So [the blind man who was begging] shouted out, “Jesus, Son of David! Show mercy to me!” Those in front began to rebuke him into silence, but he shouted even more, “Son of David! Show mercy to me!” Jesus stood still. He ordered that the man be brought to him. When he had come close, he questioned him: “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Master, I want to see again.” Jesus said to him, “Regain your sight. Your faith has saved you.”
Luke 18: 38-42
In the gospels the healing gift of Jesus is given in proportion to the faith of those who seek it. The blind beggar’s faith is manifest in persistent shouting out to Jesus and in his willingness to openly encounter Jesus and respond to his penetrating questions. His faith is seen in his willingness to tell Jesus, in the midst of a judgmental crowd, exactly what he desires of him.
One of the great mysteries of human life is how can there be so many self-proclaimed “believers” of differing types and yet their “faith” seems to have so little influence on the quality of life on our planet. If, in fact, Jesus heals and saves us in accordance with our faith, we well may need to ask what it is that we still lack in terms of our faith.
The gospel passage tells us that as the blind beggar shouts out to Jesus, “Those in front began to rebuke him into silence.” “Those in front” are clearly those walking ahead, but perhaps they are also the “faith leaders” in the group. In Jesus’ time, as in ours, there is shame associated with being a beggar on the street. The offense that the blind man is committing, then, is that he is making himself known. The purpose of societal shaming is to make those whom it deems as worthy of shame disappear. As constantly with Jesus, it is the one whom society shames who is saved and healed, not “those in front.”
This morning there was a news report from Alabama. In it a woman who alleged she was sexually harassed by the now Senate candidate Roy Moore was asked what she would say to those who continue to support him as the “upright” candidate. Her direct and simple answer to the question was striking. She said, “Stop being willingly ignorant.” I found her answer to be a direct challenge to myself. My response to hard truths that discomfort my life is to be “willingly ignorant.” Far too often, like “those in front” in today’s gospel, I attempt to silence those voices that would challenge those ways of living that I develop to maximize my own comfort and laziness.
Jesus, on the other hand, when he hears the voice of the blind beggar “stood still . . . [and] ordered that the man be brought to him.” Jesus allows the man to “come close” and then asks him what he wants from him. Far too often we put “religion” at the service of our social purity. We blaspheme in the worst possible way by using and reducing God to serve our own ends and our own false projects. We allow those like us and who support our limited perspective to “come close,” and we hold those, whose very existence as marginal and impoverished is the result of our “way of life,” at a distance.
Those whom we fear and fail to understand we choose to be willfully ignorant of. The last thing we want to do is to allow them to come close and then to ask them what they want of us. The reason for this is, despite whatever we hold or proclaim to be our “beliefs,” our lack of faith. We fear those of whom our society is ashamed because we fear that in us that is shameful. Often, even as we try to “serve the poor,” we tend to do so from a distance.
Those of us who live in the minority affluent world use our affluence and habits of consumption to mask our own poverty and marginalization. We find community and intimacy difficult because true community is impossible without truth. Recently a friend raised with me the following questions: “How do I relate to others with whom I have no relationship? How do I live with others with whom I have no relationship?” As I took in his questions, I found myself thinking that what I do, at least, is to live externally and perfunctorily. Even within my very own religious community, I often relate to others and live with others merely a common schedule and somewhat superficial social presence. In short, we live together while rebuking into silence the voices of our deeper desires and needs. We fear the involvement that asking the other “What do you want me to do for you?” would require of us. And then, far too often, we spiritualize our refusal of real encounter as a quest for personal purity and perfection or as a call to service.
It is this dynamic that creates our self-righteousness and judgmentalism in our own circles and in the world at large. By shaming others we are able to remain blind to their appeal to our common humanity. The purpose of segregation is to allow and to buttress our “willing [and willful] ignorance.” This is true of segregation between individual persons, races and tribes, persons of differing political points of view, and especially between rich and poor nations. As Pope Francis continues to remind us, we, whose way of living continues to pollute and degrade our “common home,” do so “because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is.” Amazingly enough we continue to “rebuke . . . into silence” the voices of those who suffer the war, famine and displacement that climate change is wreaking on them by dulling and distracting our consciousness.
It requires great faith, in its deepest possible sense, to say to Jesus that “I want to see.” For, the truth is, there is much I do not want to see. I am blind and ignorant, willingly and willfully. Be it in my very own relational circle, or in the world at large, I live in fear of what the others will ask of me if I see and hear them, if I let them “come close” and ask them what I can do for them. In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus describes to us our propensity to willfully ignore Lazarus at our gate, lest he remind us not only of our duty but of our common humanity, not only of his need of us but of our need of him.
We have tended to make salvation, and so faith, a very individual matter. The truth, though, is that we shall be saved together or not at all. If we continue to be willingly and willfully ignorant of the suffering of our world, then we shall destroy not only the others but ourselves as well. For if we live fearfully, believing that we must ignore the truth of things to survive, then we cannot be saved. If our faith is in ourselves and not in God, then we are always fearful of what we see as the “demands” of others. We can never begin to recognize that the others are also gift to us. Community is living the question “What do you want me to do for you?” mutually and reciprocally.
Many spiritual traditions offer their adherents a parable about long spoons or chopsticks. In it those in hell have all they could ever want to eat, but they are starving because their spoons are so long they cannot reach their mouths. Heaven is the same situation, except that there people are feeding each other. A teacher of mine, during my undergraduate years, pointed out to us that in the scriptures the opposite of love is not hate but fear. It is love and faith that overcomes our fear. “Those in front” are afraid of the blind beggar. He, however, is not afraid of them. As they try to shame him into silence, he cries all the louder. May we dare, in faith, to voice who we are and what we need, even when that touches on things about which we may be ashamed, and, in turn, may we hear and respond to that faith in others.
In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked. Many people will deny doing anything wrong because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is. As a result, “whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule”.
Pope Francis, Laudato Si, #56