From a very young age we learn to see through the eyes of others. We learn to desire what we see. We desire what other people desire.
We learn to look from our parents, friends and culture. Through our parents we learn shame and approval, what is dirty or clean, what is beautiful, and what is profane. We see the objects they identify; we laugh when they laugh. We respond to their attention.
If you’re worried about what your kids are watching, first take the step of watching their shows. They will learn to see how you see things, simply because you are there. Simply sharing the act of watching is a powerful way to influence and be influenced.
Our peers heighten the objects of desire. Through them we learn to like and dislike musical genres, judge other groups, and test who we want to be. We learn to pay attention to what they pay attention to. It is obvious of us in high school, but it is equally true of us as adults, depending on our associations and communities.
Most people think that the way they see the world is the way the world is. Such a view may be generally right. The danger is thinking that our way of seeing the world is the only way the world works.
In today’s gospel we have blind Bartimaeus, who cannot see. At least, he doesn’t see the same way the crowd does.
Bartimaeus is one person among many. The many see Bartimaeus as bearing the punishment for someone’s sin. Their God is not particularly merciful. They probably do quite well within that system of thinking: the parents do something wrong, or someone does something wrong, and God punishes them. That’s how the many see things. It might be just in the abstract, but cruel in the particular event of the blind man’s life.
The blind man is different. He cannot see what they see. They witness to a punishing God of power and glory and grandeur – they expect a tyrant, although perhaps a sympathetic and just one. But instead, the blind man announces Jesus characteristic, his person, his act, as “mercy.”
Jesus then says, “your faith” has made you well. Not the blind man’s brother Bobby’s faith. Not the faith of the many; not even Jesus’ faith. Not the faith once delivered. Not the government’s faith. Bartemeus’ faith.
His faith allowed him to see something that the many could not see: that the Lord is a lord of mercy.
Sometimes I wonder if he could always see — but he just didn’t know how. He got the colors, the outlines, the general dimensions, but he couldn’t organize these images in the same way. The many knew how to look in their own way. Surrounded by violence and oppression, they would think that God was the sort that administered punishment through violence the average way tyrants do. The single man just didn’t know how to look.
But there is plenty in Hebrew scripture that alludes to a merciful God. The “blind” man knew it, but the crowd just didn’t see it. So he takes his risk, and cries “mercy.”
The healing was the common language that both the blind man and the many understood. Healing, however, was not the crucial point. The blind man sees God anew because Jesus heard the blind man’s voice.
Crowds, the many, our friends, and peers, have an immense power over how we see. Our role is to imitate desires that build peace than disguise violence, calling out the truth instead of succumbing to conventional wisdom. We do this by revealing the truth; remembering and reminding others how we mirror each other’s desires, and can redeem them through peace, truth and honesty. And we learn to hear the single voice, the one that claims mercy, that is easily silenced in the cacophonous din of the shouting crowd.
The blind man’s faith is grounded in God’s peace. The many can encourage violence against the innocent. The blind man, whether innocent or guilty, merely knew that God is a God of mercy. The blind man announced a truth. If you want to address mass hysteria, make sure that the truth gets told. The hardest challenge, of course, is to learn to look differently, to look comprehensively, to see the world as God does: with empathy and mercy for his creation. This is a risk — it seems entirely possible that the blind man could have been lynched were it not for the impressive nature of Jesus’ healing.
The story is not meant to make the world seem easy. In his blindness, his social location, he could still call, “Lord, have mercy.” He may not have known all the facts about his condition; he may not have held all the correct and conventional opinions; and he may have truly deserved his plight. But in recognizing the true nature of God, in calling out and being heard, perhaps he discovered he had always been able to see.