December 26, 2013

Paradox of the Poor: Blind Beggars in the Bible

It is a constant theme in the Bible to take what is common and expected by man and turn it on its head. That is because the Bible says things like... 

Matthew 20:16 ~ "So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

It also says that God...

1 Corinthians 1:27-31 ~ "...chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, o that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

The Bible is full of paradoxes not contradictions (of which it is normally accused). A few people will say that paradoxes are contradictions but in reality they are a sovereign God working beyond what human's think is possible and exceeding what man thinks is possible. It is things (such as situations) that are made up of two opposite things and that seem impossible but in actuality are true or possible. In God's economy men's calculations and figuring hold little sway. In God's economy we see the distinction between what is probable and what is improbable. We see the difference between what is possible and impossible. And as the Bible also says.

Matthew 9:26 ~ "But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

So let us enter the problem of poverty.

Poverty, the Kingdom and therefore the Church are relational or relationship based. Tithes and charity by the church are good but they are trumped by mercy and compassion in the heart of the believer. Sometimes loving your neighbor is more than just throwing money at them. Sometimes help is not giving a homeless drug addict a $20 dollar bill. Sometimes love and compassion is buying them a meal and getting them help to wean them off their drug dependency. Tithes or offerings are not necessarily an accurate indicator of the heart as is evident in the lesson from Jesus, the Widow and her offering of mites.

Personal interaction and the “human touch” always trumped a faceless system or government driven charity (contrary to Liberation Theology). In this aspect of Jesus’ ministry to the poor and His concern for the downtrodden we see the relational requirements of God’s Kingdom. Proper communal function is not based in a centralized bureaucratic system but rather a decentralized “soft” network of people, bodies or souls. When the body of Christ is balanced and healthy, so will be the Kingdom. There will be no malignancy or imbalance, poverty, prejudice, bias, sickness, etc. All will be equal in Christ. Again, this is the general essence of the Kingdom. In God’s Kingdom, relationships take precedence over benevolent actions, otherwise these benevolent actions lack the main currency necessary between the giver and receiver to create a lasting bond necessary in the Kingdom: Love and affection for your fellow man.

We must note that God is not specifically favoring the poor when they are singled out for special care but rather they are being treated like the human beings that they truly are. They are given the love they should have gotten as people created in God's image all along. The idea of reversal or at least normalizing/equalizing of the social order are found in many of Jesus' sayings about the first being last (Matthew 19:30; Mark 10:31 & Luke 13:30).

So the question behind the episodes of the beggars in the Bible is: What drives the charity to them?

Beggars say something about a society as a whole. That people often do not take care of them or take them in. This is sad and unbiblical. It will not be this way in the Kingdom of God.

Mark 10:46-52 ~ “Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.

In God’s economy the poor become rich. Yes, it is that simple. People are following Jesus at Passover. It is clear in this passage that this blind man Bartimaeus knew of Jesus and he knew that he was the “Son of David”. This means he knew Jesus was the One spoken of in the Old Testament. In a plea that expected mercy he attempted to gain Jesus’ attention and is unceremoniously silenced (or at least the crowd around Jesus tried).

God will not be dissuaded nor will this blind man's date with destiny. Jesus summons him. The crowd does an about-face and encourages the beggar to come forward. Then Jesus asks the rhetorical question: “What do you want me to do for you?” 

Strange question. Jesus is God and the man is blind. Why the question? It is similar to the question asked in John 5:5 at the Pool of Bethesda, “Do you wish to be healed?” We ask ourselves the question internally, “Why wouldn’t he?”

Jesus is giving the man time to confess his desire out-loud in a form or public testimony. In asking the question Jesus solicits what the man believes Jesus can do for him. In so doing we see that faith of Bartimaeus is extraordinarily strong based on his reply, “Rabbi, I want to see.” Bartimaeus clearly expected Jesus to do what even modern medical science cannot do…give sight to the blind. He expected a supernatural miracle. A tall order...except for God. He also calls Jesus "Lord" meaning master and Son of David which was a Jewish Messianic title. Bartimaeus knew Jesus was the promised Messiah. This means Bartimaeus trusted in the Gospel.

We know from the parallel Matthew 20 passage that Jesus is moved to compassion (mercy) in lieu of these unfolding events. As we would expect in the narrative of the Gospel of Mark we see that his sight is regained immediately and these men immediately follow Jesus. There is no hesitation and they commit 100%. There is no stutter-stepping here. He jumps in head-first. He throws his garment aside so that he will not trip over it in pursuit of the crowd that follows Jesus. In Jesus’ march to His death on the Cross…he essentially gives Bartimaeous (and another beggar in Matthew 20) new lives, right before he would lose His. Jesus overcomes the effects of sin in healing the blind and he overcomes the effects of sin on humanity by being crucified and risen after three days.

In Jesus we see a perfect balance of divine power / ability to heal and mercy and compassion. He does not force His ability to heal on people. He allows them to call to Him and state their desire. You won’t always get what you ask for sometimes…but you won’t receive unless you ask. In Bartimaeous’ call to Jesus he is essentially issuing a prayer to God. He does so in faith based in who he understands Jesus to be...and he receives.

Matthew 20:22 ~ “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”

Who do you believe Jesus to be? Is he beckoning you to come in your infirmities to see what you want from Him? How vehemently do you call to Him in your disabilities and suffering? Do you curse Him for the wrongs that have happened to you or do you go in faith expecting a miracle? One thing we do not see in this story is Bartimaeous bad-mouthing Jesus for what has happened to him in life. He calls on Jesus to have mercy on him a poor blind beggar. A man from the fringe of society with nothing to lose and everything to gain…and gain he does. Faith has made him well. Specifically Jesus says Bartimaeous’ faith has σέσωκέν σε…or as we say in English, his faith has saved him. In the Greek here the word saved is in the perfect active indicative which means it had been completed and it would remain completed indefinitely into the future. The whole point of using a perfect tense is to drive home a point to a reader that it emphasizes the present, or ongoing result of a completed action done in the past. Jesus praised Bartimaeous for exercising his faith. In turn Jesus rewards him physically and based on the words in Greek, Jesus blessed him spiritually too. His faith had saved him. Bartimaeous had received the only healing he would ever need and it was eternal. Just like John Newton wrote in Amazing Grace we see that Bartimaeous was once lost but now he's found, he was blind but now he sees.

In a similar incident with a man that had a similar condition in John 9, Jesus heals another blind beggar by putting mud on his eyes and sending the beggar to wash in the pool of Siloam.

Mark 9:1-8 ~ “As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man's eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar were saying, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”

Again we see a public attestation of Jesus’ divine power. This time the man had not solicited the healing, by grace and mercy Jesus had healed him. Different scenario but similar divine initiative to give to the blind beggar that which he could not acquire for himself. In this way we then begin to see the parallel to salvation and being saved again. It is only through Jesus’ initiative and mercy that this man could be saved from a life of darkness and being lost. The only thing this blind man had the ability to do to solicit a reaction from Jesus was to beg mercy.

Are we as sinners any different? I think not. There were probably many blind people in Israel and around Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ ministry. It is literally grace that Jesus select this man in particular. Those around Jesus didn’t see this man as an object of mercy like Jesus did but rather a curiosity for theological debate. This is sort of damning for the theology geeks I know that would rather discuss doctrine rather than pray for someone in sin or suffering. There is a time for theology and it isn’t while the sick are dying, the blind cannot see and the lame cannot walk. These are the times for grace and mercy. Mercy over Law. Save the doctrine and dogma for the theological debate clubs and Bible studies.

In both of these cases the beggar’s conditions solicits a reaction from God/Jesus. His reaction to both is rooted in mercy and grace. In both cases, the men are unable to improve their own condition but are willing to allow God to do work in their lives to remove the infirmities. Like the Pharisees that will later question the newly healed man and his parents, we should not get too hung up on how the healing took place. We need to focus on who did the healing and why. It was God’s ultimate initiative to heal in mercy and grace. Both men had to trust that Jesus would complete what He had set out to do. This required faith whether explicitly stated in the text or not. In Bartimaeous’ case it is explicit saving faith, in this case it is a general faith that something good may come from trusting in Jesus who at the time of this healing…appeared only as a man (the blind beggar didn’t even know Jesus’ name initially) Another evidence that Jesus was fully human yet fully divine (take that heretics!). The beggar here must make a “leap of faith” just as a non-believer must to become a believer. In obedience the man takes this step and washes off his eyes and his sight is given to him. Totally blind the man obeys a single command and his sight is given to him.

Even if we could understand how it took place (which many will assert is necessary), it does not diminish the fact that it took place and was the result of the work of God. Can we not just accept that it happened in faith now as we read the account? For some that will read this, it will be like Bartimaeous. The belief and trust will save them. For others the faith will require a leap and it may not take effect in the believer because the change might be attributed to something they don’t understand. In the passage about the man with mud on his eyes it never says it is saving faith…yet this does not prevent Jesus from helping the man.

Which one are you? Do you have the saving faith?

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