The Real Miracle Of Bartimaeus

Even if you reject the “metaphysics” of Christianity – the Incarnation, the miracles, the bodily Resurrection, etc. -- you still have to deal with Christianity as an ethical system, and by that measure there are Gospel texts that, perhaps because of their very simplicity, challenge the current conservative ethic of “I’ve got mine, Jack, so screw you”.  One such text is the story of Jesus’ encounter with the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, on the road leaving Jericho. But matters are not that straightforward. For it is easy enough, in fact, borderline-trivial, to understand the story as a critique of contemporary conservative Republican attitudes toward any form of material assistance to the indigent. What is usually overlooked is that the story contains a very recessed and implicit critique of attitudes usually called progressive. In fact, the Bartimaeus narrative is about equally subversive of the left and of the right.

Let’s tackle the easy part first. Bartimaeus was a poor, blind, indigent beggar. But he called out to Jesus: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” A loyal and doctrinaire Trump supporter – that is to say, most of the Republican Party and most conservatives in the Nation – would have responded in at least one of several different ways:  by shouting back “Get a job!”, by asking to see his immigration / naturalization papers, by administering a urine test, perhaps by having him arrested for indecent exposure (since he was dressed only in a single cloak), etc. Paul Ryan might have admonished Bartimaeus to resist the temptation to simply relax in the hammock of indolence such assistance might provide. (I dunno … there might have even been people in the crowd that tried to silence Bartimaeus who were waving signs that said, in Hebrew, “Make Israel Great Again” – which the Messiah was popularly supposed to do. But that is speculation on my part.) Jesus, by contrast, adopts a more secular – one might even say European – attitude and simply asks Bartimaeus what he (Jesus) can do to help:  “What do you want me to do for you?”

Now, this is where the plot really thickens and things get interesting. Consider the implicit role reversal here.  Evidently, Bartimaeus had received, in however rudimentary a form and even if only by cultural osmosis, the theological education that was, in that day, standard cultural equipment for every pious Jewish man.  He knew Jesus was the son of David. We may therefore infer that he was aware that Jesus was of royal lineage, and, in fact, but for Roman intervention, the usurpation of Roman puppets, and the interposition of the Seleucid dynasty, would have been King of Israel. Consequently, “Son,” in this context, means “Royal Heir”, much as “Son” means “Heir” when used to describe the relationship between Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her son, the Prince of Wales. More is at stake in this expression than mere consanguinity. From the standpoint of pure politics, by all rights, Bartimaeus should have knelt before Jesus and said something like “Your humble servant”. But in the actual event, Jesus is the Servant. From this standpoint alone, the difference between Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus and the average citizen’s encounter with, say, the Department of Motor Vehicles beggars description.

But there is another dimension that is revealed in the particular words. The Gospel text tells us part of this story:  “[Bartimaeus] means “son of Timaeus”. The other half of the story is implicit in the name “Timaeus”, evidently the name of Bartimaeus’ father. From this short phrase, we may fairly infer that Bartimaeus was the son of a Greek father and a Jewish mother – though Timaeus may well have been a Gentile convert to Judaism. As such, Bartimaeus would probably have been considered an outcast twice, or perhaps three times, over by the ambient society:  he was blind, which was often considered a punishment by God for some sin on the blind person’s part; and he was also of mixed ethnicity, what a later generation of Europeans and Americans would have called a “half-breed”.  I say Bartimaeus may have been an outcast three times over because, in addition to his blindness and his mixed parentage, his father may have been, not a native-born Jew, but a Jewish convert, i.e., only half-Jewish, even though Jewish descent is usually reckoned matrilineally. (His status would have been much like that of the Samaritans – descendants of unions between Northern Kingdom and their Assyrian conquerors of the 8th century BCE – who were considered a mongrel race by the Jews of Jesus’ day.) For all these reasons, in addition to his poverty – which was often interpreted as disfavor from God, in the first-century-BCE equivalent of the prosperity Gospel – Bartimaeus would have been considered the offal of society.

But his name was “Bartimaeus”, or more literally “Bar-Timaeus”, as it probably would have been written at that time.  The name “Timaeus” is a derivation of the Greek noun time (time … pronounced “tee-may”), which means “honor”.  (I do seriously doubt that there is any connection with the great Platonic dialogue, the Timaeus, which is concerned with Plato’s conception of how the universe was created.)  So Bartimaeus’ name, contrary to any description that would have been given him by the surrounding crowd, actually means “Son Of Honor” or “Honored Son”. So the encounter between Jesus and Bartimaeus is not an encounter between Sovereign and vassal, but rather an encounter between two “honored S/sons”.

The part of this story that is, or anyway, should be, problematical for us progressives / leftists is the role played by faith.  To a far greater extent than conservatives, certainly more so than today’s conservatives who have converted to the religious cult of Trump-ism, progressive Christianity has accommodated itself to the thought and ethic of the European Enlightenment of the 18th century.  (Actually, so had most of the mainstream conservatives of my youth:  William Rusher, William F. Buckley, Mary Ann Glendon, etc., etc. But that was then, this is now.) For the most part – just to be clear at the outset – I exuberantly celebrate this ideological symbiosis. I grew up in a Christian tradition that celebrated the Bible more than it celebrated God:  I was raised in a religious tradition that was “Bibleanity” much more than it was Christianity.  In later years, even before I learned of the Enlightenment and its multitude of luminaries, and of the indebtedness of empirical science and of constitutional government to that tradition, I breathed the heady fragrance that accompanies the freedom to … dammit all! … use my intellect and my own indigenous, autonomous reason to critique what I was taught religiously and in all other respects. I did not need for God, in Whom I still believed back then, to hold my hand.

Furthermore, you could write my spiritual biography in terms of a concatenated multitude of serial disappointments with God, the Bible, Jesus, Christianity, etc., etc., etc.  Time and again, the Christianity I was raised in encouraged me to expect a beautiful package in the mail … which, as it turned out, never arrived. Nor was I alone in that experience. To this day, I wonder how many people who heard Oral Roberts say “Something good is going to happen to you today” were disappointed when “today” came and nothing “good” happened. (This is just an example. By the first time I heard Roberts say this, I was a convert to skepticism.) I cannot prove it in the laboratory, but I persist in believing that “[Our] name is Legion, for [we] are many”.  In a very strong sense, I replicated in my own life the historical experience of pre-Enlightenment Europe, which saw its hopes for a newly unified religious and spiritual culture of Europe dissolved in the vicious solvent of successive waves of increasingly sanguinary religious war over a period of 200 years. I experienced the religious wars of Europe in miniature. Over time, both European civilization and I learned not to place our hopes in any kind of great religious awakening. (That is why today's talk by evangelical Christians of "back to the Bible" style religious re-conversion, a la Francis Schaeffer's A Christian Manifesto scares me:  nostalgia is a form of blood-lust.) Gradually, I / we learned to minimize our expectations in terms of what we expected from my / our religious faith. For a long time, we approached zero only asymptotically. But a time came when the curve crossed the X-axis. The European Enlightenment and its accompanying skepticism and its demand for evidence taught me / us not to repose hope in religion. Rationality was the only basis for faith.

Evidently, this never happened with Bartimaeus. Despite serial disappointments from others – probably most of all from the religious establishment – he was still willing to wager everything on a repeated cry of “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” He realized that the chances for a “blue wave” were probably overheated imaginings. (I believe that with us, and think we may be headed for a disappointment in November.) He realized that “It will be different this time” would most likely once more prove false. But he cried out anyway. He was able to rise above his experience of serial disappointment and cry out to Jesus, anyway.  And he was healed, of course. Kierkegaard would have been quite proud!

So the real miracle of Bartimaeus was not the curing of his blindness, but that he was still willing to cry out.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

"Jesus Heals Bartimaeus" ... Carl Block (1834-1890) ... Public domain
Jesus healing Bartimaeus ... Still Roman Catholic After All These Years blog -- artist unknown ... Public domain
Leaping chasm ... Faith, Hope, & Truth blog -- artist unknown ... Public domain
John Locke ... Sir Godfrey Kneller -- WikiMedia Commons ... Public domain
Philosophes in salon ... Artist unknown ... Public domain
Charlie Brown and Lucy ... Charles M. Schulz ... Public domain

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