That was my spot. I suffered no interlopers to supplant me there. The place at the side of the heavily traveled road into the city had been mine since the day my father Timaeus died, leaving me with no family, no home, no money, and no hope for the future beyond a life of begging. The people of Jericho were so accustomed to my presence outside the gate as they came and went, they were as blind to me as I was to them… and to everything else in this world, for that matter. So it was no surprise to find me there on that day when, as I’ve thought of it since, the light came on.
I’d been begging in that spot for so long, I could recognize the people who regularly passed by, most no longer acknowledging me. Between their styles of gait – the stompers, the scufflers, and the skippers – and their large or small body sizes, they were as easily distinguishable to me as if I could see them.
I had no difficulty recognizing the footsteps of Zacchaeus, his stride short like his body. The seemingly impotent taps of his tiny feet, not much louder than raindrops, put fear into the hearts of most of the citizens of Jericho as he came to gouge them for Roman taxes and his own personal exaction. I had nothing to give so I had nothing to fear. He even tossed a half-shekel to me once in a great while. We were both outcasts.
When the priests came by, I didn’t have to see their condemning stares; I could almost feel them burn my skin. I would get no money or compassion from them. They had plenty of the former but were destitute in the latter. They could ignore me with not only supposed impunity, but also with a righteous satisfaction. To them, my blindness and poverty were the judgment of Jehovah.
The world wasn’t a complete blank to me. I had memories of sights from my childhood, before my eyesight was extinguished by some illness that had no name. Its lack of an identity in no way inhibited its effectiveness. As each year passed – and many had passed in darkness – those memories had faded, as had the last shred of hope that I would live any kind of purposeful or meaningful life.
But, as I said, that was all before the light, the day when everything changed.
At a time of day when few people were usually found on the road, a time I often took advantage of by lying down for a short rest, there was suddenly a mob of hurried feet and a chorus of unfamiliar voices emerging from the city gate. They seemed to be on a mission, their steps marching with definite purpose. These were strangers to Jericho, unfamiliar to me or with me. Strangers were rare, but when they came I knew I had a chance to receive more money than usual. I perked up, holding out my hands, begging for alms.
Focusing my hearing, I could make out some of what the people said. It was a group passing through on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover. That meant they would have money, or at least some food. My pleading grew more urgent as I heard them begin to move away.
Then, amidst the mumbled and muffled voices, I heard the name. Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth. I knew the name well. It seemed as if every other person on the road lately was talking about him. In overheard conversations, I’d learned who he claimed to be and what people said he was capable of. He’d healed sick men, they said, and caused lame men to walk. And, if my ears were to be trusted, he was somewhere near at that moment. From the receding sounds, I could tell he was walking away. With much more to beg for than a few scraps, I stood and took a step, my legs unsteady beneath me. With the loudest and most desperate voice I could muster, I shouted.
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
My cries must have taken them all by surprise. There was scurrying and shoving, griping and cursing. What seemed to be half the mob grabbed me and threw me back to the side of the road. They made it clear that Jesus had no time for the likes of me.
Desperation has other plans.
For every effort those men (and all my oppressors were men) made to hold me back, my pleas became that much more frantic. I didn’t know a lot about Jesus, but I knew I wanted to meet him, regardless of what he might be able to do for me.
“Son of David, have mercy on me!” I cried again and again and again. By this time, the men had clamped onto my legs and arms. They even tried to shut my mouth, but, I’m only mildly ashamed to admit, I bit any hand that covered my lips.
It was then, after they threw me to the ground, at a point when I was growing near mad in my distress, that a voice, not much louder than a whisper yet heard above the din, said simply, “Call him.” It was Jesus.
My years of blindness had made my hearing acute to the point that I was able to distinguish even the subtlest characteristics of speech. This voice was a combination I’d never heard and even found disorienting: supreme authority tempered by gentleness. The others recognized its power, too. I was released the instant the command was issued.
The men had been put in their place by the words of Jesus, who could have called me himself, but insisted that those who tried to prevent me come to get me. It was with more than a little humility that they told me, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” I wanted to reply, “No, he told you to call me,” but realized I had nothing to gain from further humiliating them. Besides, I had a more important mission on my mind.
Take heart I did. Somewhere in the crowd milling there in the road was Jesus, on whom I’d laid the burden of all my hopes. Fearing it would encumber me, I threw my cloak to the ground, leapt back to my feet, and groped my way into the mass of people. Hands passed me through the crowd as if I were a piece of unleavened bread being distributed for the Passover. When the hands released me, I stood, wondering what would happen next. I waved my arms around, seeking something to cling to. A firm hand took my arm.
Jesus asked the most obvious question, “What do you want me to do for you?” He knew what I wanted – everyone there that day knew. And somehow I knew that he knew. He wasn’t seeking information, he just wanted to hear me express, no, confess, the desire of my heart.
How does one address a miracle worker and a prophet? Who was I even to approach such a one as him? I called him by the only name that seemed appropriate, the most natural appellation to come to my lips. It was as much a wish as a title.
“Master, let me recover my sight.”
His response was as straightforward as my request. “Go your way; your faith has made you well.”
Since that day, I’ve watched as the late morning sun burned away a fog hanging over the sea. That’s what happened with my eyes that very moment. Sunlight poured into my eyes, the darkness driven away like at dawn. It was as if my very soul was lit by his words.
The first thing I saw was the face of Jesus. It seemed to have a light all its own.
I had been made well, to be sure, but I couldn’t imagine how any faith was involved. My faith was nothing compared to my desperation. Jesus was my only hope, so I grasped for it as a starving man dives for a crust of bread. Somehow, for no reason I could ever conceive, Jesus honored that trace of trust I had shown.
His charge to go my way became moot. From that moment on, Jesus was my way. I have followed him to this day. Though he has long since left this earth, I follow him still.
[Since posting this, I made a slight change based on a more correct reading of the text. The ESV says Bartimaeus called Jesus “Rabbi”, which usually means teacher. Other versions either use the Hebrew word “Rabboni” or its English translation, “Master”.]