MARK’s Gospel does not, at first glance, appear to have much in common with one of the other greatest tales ever written, Treasure Island. But both are adventure stories, in which the principal character sets out on a journey of discovery, and self-discovery. And both include references to people with disabilities, though neither is sensitive about how they refer to those disabilities. Blind Bartimaeus in the Gospel and Blind Pew in the story are both defined by their disability to such an extent that it becomes a part of their names.
In the story, Blind Pew is one of the “baddies”. His disability evokes more fear than compassion. His voice is “cruel, and cold, and ugly”; his actions are sinister and violent. Not so those of Blind Bartimaeus, who sits by the roadside and cries out to Jesus only for mercy (v.47). But both are beggars: their regular work is getting money from people, by evoking compassion, guilt, or fear. Pleading or threatening, they exercise their powerlessness to their advantage — because they have to, to survive.
The public perception of physical disabilities has changed a lot in recent decades. It is no longer socially acceptable (or legal) to treat people with disabilities less favourably than the able-bodied. But such protection as they have comes through legislation, because sometimes compassion and principle make an insufficient safeguard. In previous centuries, it was seen as an impediment to ordination to have a physical disability — perhaps on the grounds that disabilities were thought to imply divine disapproval. The author of Hebrews may be thinking of the injunction that those with physical impediments cannot serve as priests (Leviticus 21.16-23) when he remarks that Jesus is a high priest who has been “made perfect for ever” (v.28).
Blindness and lameness are top of the list of levitical no-nos. In his novel, Robert Louis Stevenson made a lame character — the one-legged pirate and ship’s cook, Long John Silver — into the first children’s anti-hero, and one of the most morally ambiguous characters ever devised. To the reader, it begins to feel as if Silver’s disability is a warning in itself (and this is reinforced by the drunken dread of Billy Bones).
Blind Bartimaeus has two elements to his story (described not in a novel, but in a mere seven verses) which make him stand out amid the many healings that Jesus effected in his years of ministry. The first is that his is the final healing of that ministry. Immediately after it, chapter 11 of the Gospel recounts Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. The second is that Bartimaeus alone, out of all the people whom Jesus healed in Mark’s version of his ministry, responds by following Jesus on the way. Perhaps this explains why his name is recorded, when 12 earlier healings of individuals are not.
There had been another blind man (unnamed) whose sight Jesus restored (in Bethsaida, 8.22-26). He did not get the same message as Bartimaeus; nor did he respond like him. Bartimaeus begins with an insight into the identity of Jesus: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (v.47). He asks for his sight to be restored, calling Jesus “my teacher”. I think this is why his healing takes the form that it does. Jesus does not say “Therefore I heal you.” He says, “Your faith has healed you.” I take this to mean, not that we can “cure” ourselves through willpower or sheer determination, but that we can find healing through recognising the truth about ourselves and Jesus — in this instance, through having faith in the one who is Truth (John 14.6).
Unlike Jesus’s one-way journey to Jerusalem, the journey described by Jeremiah was a journey home, consisting of former outcasts and refugees, and including those with disabilities and women who were pregnant or in labour. In such circumstances, there could be no more vulnerable people. But they were not a nuisance, or inconvenience, for whom costly special provision must be made. They were the Lord’s particular delight — his dear children — to be comforted and shepherded (v.9).
Blind Pew was trampled to death by horses in a skirmish. Long John Silver’s end is not recorded. Blind Bartimaeus’s story did not end with his moment of prominence in the Gospel. It flowed onward, into the ocean of disciples who followed Jesus on the way, most of their names unremembered, but equally the Lord’s particular delight — just as we are.