the edge of the village,
puts spittle on his eyes and his hands on his head,
finally laying his hands on the man’s eyes
and he is cured.

Then Mark takes us on a romp through discipleship
with Peter’s profession of faith,
followed by Peter being rebuked by Jesus
and actually called Satan by the Son of God.

Then there is the tale of the disciples
arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest.

Followed by a tale of apostolic outrage
because someone outside their circle
was casting out demons… what impertinence.

A few verses later there is the presumptuous tale
of two disciples, James and John, the sons Zebedee
actually requesting that Jesus place them
at his right and left hand in glory
presumably enhancing their positions
in the current apostolic pecking order.

Interspersed between these tales
that caricature the hand-chosen disciples
as spiritual dunderheads, even buffoons,
are multiple instructions from the Lord
about conditions for following Christ,
an inclusive image of discipleship
and leadership as service not as power or prominence.

Today’s healing story
that serves as a bookend to this section of the gospel
paralleling the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida
is Mark’s capstone on two chapters of vocational commentary.

Positioned right before Jesus enters Jerusalem
on a collision course with suffering and death,
the evangelist presents what at first glance
looks like a healing story.

Digging into the text, however,
we discover that it is really a wisdom tale
about true discipleship and every vocation in Christ.
The most obvious clue to the true nature of this tale
lies in the question Jesus asks the blind man:
“What do you want me to do for you.”
A question virtually identical
to the one Jesus posed to the Sons of Zebedee
in the previous chapter.

To that prompt, the disciples James and John
requested privilege, a very high place in God’s reign
being seated and Jesus’ right and left in glory.

And what did the blind man want?
He wanted to see.

In many languages, including English
to see not only indicates a capacity for physical sight
but the ability to understand, to perceive the truth,
to be enlightened.

When you surround this gospel dialogue
with the evidence that this blind man
was unstoppable in shouting at the top of his lungs
for Jesus to show him mercy,
that in his blindness Jesus requires
the almost laughable feat
of the blind man coming to Jesus
rather than the Lord moving to him,
and then that dramatic detail of the man
throwing off his cloak,
probably the only thing he owned,
throwing off his source of protection,
his source of comfort and warmth,
his primary worldly possession,
we begin to “see” that this is the true disciple
jumping up and moving toward Jesus.
Divested of his worldly commitments
gifted in God’s mercy
with the capacity to perceive the Christ
and metaphorically putting chosen disciples to shame
who, over the past few chapters of Mark,
have revealed themselves as thoroughly incapable
of perceiving the true nature of Jesus
and his death-defying ministry.

There is a celebrated neuroscientist and expert in perception
by the name of Dr. Beau Lotto.
His most recent book on his work is entitled
Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently, [1]
but you can get a quick overview
of his disruptive approach to perception
by watching one of his TED talks.

Through a series of mind-boggling experiments,
Lotto demonstrates that
the brain evolves not to see the world the way it is
but to see the world in ways that have been useful.

But context changes, life changes, the world changes
and our very plastic brains can help us see the world anew.
But that is only done by deviating from norms of perception
by stepping into uncertainty,
by practicing active doubt.

Lotto believes that:

doubt with courage and your brain will reward you for it through the new perceptions this process opens up. To question one’s assumptions, especially those that define ourselves, requires knowing that [we] don’t see The reality – only [our] minds version of reality – and … accepting the possibility that someone else might know better. [2]

Bartimaeus – the blind man of Jericho
in begging for mercy,
in wanting to see,
metaphorically announced that his previous assumptions
about God,
about salvation,
and about any messiah
were now under question,
thrown off like an old cloak
in the quest for new eyes
in the radical experiment, as St. Paul would phrase it,
of “putting on … clothing oneself in Christ” (Rom 13:14)

When that happens
we are changed from the inside out,
free to deviate from societal norms
that judge people by color, or sexual orientation, or faith
and instead, see them with Christ eyes.

Recently I learned about the Decameron Project,
inspired by the mythical tale of 10 young people
who in the 14th century attempted to escape the plague
by sheltering in a villa outside of Florence
and passing their time by weaving stories and telling tales.

The contemporary Decameron project
emerged in the midst of the current pandemic,
founded by young people for their peers
and inviting a return to storytelling
as an antidote to oppressive isolation,
deploying these fresh voices as healing gifts.

Middle Schooler Grace Volz recently crafted a story
entitled “Seeing Differently.”
In this autobiographical tale,
grace ponders her incredibly bad eyesight,
noting that when friends try to put on her glasses
they inevitably say something like
“wow Grace, you’re really blind!”

This short vignette celebrates the gift of glasses,
or what she calls windows.
A story her mother often repeats at her prompting
is about the day she got her first pair of glasses as a child.
Mom said, “your face seemed to light up,
seeing the whole world as I see it,
you never took them off!”

But then this middle schooler muses
about taking off her glasses from time to time
to see things in a different way.

She writes:

Not being able to see faces gives me a way to just see their personality first. Just to focus on the most important thing about a person is truly a gift, I don’t get sidetracked by someone’s appearance like their clothes, or their looks, or even their size. Ever since the 2016 election, I realized that I have to fight for what I believe in and hold the people that also care about those issues close to me. I think I had to finally accept others’ differences to stay strong and I couldn’t do that without knowing who they actually are first. Listening, I continue to hear others’ stories of hardships and injustices to better understand and connect with them.

When I put on my glasses I’m able to see what everyone else sees, the person that everyone recognizes. I admire both sides of someone, I connect the dots to their true selves and their appearance. I see who someone really is deep down and I can finally put someone else’s shoes on.”

I wonder if her middle name is Bartimaeus
or if she is a long-lost relative of the blind man from Jericho.

Like many others, the American Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
has mused on the Bartimaean metaphor.
The closing stanza of this verse summons us all:

Ye that have eyes, yet cannot see,
In darkness and in misery,
Recall those mighty Voices Three,
“Jesus, have, mercy now on me!
Fear not, arise, and go in peace!
Thy faith from blindness gives release!”

So may our faith give us relief
from the blindness, the prejudice, the judgmentalism
that clouds our sight
so that we might see through Christ-Eyes
for our good, and the good of all the world
through Christ our Lord.

[1] Beau Lotto, Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2017).

[2] Ibid., pp. 11-12.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.