At church this morning, the pastor preached about Mark 10:46-52. Jesus, his disciples, and a large crowd are departing from Jericho, and a blind beggar on the roadside calls out to Jesus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” People tell the blind man to be quiet, but the blind man cries out more loudly, “Son of David! Have mercy on me!” Jesus tells his disciples to call the blind man to him, and they do so, while offering the blind man words of comfort. The blind man hastens to meet Jesus, and Jesus asks the blind man what he wants Jesus to do for him. The blind man responds that he wants to see, and Jesus says, “Go: your faith has made you well.” The blind man immediately can see again, and he follows Jesus on the way.
(My summary of the story draws from whatever translation my church’s bulletin was using.)
The pastor was talking about how blindness in those days was considered to be God’s punishment for sin, and so, if a person were blind and continued to be blind, people concluded that the blind person must be on the outs with God. Moreover, people with disabilities were excluded from the Temple and the worship that occurred there. The pastor said that a blind person could learn really fast that one can experience God outside of a physical building. And, indeed, the blind man in the story has keen spiritual insights. He calls Jesus the Son of David, which may indicate that he recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah. He believes that Jesus can heal him. What’s more, he is tenacious in crying out to Jesus for mercy, for he does so even when people tell him to shut up. And, when Jesus tells the blind man to go after the blind man is healed, the once blind man instead chooses to come: he follows Jesus.
The pastor was talking about the importance of rehumanizing the dehumanized, which means respecting the humanity of people whose humanity society does not generally respect. The pastor also talked about acknowledging the spiritual insights of people outside of the church and inviting them to church. I remember when I was googling my pastor’s name when I learned that he would soon be our new pastor, and I found an interview in which he said that there is something special about the spiritual insights of the poor. He may have had something like that in mind, among other things, when he delivered his sermon this morning.
There are historical questions that occur in my mind. Did ancient Judaism believe that the blind were blind because they were being punished by God? Obviously, that was a belief that was out there. In John 9:2, Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus who sinned—-the blind man or his parents—-that the man was born blind. There is the Jewish story of a man named Tobit, a righteous man who became blind, and whose healing God arranged. Even righteous Tobit felt that his blindness may have been God punishing him for his sins (Tobit 3:5).
Did ancient Judaism exclude the blind from the Temple? Leviticus 21 prohibits blind sons of the high priest Aaron from offering food to God, even though they can eat from the sacrifice. In II Samuel 5, David’s attack on the blind and lame in taking Jerusalem from the Jebusites serves as an etiology for the rule that the lame and the blind cannot come into the house. According to The Able Bodied: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies, by atheist biblical scholar Hector Avalos, Sarah Melcher, and Jeremy Schipper, “According to Johannes Renger, in ancient Mesopotamia people afflicted with a disease or a disability would often end up working at the temple, because their immediate family could no longer take care of them” (page 81); a different view on how things should be done appears in parts of the Hebrew Bible, however. There is at least one place, though, where a blind man blesses in God’s name: Isaac in the Book of Genesis was blind on account of his old age, and he blessed Jacob and Esau; yet, that was prior to the time of the Temple.
Did ancient Judaism believe that one could experience God outside of the Temple? Well, eventually the Jews tried to do so, when they were in exile. But Temples were considered to be important in the ancient world.
At the same time, the Hebrew Bible does teach compassion for the blind. Leviticus 19:14 prohibits putting a stumbling-block before the blind. Deuteronomy 27:18 curses the one who makes the blind person wander out of the way. Job in Job 29:15 says that he was eyes to the blind. Isaiah 35:5 promises that, in the time of God’s restoration, the eyes of the blind shall see.
Was Jesus challenging the system and assumptions that God himself set up in the Hebrew Bible? That is a good question. Perhaps, in the Hebrew Bible, God could punish people with blindness, but that did not mean that everyone who had blindness was being punished by God. I should also note, again, that, in Leviticus 21, the blind priests are not thoroughly excluded from priestly duties, for they can still eat the meat of the sacrifice.
Loving the marginalized can be easier said than done, at least for me. If I were to see a homeless man mumbling to himself on the street, I would be very hesitant to engage him, and I think that is wise on my part. Still, we should care about the marginalized, and if we feel that our abilities to do so are limited on the individual level (i.e., how exactly would I help a homeless man mumbling to himself on the street? I’d have no idea what to do!), then we should act on the communal level, getting different people’s wisdom, experience, and resources in trying to help.