Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- The plight of refugees flooding over the borders into Europe reminds us most forcibly how the truly desperate, in their weakness and poverty, will risk anything to find salvation, a better life. Most of us can never have experienced their state nor are ever likely too. We are cocooned, protected by our relative wealth and security, and only rarely -perhaps when forced by serious illness – will we be desperate enough to abandon everything we know, all that gives us a sense of belonging and security as we leap out into the unknown in search of help.
In our Gospel (Mark 10:46-52) this is precisely the behaviour of Bartimaeus. There he sat begging for pennies at one of the gates of Jericho. He may have lived like this for a long time, for we know that once he was sighted but became cut off from family, for he could not work to support anyone and he lived like an outcast. Blindness would have been seen as divine punishment by many, despite the fact that thousands in the ancient world suffered from eye complaints ranging from cataracts to complaints caused by poor hygiene and disease. Ancient healing shrines, both pagan and Christian, testify to the commonness of this problem, to the pain and stress it brought to so many. So when Bartimaeus heard that the great healer Jesus of Nazareth was passing by he seized the moment, clearly making a lot of noise to attract attention, and was utterly heedless of all attempts to shut him up, and unembarrassed by his behaviour. When ultimately he gained the attention of Jesus, we see how his response was to leap out into the dark. He threw off his cloak, his only covering and possession and jumped up, despite his lack of sight, and approached Jesus, risking falling flat on his face and further injury. ‘Master, let me see again.’ Possibly only those of us faced with blindness can truly appreciate the depths of his longing, the urgency of his request, as the white wastes threaten to envelope us. Jesus, of course, responded by restoring his sight and it is significant that this new man, the healed man, does not simply slot back into some place in society from which he had been excluded by illness, he ‘Followed Jesus along the road.’ So changed is the entire meaning of his life that he takes a new way, the way of the Lord, going where he goes, entering into his life.
Our reading from the Prophet Jeremiah (Jer 31:7-9) also speaks of a group of people at their most vulnerable: ‘The blind and the lame, women with child (the pregnant), women in labour,’ and speaks of God’s special protection for them. Jeremiah was writing during the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC when large numbers of Jews had been deported to Babylonia or dispersed to foreign parts all over the Near and Middle East. The group that he mentions represent the entire nation at its most fragile; near to death and struggling to cope in the changed circumstances they found themselves. Driven from their homes and carted off into exile, thousands would have perished on the road, just as we are seeing happen to so many modern refugees. Jeremiah’s task was to be the prophet of God’s promise of hope in a time of despair, telling the survivors that they did have reason to hope even in the midst of fear, death and chaos. God’s promise was that they would return to their homeland; that his will for them would triumph, that they could reach out in hope for the future.
This leads us to the true role of the prophet, or in the case of the writer of Hebrews (Heb 5:1-6) to the role of the high priest. Hebrews is emphatic that such leaders need to be able to identify with the weaknesses of those they serve. Indeed, for the writer, the whole point of the incarnation is precisely that Jesus the Son of God, made a human being, can be complete in his identification with us. This, as we saw last week, seems to be deliberately contrasted with the temple high priesthood which had become remote and detached from ordinary, suffering humanity. Positions of great power, it appears, like the high priesthood, Hebrews reminds us are the gift and prerogative of God alone and quite definitely not up for human bargaining and power politics and lose all validity when exploited in such a manner. Let us hope and pray that the leaders of Europe at this time approach their office with a similar reverence and humility as they decide the fate of hundreds of thousands of displaced persons. They could be you or me.