As Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd,
Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus,
sat by the roadside begging.
On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth,
he began to cry out and say,
“Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.”
And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent.
But he kept calling out all the more, “Son of David, have pity on me.”
Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
Mark 10: 46-49a
I have visited quite a few nursing homes in my life. Inevitably, there is some poor soul sitting in the hallway, possibly secured into a wheelchair, crying out to be noticed. The staff and other residents just seem to ignore this person, and so visitors quickly rush past the wheelchair and its unfortunate prisoner in order to get to the person they have come to visit. Staff, when questioned about the person in the wheelchair, will tell you that the person has dementia and that this crying out is part of that disease. But sometimes, if you put your hand on the hand of the crying person – just rest it there with some light pressure – they calm down, stop crying out and seem to be comforted.
I had an encounter like this once. The woman was a stranger to me, and maybe to herself and her family as well. But in a moment of clarity, she looked me in the eye and whimpered, “Thank you. I have been invisible all day.” That encounter has stayed with me for these past five years since it happened. I will never forget it. Imagine thinking that you are invisible in a world where you are watching everyone live with each other all around you.
I stopped quoting the above passage from the book of Mark at the point where Jesus acts against the crowd to do justice. The crowd, in this story, are pretty typical. They are like the staff, residents and visitors in the nursing home I mentioned above. They have their own agenda. The blind man, crying out for attention, threatens to deflect Jesus’ attention away from them. The crowd of people have been following Jesus around, listening to his words but not understanding their meaning. Otherwise they would have helped the blind man find his way to the healer rather than telling him to shut up.
We do not only hide from suffering. We hide those who suffer – or at least we try to. In my lifetime, here in Canada, we have made great strides in bringing these “invisibles” into the light so that we can encounter them in their humanity and struggle along with them. But we are a long way from having arrived at the goal of doing justice perfectly.
Toronto is a city where we encounter many people like Bartimaeus, the blind beggar in Mark’s story. Walking along sidewalks downtown, we are accosted by beggars, by the mentally ill, by addicts and a group of people we have become used to calling “the homeless.” They cry out as we hurry by and almost all of us are like the crowd of self-interested people following Jesus around. We want the person who is trying to distract us with their suffering to “shut up.” We want to keep our attention focused on something else – anything else. We want the “invisibles” to stay invisible. I’m guilty of this. Maybe you are too.
What does it take for us to take this lesson from Mark’s gospel to heart? What does it take for us to call the invisible suffering person into the light of our attention? What does it take for us to turn to the other people around us and say, “Hold on a minute. I want to pay attention to this person who is suffering.”
I have no clear answer for this. It takes motive, desire, intentionality. I saw a sign the other day in front of a church that read, “We find the time to do what we want to do.” How true.
We have to want to see, hear, and touch the invisible sufferers in our midst. In order to experience this shift of desire within ourselves, I know that we must feel their suffering – in other words, we must be compassionate with them. We must feel mercy and feel it strongly enough to act upon our feeling. I had that once – with the woman in the hallway of the nursing home. Now, I ask myself, can this become a habit of the heart?