Not everyone who is blind has lost their sight. In these closing verses of chapter 18, Luke tells us first about the blindness of the disciples as they once again fail to “see” what Jesus tells them about their destination in Jerusalem. He immediately follows it with a story about a blind man whose faith brought about the sight he so desperately desired.
Let’s begin with the disciples:
Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.” The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about. (Luke 18:31-34)
Don’t forget that since chapter 9, when Luke told us that Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem, Jesus has been singularly focused on his quickly approaching death. The cross is on the horizon and it occupies more and more of Jesus’ thoughts. On no less than six previous occasions (5:35; 9:22; 9:43-45; 12:50; 13:32-33; 17:25), Jesus has told his disciples of his approaching crucifixion, and each time his words were met with disbelief, confusion, or outright opposition. Every time Jesus broaches the subject anew, it is as if the thought has never crossed their minds before.
Here in chapter 18, he tells them again with such clarity and specificity that there is no possible way they can misunderstand, and yet they do. Luke says, “The disciples did not understand any of this.” To be fair, there may be more going on than simply ignorance, because Luke immediately follows that by saying, “Its meaning was hidden from them.”
This is an appointment Jesus cannot avoid and will not delay. Perhaps if his disciples were to grasp what he was saying, they would attempt to prevent him from reaching his destination. He cannot allow that. And so they remain blind. They cannot see what is so clearly in view.
Jesus, though surrounded by the crowds and accompanied by his disciples, walks this path alone. The Hebrews writer describes it in retrospect: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
William Barclay says there are two kinds of courage. One occurs when, “suddenly and without warning a man is confronted with some emergency or crisis, and who unhesitatingly and even recklessly flings himself into it without time to think.” The other, even more amazing and admirable courage is the man who “sees the terrible situation looming ahead, and who knows that nothing short of flight can avoid it, and who goes steadfastly and inflexibly on…. Many a man is capable of the heroic action on the spur of the moment; it takes a man of supreme courage to go on to face something which haunts him for days ahead, and which, by turning back, he could escape.” (The Gospel of Luke, pp. 239-240)
How do you do that? How could Jesus, knowing what pain and suffering lay ahead press forward with such resolute determination?
That’s not to say he didn’t have his moments. In the garden, he would beg the Father if there were any other way, to let this cup pass. And again the Hebrews writer tells us, “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death” (Heb. 5:7). And yet, even in his struggle, there is the resolute, “yet not my will but thy will be done.”
How could he do it? Paul tells us it was because of his incredible, unconditional love. “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8). Paul says no human motivation could move Christ to do what he did. Only love could compel him to go to the cross for us.
When the soldiers arrested Jesus in the garden, the disciples fled and went into hiding. Three days later, when the women came back from the tomb with reports that Jesus’ body was gone, Luke writes, “they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24:11).
Is it any wonder then, as Jesus, for the seventh time tells them that he will be killed and on the third day rise again, that the disciple scratch their heads and wonder what he’s talking about. They simply couldn’t see.
Interestingly then, Luke tells us of a real blind man:
As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Lord, I want to see,” he replied. Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God. (Luke 18:35-43)
Blindness in first century Palestine was not just a physical disability – it was a lifestyle. It’s not just that this man (Mark tells us his surname was Bartimaeus) was without sight. It left him unable to function in society in any productive way. We’re not told whether he was born blind or lost his sight through an accident or disease. But at the point his sight was lost, he became a liability. He couldn’t work, he couldn’t contribute, he became a burden on his family, he was reduced to begging on the side of the road. Society didn’t make accommodations for disabilities. They didn’t have welfare and social security. They didn’t have seeing eye dogs and Braille and special buses and all the things we’ve come to expect in a society that goes to great lengths to accommodate persons with disabilities.
They became outcasts and cast-offs. They were the invisible people. You ignored them as they sat on the corner and cried out “Alms for the poor – help a poor blind man, please.” If you felt especially generous you dropped a coin in their bowl. If not, you felt no pangs of guilt because they didn’t count as real people. They suffered the abuse and scorn of society because they had nothing to offer. They were marginally tolerated, but in no way accommodated or provided for.
Which explains why, this day, when Jesus was passing through Jericho, still surrounded by the crowds – not able to move without bumping someone from side to side or step on someone’s heels ahead – Bartimaeus asked “What’s happening?” The rumble of the crowd had to be deafening. We’re not talking about a dozen guys here, we’re realistically talking hundreds if not thousands who are following his every step. Someone nearby said, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”
Even Bartimaeus had heard of Jesus. He had never dreamed this moment would come. But he would not let this moment pass. Luke says, “He called out, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’” Those who were at the front of the procession told him to be quiet – a bit more of that protectiveness that Jesus so resented. But Bartimaeus was not to be deterred. Using an even more emphatic word, Luke says “he shouted all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’” Over the top of the roar of the crowd, Bartimaeus’ voice kept ringing out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
And as we have seen happen before, Jesus stopped, and when Jesus stopped the crowd stopped and suddenly everything grows quiet – except for Bartimaeus who continues shouting, “Jesus, Son of David…” And then he realizes that everything is quiet. Jesus motions those standing next to the blind man to lead him to him. In vs. 40, Luke writes, “When he came near, Jesus asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’”
What a question! Suppose Jesus asked it of you – what would you answer? What desire of your heart would you ask of Jesus? What concern would you pour out at his feet, knowing that it would be answered? Bartimaeus doesn’t hesitate. He has lived this moment over and over in his mind – if he ever had the opportunity, he would ask of Jesus, “Lord, I want to see.” He didn’t say it apologetically, or with a dip in his voice that said, “I don’t suppose it’s possible, but…” No – boldly and with conviction he says, “Lord, I want to see.”
We don’t even have read any further. We’ve already seen Jesus at work before – no doubt in my mind what his answer and what the result will be – yep, just as I thought: “Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.’ Immediately he received his sight...”
Here’s a man who deserves nothing and expects everything. He has nothing to offer Jesus except his determined faith that Jesus can and will give him what he asks. Everybody else in the crowd is looking at this poor, blind beggar and thinking, “How pathetic!” Jesus looks at him and thinks, “How amazing! A man, though blind, who sees clearly enough to know what he wants, and from whom to ask it.” And so he says, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.”
In Luke’s Gospel we learn something about Jesus. He looks for – he longs to find faith in people. Think with me about the healing and forgiveness that have taken place so far – just in Luke’s Gospel:
Lk 5:20 The four friends who lowered the paralytic through the roof of a house. “When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
Lk 7:9-10 The Centurion who came to Jesus asking him to heal his servant. “When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.”
Lk 7:50 The prostitute who came to the banquet and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. “Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Lk 8:48 The woman with flow of blood who touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak as he passed by and was healed. “Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”
Lk 8:50 Jairus, who came begging Jesus to heal his daughter. “Hearing this, Jesus said to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed.”
Lk 17:19 The one leper from the ten who were healed (and he a Samaritan) who came back to thank him. “Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
And now in ch. 18, a blind man, given the chance of a lifetime asks to receive his sight, and Jesus says, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.”
Kind of makes you think again about what you ask Jesus for doesn’t it? Jesus longs to bless you, and what he is waiting for is that faith that you believe he can do it.
And what disappoints Jesus the most? When his disciples scratch their heads, look at him in confusion and say, “We don’t get it.” And he shakes his head and says, “Where is your faith?”
What is that Jesus can’t do? What do you think Jesus won’t do? Do you really think God has retired and gotten out of the prayer answering business? That’s how we pray sometimes, and that’s certainly how we act. We pray as though we really don’t believe God has the time or interest to get around to us. Our prayers are weak and anemic, and we timidly apologize to God for taking up his time.
But that’s exactly what God has the time for – what he longs to do most – what he absolutely is most thrilled to see – bold, faithful prayers that God can and will do whatever we ask.
I want us to notice three more things before we leave this passage. The man receives his sight and three things happen. First, he “followed Jesus” – always an excellent response. Second, he started “praising God” – don’t ever forget that that’s what it’s all about. And third, when the crowd saw it, “they also praised God.” It’s amazing what an impact our faith can have on the people around us. When people see what God can do, when they see us respond in faith and praise – they start praising God. It’s contagious. Start spreading the word.