My friend John is a photographer, but he also loves to tell stories about his travels in the U. S. and around the world. A few days ago, John talked about a trip to India and the large groups of children that often surrounded him there, laughing, shouting, pulling his sleeves and begging for change, and how one day he decided that he was done handing out small coins to them. He got into the back of one of those three-wheel taxis and took off, feeling terrible about his lack of generosity and compassion. He turned around and looked back through the small window cut into the canvas of the cab; he saw the children he had just so cold-heartedly abandoned: they were playing soccer on the street, laughing and shouting and having a great time. He was relieved to see them run around and play, and to note that, contrary to the dark thoughts of his guilt-ridden heart, their world did not revolve around him.
Another story he told that night was from a trip to China. He visited a town where begging had apparently been elevated to a performance art. John saw a man at a street corner, and he was fascinated by him while at the same time trying to ignore him. The man had no legs and he was sitting in a small wooden cart; one of his arms looked twisted and paralyzed, and he used his other arm to push himself forward. John tried to look past him, but the man wouldn’t let him. He addressed John as he walked past, but John kept walking, pretending he couldn’t hear him. He thought he had escaped, but the man in the cart followed him, pushing himself forward on the road with astounding proficiency. John walked a little faster, his eyes firmly locked on the end of the street, but the man didn’t stop his pursuit. John picked up the pace some more, but the man in the cart was determined and astonishingly quick on his wheels. They came to the end of the block and John crossed the street, certain that the man would give up the chase now, but no, he was relentless. Halfway down the second block, John stopped and turned around. They looked at each other, neither said a word, and then they just burst out laughing, deep, full-throated belly laughs that shook their bodies so hard that fear, guilt, awkwardness, shame and anger vanished until nothing but joy remained. Then they went to get a cup of tea.
Mark Horvath also works with a camera, but his preferred format are video and film. He once heard a story about a homeless man on Hollywood Blvd who thought he was invisible. One day a kid handed the man a pamphlet, and he was shocked and amazed: “What!? You can see me? How can you see me? I’m invisible!”
Horvath writes about that moment, “It isn’t hard to comprehend this man’s slow spiral into invisibility. Once on the street, people started to walk past him, ignoring him as if he didn’t exist … much like they do a piece of trash on the sidewalk. It’s not that people are bad, but if we make eye contact, or engage in conversation, then we have to admit they exist and that we might have a basic human need to care. But it’s so much easier to simply close our eyes and shield our hearts to their existence.” Horvath knows we’re not literally closing our eyes; we just keep them focussed on the end of the street and hope that invisibility works both ways. The homeless man blends into the background, and we who are passing by blend into the steady stream of faceless pedestrians; it’s a kind of blindness.
Horvath writes about homeless men and women, “I not only feel their pain, I truly know their pain. I lived their pain. You’d never know it now but I was a homeless person. Seventeen years ago, I lived on Hollywood Blvd. But today, I find myself looking away, ignoring the faces, avoiding their eyes — and I’m ashamed when I realize I’m doing it. But I really can feel their pain, and it is almost unbearable, but it’s just under the surface of my professional exterior.” After years of using a television camera to tell the stories of homelessness and the organizations trying to help, Horvath began shooting short, unedited clips of homeless men and women telling their stories, and he posted them on his website, Invisible People. The purpose of the project, he writes, “is to make the invisible visible. I hope these people and their stories connect with you and don’t let go. I hope their conversations with me will start a conversation in your circle of friends.” Stories and conversations against the pervasive blindness.
Jesus and his band of disciples were in Galilee, where Jesus was proclaiming the good news of God: “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” He healed the sick, freed the oppressed, he taught and fed the people with parables and bread, and the disciples watched and learned. They watched a lot, but they were slow to learn. “Do you still not perceive or understand?” Jesus said to them at one point, frustration in his voice. “Do you have eyes, but fail to see?”
They came to Bethsaida, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, and people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. Jesus laid his hands on his eyes and looked at him intently and the man’s sight was restored and he saw everything clearly. The disciples watched, but they were slow to understand who Jesus was, and what it meant to follow him. They were far from seeing everything clearly.
They followed him as best they could as he turned to Jerusalem. On the way, Jesus told them repeatedly what would happen in the city and he taught them about the demands of discipleship, about serving one another and being attentive to little ones and about the meaning of greatness in the kingdom of God. “What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked the sons of Zebedee, who had been with him almost as long as Peter, and they responded, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus modeled being a servant, but his disciples, to this day, dream of power and privilege.
Then they came to Jericho, the last stop for travelers and pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem, and there, just outside the city, sitting by the roadside, was Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. When he heard that it was Jesus who was walking by, he began to shout out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many in the crowd told him to hold his tongue and be quiet. Easy for them to say, they weren’t beggars. For them it was just fine for Bartimaeus to blend into the background and remain invisible, but he cried out even more loudly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He knew it was Messiah time; he knew this was the time when the eyes of the blind are opened and the poor have their debts canceled and the oppressed go free. He may have been blind, but his vision was better than theirs; his insight more profound than the disciples’. He named and entreated Jesus, and when the people rebuked him, he asked again, louder this time. He refused to be silenced. He refused to blend into the background and remain part of the everyday road side backdrop everybody had gotten used to. He cried out, relentlessly, and Jesus stood still. “Call him here,” he said, and they did. “Courage,” they said, “get up, he’s calling you.” They didn’t have to tell him twice. He sprang up and came to Jesus.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him, the same question he had asked James and John who had been stumbling along behind him since the earliest days of his mission in Galilee. They dreamed of power and privilege; they didn’t see who he was; they didn’t perceive what his mission was, despite their having been with him so long. The blind beggar answered Jesus, “Let me see again.” And Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you well.” He didn’t send him away; he told him that the days of his marginalization and invisibility were over. Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way to the cross.
After a long series of episodes in Mark’s gospel in which the disciples just don’t get it, it is a blind man who finally sees clearly who Jesus is and follows him up to Jerusalem. There’s hope for us blind beggars who can’t quite see who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. It’s Messiah time; he’s calling us. The rich man went away grieving when Jesus called him, for he had many possessions. Bartimaeus, throwing off his cloak, jumped up and came to Jesus and followed him on the way. His cloak was everything for him, mattress, blanket, umbrella, coat and coin catcher – it was everything he owned and it represented the life he left behind for the sake of the kingdom, like a fisherman who walks away from his nets and a tax collector who abandons his desk to follow Jesus. Bartimaeus walked away from invisibility and blindness and followed Jesus on the kingdom way. With his eyes opened by Jesus, he began to see everything in his light. He began to notice what others routinely missed or ignored. He began to see everything in the context of Jesus and found a whole new life.
Jesus asks a simple question, “What do you want me to do for you?”
How do you answer?