Jesus’ Left-hand Man
“It’s so clear, “we sometimes say, “that even a blind man can see it.” Perhaps this is part of the underlying message of this piece of the Markan composition. All those who should be able to see who Jesus is and what that means are “blind” to what is right in front of them. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, sees with precision and responds with action.
The text begins with Bartimaeus sitting alongside the “Way.” It ends with him following “in the Way.” “This interpretative move is crucial,” writes Luis Menendez-Antuna, “because it provides contemporary readers a focal point beyond the healing, allowing us to steer away from ableist interpretations (admittedly present in the text) that reinforce theologies that equate faith and healing. In other words,” he continues, “I suggest that contemporary interpretations should focus on the blind man’s disposition rather than on the blind man’s condition.”
I had to sit with that last sentence for a while and return to it a few times. It is the ableist cultural default to assume that “blind is bad” and “sighted is good.” I succumb to the “tyranny of normalcy” without even noticing. In fact, we humans construct systems and structures that center some characteristics and marginalize others. We blame and penalize the marginalized for not “fitting in.” And we believe that the constructed systems and structures are just the way things are and the way things have always been.
It’s one thing if being marginalized is merely inconvenient. I’m left-handed, and I live in a still predominantly right-handed world. There was a time when some social scientists thought that left-handedness produced a life-expectancy of some nine years less than that for right-handers. That finding has since been questioned and largely disproved. Nonetheless, all I have to do is use a pair of “normal” scissors to know that right-handers still call the shots in American culture.
Left-handedness occurs in somewhere between ten and twelve percent of the population. During the Victorian era, that number dropped to about three percent as parents, teachers, clergy, physicians, health care workers, and government agencies tried to eradicate left-handedness. A number of stories were concocted over the centuries to demonstrate why left-handedness was “evil.”
It may well be that in some cultures, the left hand was (and is) used to wipe one’s backside. That’s certainly a mark against offering that hand to another as a sign of friendship. Being left-handed was regarded as a sign of moral decay, a symptom of mental illness, a sign of neurological problems, and the work of the Devil.
There is, of course, the imagery of Jesus seated at the “right” hand of God (as if God really has hands). This is a sign of Jesus located in the seat of power. There is also the image of the goats in the Parable of the Great Judgment in Matthew 25. They are located on the left hand and are condemned to the eternal fire. Of course, it was not their geographical location that caused the judgment but rather their lack of service to the vulnerable. But the association is there.
These stories underwrite and ratify real consequences for the left-handers. They were sometimes executed during the Inquisition – for using their left hands. Left-handedness increased the chances that a women would be tortured and executed as a witch in Salem. Children have had their left hands bound, broken, and scalded to prevent them from using them. Teachers have wrapped tender knuckles and bounced books off young heads to enforce the use of the right hand.
Why do I rehearse all this useless information (useless unless you happen to be left-handed), anyway? Left-handedness is a real thing. It has existed in human populations for millennia. It is associated with some real health and behavioral risks. It is also associated with some real health and behavioral benefits. It’s just a thing some humans have. But the dominant, right-handed group has constructed systems, structures, and stories to assign a value to left-handedness. And that value has, for most of recorded human history, been “bad.”
What if we move from the relatively trivial difference represented by left-handedness to the more significant difference represented by blindness? Will we, in fact, focus more on blind Bartimaeus’ disposition rather than his physical condition? Can we see this as a story much more about discipleship than about healing?
Mary Ann Beavis notes that some interpreters view Bartimaeus’ lack of physical sight as a symbol of his lack of spiritual or theological insight. Therefore, when he calls Jesus “Son of David,” he is getting it wrong, or only partially right. “There are many examples in the literature on the Bartimaeus pericope,” Beavis writes, “that suggest an unacknowledged tendency for interpreters to bring images of disability to the text that affect their valuation of the blind man’s role in the story, and even of the genre of the narrative” (page 23).
Guilty as charged, I would say – at least in past readings of this text. I have uncritically accepted the correlation made between physical blindness and spiritual obtuseness, naivete, and/or ignorance. “In such interpretations,” Beavis writes, “it is presupposed that the blindness of Bartimaeus is a wholly negative trait. Blindness and intellectual or spiritual imperceptiveness are equated,” she continues, “and Bartimaeus recedes into the background as a foil for the healing power of Jesus, an element in the theme of the misunderstanding of the disciples” (page 24).
In the Hebrew scriptures, blindness is always bad. It is a curse, a punishment, a tragedy, and a source of impurity. It is a metaphor for wickedness, folly, and ignorance. That conceptual framework continues in the Christian scriptures. The same assessments can be found in Greco-Roman culture, only more so. “Blindness, in particular, was regarded by the ancients as a condition incurable by doctors,” Beavis notes, “to be healed only by divine power” (page 28).
It is also the case in the ancient world that blind people were sometimes thought to have “second sight.” Blind people were sometimes regarded as prophets and fortune tellers. The most familiar of such characters is Tiresias, the blind Theban seer who makes an appearance in Homer’s The Odyssey and a number of other ancient works. You can find the role of Tiresias reprised by Lee Weaver in the film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Perhaps some of that cultural expectation shows up in our text as well.
Given the value system of Jesus in the Markan composition, we should look for the normal assessments of a blind man to be turned upside down. In fact, they are. “Although Bartimaeus is literally blind when he appeals to Jesus,” Beavis writes, “the disciples are repeatedly described as metaphorically without sight or perception…Bartimaeus is portrayed as superior to the Twelve in that he ‘sees’ Jesus while he is blind,” she continues,” whereas the sighted disciples are deficient in perception” (page 35).
Bartimaeus is not portrayed, therefore, as deficient because he is physically blind. Instead, he resembles the literary types found in both Hebrew and Greco-Roman literature of the blind prophet who has more insight that any sighted person. The blindness is not a punishment but rather a function of age or accident. Thus, “Bartimaeus’ recognition of Jesus as the Son of David,” Beavis writes, “is prophetic…. Rather than functioning as a mere suppliant by asking Jesus to restore his sight, Bartimaeus enables the Son of David to fulfill in his own person the ancient eschatological prophecies that the eyes of the blind shall be opened” (page 37).
Seeing, in the Markan composition, is obviously not about refraction and reflection. It’s about repentance. It’s about being open to a different way of seeing the world, even if your eyes work just fine. Physical blindness is a disability that can be overcome, if the cultural system demands that. Spiritual blindness is a harder ailment to treat.
Human systems, structures, and stories are often constructed to keep the oppressed “in their place.” The crowd in Mark 10 is happy to perform this function. Bartimaeus cries out, and the crowd tells him to shut up. His “place” was on the sidelines and in silence. But Bartimaeus wasn’t having it. And Jesus wouldn’t cooperate with the system. Bartimaeus receives a new place, a new community, and a new mission in life.
But let’s remain clear on the text here. The return of physical sight to Bartimaeus is almost an afterthought in the text. The real change is in his place – moving from beside the Way to on the Way. In large part, it was the way Bartimaeus crashed the constructed boundaries of the system that brought him into the community of disciples. That’s one of the ways his faith “saved him.”
The role of the Church is not to ratify the systems, structures, and stories that keep people marginalized – by race, gender, orientation, class, age, ethnicity, language, disability, or any other difference. The role of the Church is to dismantle such systems that might keep people from taking their proper place on the Way.
After all, they made room for us left-handers, right (I mean, correct)?
References and Resources
Beavis, Mary Ann. “From the Margin to the Way: A Feminist Reading of the Story of Bartimaeus.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 14, no. 1, [Indiana University Press, FSR, Inc], 1998, pp. 19–39, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25002323.
Culpepper, R. Alan. “Mark 10:50: Why Mention the Garment?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 101, no. 1, Society of Biblical Literature, 1982, pp. 131–32, https://doi.org/10.2307/3260446.
Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Foerster, TDNT VII:989-992.
Robbins, Vernon K. “The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52) in the Marcan Theology.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 92, no. 2, Society of Biblical Literature, 1973, pp. 224–43, https://doi.org/10.2307/3262955.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.