Blindness, Philosophy, and the Question of Human Agency

blind manTo many of us, the story of blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52 is a familiar one. It appears in some form in all three of the synoptic gospels. On Sunday, my congregation spent some time pondering Jesus’ question to Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” He had asked the same question to the disciples, James and John, only a few verses earlier. Where they were looking for glory and honor, Bartimaeus was looking for nothing more than his eyesight. He wanted to see again. In addition to this, however, there were two different lines of questioning that I have about this passage that we just didn’t have time to cover.

#1. What if Bartimaeus had listened to the advice of the disciples? In the story, Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was traveling on the road where he was begging. Apparently, he had heard the stories of Jesus’ power. Maybe he knew about others who had received healing and deliverance from Jesus’ power. So, he cries out with a loud voice, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” The disciples intervene, not wanting Jesus to be bothered and tell Bartimaeus to hush. He didn’t listen and went on calling out – an action that prompted Jesus to stop and ultimately led to his healing.

But, what if the story had ended there? What if he had listened to the rebuke of the disciples? Would Jesus have just continued on his way to Jerusalem? Would Bartimaeus have missed his opportunity to be healed? It brings up the question of human agency. To what degree do our actions contribute to our own healing and, ultimately, our salvation?

Theologians have debated this for centuries and I don’t presume to be able to settle it here. Rather, it strikes me as interesting that this same discussion came up in a small group discussion on Sunday night around the Epistle to the Ephesians. There, we read, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8–9)

So, which is it? The Bartimaeus story suggests that human action may have some role in initiating and activating the work of God. However, Ephesians clearly says that this is not because of some worthiness of the recipient. Rather, it is solely the gracious gift of God. Maybe it’s not ultimately and either/or question – but we are meant to see that both of these work together in bringing about God’s plan. I have my ideas, but this got me thinking.

(If this line of questioning interests you, I would suggest reading Roger Olsen’s Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities alongside R.C. Sproul’s Chosen by God.)

#2. Bartimaeus’ name has caused no shortage of controversy among biblical scholars. In its most basic sense, it means “Son of Timaeus” (Bar – Timaeus).  Just in case we weren’t quite astute enough to catch that for our selves, though, Mark points it out in an awkwardly obvious way: “And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside.” As one commentator noted, it brings to mind an old SNL sketch featuring Chris Farley. In the sketch, he is playing the part of a weather system (El Niño), personified as a professional wrestler. At one point in the sketch, he says,  “For those of you who don’t habla español, El Niño is Spanish for … the Niño.”

Over and over, commentators have noted the similarities between the “son of Timaeus” and Timaeus, the character in Plato’s famous dialogue (you can read a couple of samples of these commentaries here and here). In Plato’s dialogue, he writes the following:

“Sight is the source of the greatest benefits to us; for if our eyes had never seen the sun, stars, and heavens, the words which we have spoken would not have been uttered. The sight of them and their revolutions has given us the knowledge of number and time, the power of enquiry, and philosophy, which is the great blessing of human life; not to speak of the lesser benefits which even the vulgar can appreciate. God gave us the faculty of sight that we might behold the order of the heavens and create a corresponding order in our own erring minds.”  (Plato, Timaeus, 47)

Could it be that Mark had an awareness of Plato’s work and intentionally contrasted this philosophical logic and knowledge (made possible by sight) with the deep-seated trust and faith of Bartimaeus (made possible by his blindness)? Could it be that Mark was taking a shot at the religious leaders of his day who were constantly trying to trick and trap him in theological debates? Could it be one more example of Jesus elevating the common man and the folk wisdom of the day over the elite? As one commentator put it, “Perhaps [Bartimaeus] is even a caricature of all the sons-of-philosophy who not only lack insight but are completely blind” (Karen Chakoian).

Then again, maybe it was just coincidence . . . a family name, perhaps. Regardless, it’s kept me thinking, wrestling, and digging for more understanding . . . and I’m not convinced that’s ever a bad thing.