Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Story of Bartimaeus and Our Experience of Poverty: A Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B

October 25, 2015

Two years ago as I was walking in downtown Washington, D.C. headed to the metro station, I saw a homeless woman sitting on the sidewalk. She wasn’t begging for money or anything, she was just sitting there surrounded by what few possessions she had. It’s a common and daily part of life for those who live in Washington to encounter the poor like this, but there was something about this woman that moved me. I walked over to her, knelt down, and told her that I didn’t have any cash to give her but that I would be more than happy to bring her anywhere and buy her as much food as she wanted. As I was saying this, my own pride and self-satisfaction just completely inflated. I began thinking about what a Good Samaritan I was being, about how Christ-like I was to stop and offer this poor woman a meal. I had my collar on and so it immediately entered into my head that this little act of selflessness on my part would serve as a great witness…here I was, engaging in the New Evangelization, following the example of Pope Francis, being a loving and caring Christian. But as I was talking to her she looked at me and said, “Who said I was hungry?” And she started to cry. I stared at her and she stared back, her eyes piercing through my soul, and her heart began to speak to my heart. I thought that I stumbled upon some charity case, upon a poor woman who just needed someone to get her a meal…but the reality is, I stumbled upon a living, breathing, journeying, hurting, hopeful, sorrowful, joyful, frightened, uncertain, beautiful, loveable woman…a human person…just like any of us…just like me. This realization nearly brought me to tears right there on 20th Street in DuPont Circle. So I sat down next to her, realizing that her true poverty, her wants and her needs, was ultimately not very different from my own, and we started talking. She told me about her life, how she ended up on the street after her boyfriend had abused her, and how she felt completely discarded and unwanted by society. After a bit more time, and a lot of listening, I gave her a hug and as I was getting ready to head on my way it occurred to me that I didn’t even know her name, and so I asked. “Tracie,” she said, “with an –ie.” In this short encounter, this woman – Tracie – taught me more about humanity, about the Christian life, and about myself than I could have ever imagined.

In our Gospel today, we hear of another encounter: the encounter between Jesus and the poor blind man, Bartimaeus. The account that St. Mark gives us is moving…Bartimaeus, blind and marginalized, hears that Jesus is coming and begins to cry out to him. The passersby are embarrassed by such a display and try to shush Bartimaeus, who only cries out all the louder for Jesus. This grabs Jesus’ attention – who is being swarmed by a sizeable crowd – and He asks for Bartimaeus to be brought to him. Jesus asks Bartimaeus what he wants, Bartimaeus responds that He wants to see, Jesus restores his sight and they all go on their merry way. We’re sort of left with a nice warm feeling as we hear a nice story about the nice Jesus helping another person in need. But there’s more going on in this Gospel passage than meets the eye, and that’s where my own encounter with Tracie comes into play.

When I saw Tracie sitting on the sidewalk, I saw a poor person who deserved my pity and whatever food I could give her. When we hear of Jesus encountering the poor, we usually think of Him taking pity on them and fulfilling their temporal needs: food, health, etc. But the story of Bartimaeus shows us that the “poor” – as we so often and easily call them – are so much more than that. They are more than just poor people with afflictions…they are people just like the rest of us. Like you and me, each one has a story to tell and a past to share; like you and me, each one has a future to think about, to worry about, and to hope for. And like you and me, each one has needs that far surpass the things of this earth…like the need to love and to be loved, the need to forgive and to be forgiven, the need to hear and to be heard…the need to be shown mercy, the need for faith and hope, and the need for the gift of God’s grace.

Notice that when St. Mark introduces Bartimaeus to us, he immediately tells us his name and where he comes from. This man, this poor blind beggar, is Bartimaeus, which in Hebrew literally means the son of Timaeus. He is someone’s child, a unique person, his own man, and so much more than a charity case. When Jesus encounters him, He immediately knows what’s going on in this man’s life. He knows he’s blind, he knows he’s poor, he knows he’s downtrodden, but the Divine Son of God Who knows all dignifies this man by asking him what he wants. “Master, I want to see,” Bartimaeus replies. Perhaps this was the first time in his life anyone ever asked him what he wanted. No doubt, in his poor state, people threw scraps of food at him. No doubt, in his poor state, he was shown various acts of kindness by well-meaning people. But had anyone ever dared to see beyond his poor state and to see in him a living, breathing, journeying, hurting, hopeful, sorrowful, joyful, frightened, uncertain, beautiful, loveable man? That’s what makes his encounter with Jesus so incredible…Jesus didn’t see a poor blind man, He saw Bartimaeus. And because He saw Bartimaeus and not a poor blind man, He was able to offer him so much more than physical sight. Creator and creature, God and man, Jesus and Bartimaeus became one with each other that day, and the result was faith, love, and eternal life.

As I was riding back on the metro after my encounter with Tracie, I realized how easily and often I have objectified the “poor.” At times I’ve given them food or money, but what I didn’t give was the risky gift of my own love, of the love of God that dwells in me. Tracie didn’t want from me what I was willing to give her…Tracie wanted and needed from me precisely what I so often hold back. And she held me accountable for that. She begged not for my money, but for me to dare to see her as she really is.

The goal of the Christian life, after loving God, is to see ourselves and each other as He sees us: in truth. He is constantly calling us to look beyond appearances, to lay aside our stereotypes, and to gaze upon His people with the same mad, passionate love that He has. It’s not enough to do good things or to be kind towards people or to write checks for charities or to volunteer at homeless shelters…He calls us to radical, selfless love. This means daring to encounter the Tracies and the Bartimaeuses of our lives and to give them our love.

Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta was once praised for the extraordinary work that she and the Missionaries of Charity were doing to alleviate poverty and to improve the lives of the poor of Calcutta. Mother Teresa was annoyed by this praise, not because of her humility, but because it demonstrated an inadequate understanding of her work. She said, “I am not a social worker. I don’t do it for this reason. I do it for Christ. I do it for the Church…Many people mistake our work for our vocation. Our vocation is the love of Jesus. The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.”

Today, as we approach the fount of love that springs from this altar, we pray for the grace to listen carefully in our own lives to the cries of Bartimaeus, of Tracie, of Christ Himself present in His people. And we pray for the grace to be able to see them as they are and to be seen by them as we are, to love them as they are and to be loved by them as we are.