In today’s reading from Jeremiah we hear wonderful news; the prophet announces that the blind and the lame will be healed and will join the joyful throng of Israelites as they are redeemed from their exile in Babylon and return home to the promised land: “I will gather them from the ends of the world, with the blind and the lame in their midst…I will lead them to brooks of water, on a level road, so that none shall stumble” (Jer 31:8, 9). That “the blind and the lame” are specifically mentioned by the prophet is significant since these two unfortunate groups had long been ostracized and seen as accursed in Israel.
This lamentable attitude is already apparent in Leviticus, where it is written that men who are blind or lame could not serve as priests (Lev 21:18), and in the Second Book of Samuel, where even the great King David curses the blind and the lame, reinforcing the popular but mistaken idea that people suffering from these afflictions were being punished for their sins (2 Sam 5:6-8). Ironically, both Leviticus and Second Samuel likely came into their final written form around the time of the exile or shortly thereafter, somewhat later than Jeremiah’s joyful prophecy noted above.
Other biblical texts offer a more mature and kind-hearted understanding of people who suffer from such conditions. The great Job, for instance, tried to describe the upright character of his life with many illustrations, among them reminding his friends “I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame” (Job 29:15). The Gospel of John also gives us a very different picture of how we are to treat those who are blind or unable to walk, or anyone with a disability. In the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel we meet the man born blind, and in response to his disciples’ question “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” we learn from Jesus himself: “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him” (John 9:2-3).
Going back to our Old Testament readings, Jeremiah and the Psalmist clearly make the gracious act of Israel’s redemption from exile entirely an act of God. That is, God brings his chosen people out of Babylon not because of any merit on their part but in order to preserve his holy name—Israel is a completely passive recipient of God’s salvation.
When we encounter the blind man Bartimaeus in the Gospel we have a different situation. It is not that Bartimaeus “merits” his healing, but there is something on his part that elicits Jesus’ healing action—his faith. We need to be careful to note that faith was also present among the Israelites brought home from the exile; it was expressed—haltingly at times—through Israel’s fidelity to the covenant. While Bartimaeus may have been faithful to the covenant, his ultimate fidelity is seen when he recognized that Jesus was the one brought the covenant to perfection, and he trusted in him as the messiah and “Son of David.”
The readings today review some painful history regarding old attitudes toward the less fortunate—the blind and the lame—and regarding the distinction between the faith of Israel and the faith of the Church. Regarding the Jewish and Christian peoples, “Since we are both awaiting the final redemption, let us pray that the paths we follow may converge” so that we all might rejoice in our “return from exile” and praise the Son of David.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Image: Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus, by Johann Heinrich Stöver, 1861