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Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

These Gospel healing stories are complicated. For their ancient audience, they were evidence of Jesus’s great power, but also signs of the new community Jesus was building, because disabled people were seen as unclean or broken. To be “liberated” from disability was to be lifted out of poverty and scorn and brought into community. They were stories of hope and reintegration.

But as we seek to build a better and kinder world, we should recognize that the way we still talk about disability is pretty problematic. Often we hold onto that ancient framing of disability as brokenness that needs fixing, but a lot of disabled people, particularly those disabled from birth, have said clearly that they don’t feel broken. Most of them are just as glad to be alive as the rest of us, aside from the difficulties of managing in a world that’s often hostile or indifferent to their needs and voices. Many have said that the only time they actually feel in need of fixing is when they run up against the roadblocks of an ableist society. This is why many people within that community are reclaiming the word disabled – because it is society that disables them, not their bodies.

Abled people also often frame disability as something that needs to be heroically overcome, loudly and publicly. We want to see those born with disabilities win medals at the Special Olympics, or become motivational speakers who tell all of us to reach for the stars. Obviously if disabled folks want to win medals or become motivational speakers, they should. But all too often, these are the only narratives that abled people are willing to celebrate or acknowledge. When disabled people are struggling or telling us about their struggles, we often shower them with platitudes and toxic positivity. We ask them if they’ve tried some herb or supplement or alternative treatment. We see their cultures and tools as things to be transcended rather than celebrated and preserved, like what often happens with the Deaf community and sign language, or with wheelchairs, which many disabled people say they do not feel “confined” or “bound” to – they are tools that impart freedom of movement. We may feel suspicious when we see someone who doesn’t “look” disabled making use of accessibility tools, and wonder if they’re “faking” it. We complain about political correctness when we’re told that slurs like “dumb” and “idiot” and “crippled” and phrases like “willfully blind” and “turn a deaf ear” are hurtful. We often touch disabled people and their wheelchairs without permission. We frame autism, Down’s syndrome, and other neurodivergences as a “burden” for parents to bear or a “problem” for society to solve. Some of us even say outright that we’d rather be dead than live a life requiring help from other people, implying that a life which requires such help is worthless.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

There are stories that go untold, and stories that go unheard. Either way grieves God’s heart.

And now to Bartimaeus’s story – talk about untold stories. It’s clear that at one point, he could see, but that’s all we know. We don’t know how he lost his sight, or how long he’s been without it. We don’t know what life was like before he lost it. All we know is he is a blind beggar, and his name is “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus,” which is redundant because Bartimaeus means son of Timaeus.

Oh there’s a clue here! And it’s not the only one. The words Mark uses are so rich. Let’s look at a few.

The name Timaeus means “honour.” Don’t be fooled by social convention when you see the blind guy doing his best to survive with the only form of employment he could access in this society. He’s a son of honour.

And the word for “blind” that Mark uses is τυφλός, which comes up in the other Gospels but almost incessantly in Matthew, who loves to talk about hypocrisy. Like in English, it can signify the physical disability or ignorance, refusal to see. It can also signify dimness, or opacity. And it has a fascinating double meaning. The same word signifies someone “raising a smoke,” or something “smouldering,” which makes sense, because it’s hard to see in a room full of smoke.

Or a room full of incense.

Incense fills the temple to remind us that holiness has a smell, and God desires us so deeply that They want to fill our senses, to crowd out everything that distracts from Them; to remind us of a bush burning, smouldering, a sign of future liberation; to remind us of the cloud veiling Sinai, which obscured the vision of the Israelites not to oppress but to protect, a sign of the covenant which was to come down the mountain on stone tablets and on the shining face of Moses.

If Bartimaeus’s eyes are veiled with smoke, as this word suggests, well, maybe the smoke was coming from his own burning unconsumed heart, a heart yearning to be seen, burning with holy fire.

Again, the Greek bears this out beautifully. The word translated “cry out” came with this amazing definition from the lexicon I consulted: “cry out,” κράζω, inarticulate shouts that express deep emotion.”

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Bartimaeus is out there in the desert of Jericho’s apathy, unseeing and unseen, smouldering, and he cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Here he proves, unequivocally, that he understands who Jesus is when no one else does. ‘Son of David’ is a confessional title. The disciples, sighted, do not see Jesus for who he is. Bartimaeus, unsighted, does.

He cries out “Have mercy on me!” Sounds like a hierarchical call from a groveling servant to a master, like an admission of guilt, and of course this is how the people around him would have heard it, because in those days they linked physical disability to sin.

But no, it’s so much more wonderful than this. Historically, ceremonially, this pronouncement is a reminder of the Covenant, the bond between humanity and God. Bartimaeus knows Jesus not only as the Messiah, but as a physical manifestation of God’s promises to humanity.

So it’s not, “Save me from my disability!” It’s “I belong to you!”

No wonder people told him to be quiet. They don’t want to be reminded that despite their exclusion, he is part of the covenant.

And we know how Jesus responds. Not only does he enlist the community to help Bartimaeus make his way over – we know Jesus is all about mutual aid.

And then, most beautifully of all, he does not make any assumptions about what Bartimaeus wants. HE ASKS HIM.

Bartimaeus, having spent much of his life sighted and wanting to regain that, asks for sight. And Jesus grants this request, which is well within his power, at no cost.

And what does Bartimaeus do in response?

He doesn’t go back to the community that excluded him and sought to shush him, the community that will now surely use his story as inspirational fodder to absolve themselves of that sin of exclusion, and indeed any further responsibility toward him.

He follows Jesus to Jerusalem.

Strangely, he disappears after this. We never hear of him again in the Gospel.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

I like to think that Bartimaeus, with his strong voice and his strong faith, led the cheering and hymns at Jesus’s fantastic performance art entrance into Jerusalem. And then I like to think maybe he was swept up in the magic of Passover at the holy city, and finding a place to start anew there. I like to think of him resting in the peace of knowing he belonged to God, still burning but no longer smouldering: burning clean, because his story is no longer untold.

And I can only pray that when I next walk by him on the street, I see him.