Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 25, 2009

Jer 31:7-9; Psa 126:1-6; Heb 5:1-6; Mark 10:45-52

Treating the Human Spirit

Barbara  Bowe, RSCJ, Th.D.
Professor of Biblical Studies
Catholic Theological Union
Chicago

There is a hospital I know of that uses as its marketing and public relations tagline the saying, "We also treat the human spirit."

In a way, this line might well describe the intended purpose of the healing stories told about Jesus in the New Testament. The Gospel selection today is no exception with the vivid story of the healing of a blind man named Bartimaeus. In fact, each of the scripture readings chosen for this 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time teaches us about God's intent for us and for all God's people — throughout our lives — whether "in sickness or in health."

In our first reading, the prophet Jeremiah is a powerful voice in the southern kingdom of Judah on the eve of the Babylonian invasion that destroyed Jerusalem in the early 6th century before Christ. He persistently warned the inhabitants of Jerusalem that their evil actions would bring God's judgment upon them and that nothing could stop the Babylonian invaders from destroying their city and their Temple. His was an ominous message, delivered with power and force. But, like many of the Hebrew prophets, Jeremiah was also convinced of God's forgiving and compassionate heart that would respond with love, if only the people would turn and seek God's healing action. And in that spirit, in our reading today Jeremiah imagines and foretells the joyous return of the exiled peoples to their beloved land. The mood is festive, joyous, filled with exultation and praise. "I will bring them back, . . . I will gather them. . . " the prophet imagines God would say.

Jeremiah pictures God's relationship to the people as that of a loving parent, a mother with her infant or a father with a firstborn child, who would be incapable of remaining angry forever toward the child that they loved. Instead, like these parents, God is one who desires our flourishing and calls us as a people back to the place of our birth. In this great crowd that Jeremiah envisions, the people return as an "immense throng." They are the able-bodied and the lame, the sighted and the blind — all together as one people with God as their champion and parent taking care of all their needs. Care for the human spirit is richly described in images of tears being wiped away, consolation abundant, and every thirst being quenched in brooks of abundant water. The road of return will be "on level ground so that none will stumble."

While these beautiful images may be seen on their literal level, they are even more powerful as symbols for God's exquisite care for the weaker, the less able, the frail in our midst. Access to the important things in life — contentment, basic necessities like water, relative freedom from pain, sadness and grief — all these God promises to the returning remnant. All these blessings God expects we will also supply to one another as the community of God's people. For, as the Scriptures remind us today, God is a God who "also treats the human spirit" — and so must we.

In the second reading today from Hebrews, we hear about the priestly leaders of the community, first the High Priest of old, then of Jesus. Though "beset by weakness" the priestly leader stands among the people as one like them, a person marked by goodness and failure, wholeness and brokenness. Here, too, like Jeremiah proclaimed, we must know ourselves as in need of God's healing presence — from the greatest to the weakest, we are all dependent on the God who saves us. There is a reassuring character about that claim, one that keeps us human, humble and honest. In exactly that same spirit, the psalmist who leads us in prayer today says it well: "The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy." This spirit of joy should mark all our lives as we become more and more conscious that each moment of life is gift. Whether in strength or weakness, in illness or in health, God holds us in the palm of a loving hand. And for that graciousness we are filled with joy.

Joy is certainly the prevailing mood of the wonderful Gospel story today. Jesus and his disciples had made the long journey southward, no doubt following the route of the Jordan valley, from Galilee toward Jerusalem. The Passover was approaching and they would join the throng in the Holy City of Jerusalem and make pilgrimage to the Temple for the sacred festival. But their journey down the valley brought them first to Jericho. From there it would be a half day's walk up the steep climb to Jerusalem. So in our Gospel reading today, we find ourselves with Jesus and his disciples on the road near the outskirts of Jericho heading for Jerusalem.

As the story tells us, suddenly we hear a loud cry. Someone in the crowd is crying out after us: "Jesus, son of David, have pity on me." Again, he cries, "Son of David, have pity on me." Who is this bothersome character? He is a local beggar, a blind man who cries out for healing, "I want to see." We must read this poignant story on multiple levels if we are to touch its deepest meaning. First, at the simple level of physical blindness we see Jesus' extraordinary compassion and healing power extended to the man so that he "immediately received his sight." The power of God at work in Jesus desires that no one should live in a world of total darkness. The man's healing is a result of his faith, "Go your way, your faith has saved you." But in our lives we are fully aware that not all physical blindness is cured and many in our world live their lifetimes in physical darkness. Does that mean that their faith is somehow insufficient? Certainly not.

It means that we must read our story on the deeper level of symbolism. At that level, we are all spiritually "blind" like Bartimaeus, and we all live in the world in need of the light of God's revealing presence and life-giving love. Each one of us can cry out "I want to see." I want to understand the mysteries of life; I want to know the God in whom I believe and the meaning of my faith. In Mark's Gospel this story of Bartimaeus is the second story told about the healing of a blind man. The first one happened earlier in Mark 8:22-26 in the town of Bethsaida in Galilee when a man was healed slowly. After Jesus put spittle on his eyes, he at first saw but imperfectly, as if people were like "trees walking." Then Jesus tried again and he was fully healed.

Between these two stories of the cure of blind men (Mark 8 - Mark 10), we find Jesus and his disciples making their way toward Jerusalem, toward his passion and death. And on that important journey Jesus teaches the disciples — and us, the readers of the Gospel — about His self-giving love that will end on the cross. So between the first story of blindness and the second, we the readers are being instructed by the Gospel about how to see rightly. Our blindness is being healed.

One last point is important to stress. In the Jewish world of 1st century Palestine, people believed that persons afflicted with illnesses or disabilities of any kind were sinners, and that the illness was a consequence of sin. Other Jews were instructed not to associate with sinners, to avoid them altogether. So, a person suffering from blindness or any other illness was ostracized from others and left on the margins of social life, unable to associate with the community in normal ways. The nearest analog in our contemporary lives would be the social ostracism felt by those afflicted with HIV-AIDS in the early days when it was thought to be contagious even by being in the same room. So Bartimaeus was not only suffering from physical blindness but was also cut off from those he loved. In every case, the Gospel stories of Jesus' healing power show his compassion in restoring health to many people afflicted and diseased. But equally important, maybe even more important, is that in healing a person Jesus restored them to their human lives in community with loved ones and friends.

As we mentioned at the outset, the tagline from the local hospital fits well with the portrait of Jesus in the Gospels — a man filled with divine compassion on those who suffer physical illness and pain, but one who, like God, also "treats the human spirit". . . as so must we.


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