In the late 1980’s I could be found mostly in or around Morocco. Renata and I were studying North African Arabic, first at a language institute in the ancient city of Fez and then later on our own in the Atlantic coastal town of Larache – which, come to think of it, could make a claim to being more ancient than Fez. The Phoenicians settled across the river from Larache in the seventh century BC, in a town they called Lixus; my daughter still has a little potsherd I picked up in the ruins featuring Roman figures on it, in relief.
In Fez we rented a small apartment and in Larache we stayed with a host family, but we did it all on regular tourist visas, meaning we had to exit Morocco every three months and then re-enter. It was the pre-computer age so, to keep the border guards less aware of our frequent comings and goings, I would alternate between passports; less stamps. In any case, the three-month limit was always a good excuse for a short holiday in Spanish Ceuta or British Gibraltar.
It was on one of these sojourns in Ceuta that, while having dinner, I chomped down hard on a pebble and cracked off part of a molar. The stone was hidden in a dish of lentils, something which featured prominently in the Mediterranean diet which we enjoyed in that period.
The next day, my tongue raw from having played all night with the jagged edges of the broken tooth, I consulted with the locals and headed off to a recommended dentist.
The man seemed enthralled by my mouth. I’ve had a lot of dental work done in my life, in numerous countries, and one by one he queried me exhaustively about each filling and extraction. Memories, mostly bad, filled my mind: my father driving us into a dark evening in an unlit satellite town of Brasilia, Brazil to a cheap dentist one of his employees had told him about; the “dentist” turned out to be an active-duty army sergeant with hands as big as baseball mitts doing dentistry at home in his off hours….
Back in the chair in Spain, after 20 minutes of exploration, the Ceuta dentist seemed contented, took his little mirror and poker out of my mouth and laid them down on the side tray.
“So, what’s bothering you?” he said.
“What?!” I said incredulously.
“What do you want me to do for you?” he persevered.
“Um, well, did you notice the tooth I broke yesterday?” I queried.
“Yes, of course,” he replied. “That’s what you want me to fix for you?”
Then Jesus said to Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
This little exchange between Jesus and Blind Bartimaeus has always seemed a bit odd to me. If a blind man, begging by the side of the road, repeatedly calls out to a well-known itinerate healer, asking for mercy, isn’t it rather obvious what he is asking for?
But no, Jesus, like my one-time Spanish dentist, is jumping to no conclusions. Yes, the blind man is obviously blind. To assume, however, that this is the man’s genuine felt need, the thing that is uppermost on his prayer list, would be presumptuous. Every individual, coming into the presence of an expression of the divine (in this case, in Christ) , is surely seen to be riddled with any number of faults, shortcomings, failures and needs, each one a candidate for an act of grace.
My Spanish dentist most likely saw a number of things in my mouth that begged attention. But he needed to hear from me which of those he should address. Likewise, Bartimaeus, being a normal human being as well as a blind man, no doubt experienced more than one area of need and brokenness in his life. His blindness was the most obvious only for those who, like you and me, have a limited vision of the soul.
In my pastoral experience I have often been surprised that the thing that seemed to me to be the most debilitating in a person’s life was something they themselves had long learned to live with, and rather ignored. These individuals were instead preoccupied by issues not visible to the casual observer. Issues hidden and far more pressing than the obvious.
I am touched by the respect and dignity with which Jesus treats Bartimaeus. He teaches us not to jump to conclusions about the challenges we see others facing. He teaches us not to assume, not to open ourselves to the potential of “making an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.” He teaches us to respect the autonomy of the individual; to let them speak for themselves.
He teaches us that God’s grace is gracious.