As a science fiction fan, I feel like I’m living in a golden age. It used to be the case that sci-fi was relegated to cheap TV series and B-movies. Then Star Wars came along and suddenly sci-fi was cool. At the movies, anyway. TV still tended to have low-budget productions and favored sit-coms and reality shows to big production value sci-fi epics.
|Rev. Mark Schaefer|
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
October 24, 2021
But in the last 10–15 years or so, that’s changed. And today, given the number of different streaming services out there, there are so many to choose from: from Man in the High Castle to The Expanse, Orphan Black, The Handmaid’s Tale, Black Mirror, Stranger Things, Watchmen, Westworld, The Mandalorian, Star Trek: Discovery, and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, my nerd cup runneth over.
Years ago, I had a student who marveled that clergy could like sci-fi, and I suppose that that is not an unreasonable position, given that large swaths of the contemporary church seem hostile to anything having to do with science. But I have long seen science fiction as having a religious element to it: it holds up a vision of the future that can critique the present and inspire hope for the future. And so, I’m reveling in the abundance of science fiction—some great, and some guilty pleasure—that is available to me.
And so it is that I came across a series on AppleTV called See. The story is set six centuries in the future after a virus wiped out all but two million people on earth. Those who survived were left blinded and humanity has been sightless for six hundred years.
As you can imagine, not much is left of our civilization and the world the characters inhabit is starkly different from the one that we do. There are no visual arts, but tactile art and music, aroma painting using perfumes and scents. Everyone walks with a staff, sweeping the ground in front of them or following along ropes running aloft down the center of the town streets. Messages are encoded in knots on strings, “read” by running one’s fingers down the length of the cord. Espionage is accomplished by “shadow walkers”—people who can move so quietly and who mask their scent entirely that they can stand right next to the person they’re spying on and listen in on their conversations entirely unnoticed. People use echolocation upon entering a room to see if someone might be there that they’re not expecting. Royalty announce their presence by jingling their jewelry. It is a fascinating and alien world.
When we join the story, we witness the wife of the local chieftain giving birth to two children. She had arrived in the village already pregnant and was taken in by the chieftain and claims her children as his own. But her children have a secret their parents quickly discover: they can see.
This secret is kept from the villagers because in this world those who can see are deemed “witches” and teams of warriors called “witchfinders” roam the countryside looking for the sighted. And it appears that a sighted man has left behind him a number of impregnated women who will give birth to sighted children like those of the chieftain and his wife.
It is a long-held religious belief in this world that sight was taken away by God as punishment for the way human beings threatened the natural order. The plague and the ensuing blindness are seen as the divinely ordained state of nature. To allow sight to return into the world is to invite divine wrath.
It’s a fascinating premise and seeing how human society has adapted to sightlessness is compelling. But the story isn’t really about seeing. Sight, of course, is a metaphor.
The fact that characters say things like, “It was sight that destroyed the world,” makes it clear that “sight” in this world is akin to knowledge. This is not an unknown trope in science fiction. In Walter Miller’s brilliant A Canticle for Leibowitz, the survivors of a nuclear holocaust blame science and learning for the fate of the world. They eagerly adopt the pejorative “simpleton” as their preferred form of address. And so it is in See: those who cannot see fault those who can with the ruin of the world. Those who possessed knowledge used that knowledge for destructive ends and nearly exterminated the entire human race. Sight is a metaphor for knowledge and understanding.
II. THE TEXT
Of course, the exact same metaphor is being used in the scripture lesson for tonight. The metaphor of vision and understanding has a long history in scripture. The prophets were originally called “seers” and their messages from God often come as “visions.” We today, sensitive to the concerns of those who are visually impaired, might be reluctant to equate seeing with understanding, but as we look at the text carefully, we see that it isn’t really talking about the functioning of the optic nerve as much as it is the functioning of the heart.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for the Passover. He passes through Jericho on his way and as he is leaving the town a blind beggar calls out to him to have mercy on him. We’re told that many people told him to be quiet, but he persisted and Jesus calls him over. When Jesus asks him what he wants Jesus to do for him, he says, “To see again, rabbi.” Jesus says, “Go, your trust has healed you,” and “right away” he could see again and he started following Jesus along the way.
We might be tempted to see this as just another instance of a miraculous healing by Jesus. Jesus has cured skin diseases, he has cured a woman of a 12-year hemorrhage of blood, he has cast out demons, he has restored the hearing and speech of a man deaf and unable to speak, he has fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish, he has raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead—perhaps this is just another miraculous healing. To be fair, he’s already given sight to another man who was blind.
But this healing story takes place on the road to Jerusalem and is not part of the broader narrative of Jesus’ teachings and healings. This healing comes after Jesus has astounded his disciples by telling them that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the Kingdom of God. This healing takes place after James and John have asked for positions of glory and honor in Jesus’ kingdom, and Jesus has had to lecture the disciples—again—on the inversion of the Gospel, that the first shall be last and the last, first. It has come right after Jesus has had to remind his disciples that his is a mission of service for others not of glory for himself. It has come right after the disciples have demonstrated again that they just don’t understand. They don’t get it. They don’t see.
From the perspective of Mark’s gospel, it is not surprising that Bartimaeus does see. Bartimaeus is an outsider, and in Mark’s gospel, it is the outsiders—the demon possessed, the gentiles, the Roman centurions, the sinners—who understand who Jesus is, even as his family, his disciples, and his fellow religious leaders don’t.
In most English translations, the blind beggar is identified as “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus.” Given that Bar-Timaeus means “son of Timaeus” it’s likely that this is a name and its explanation. It’s not certain what name Timaeus is, but one possible explanation is that it’s the Hebrew/Aramaic word Timai, which means “unclean.” If that’s the case, then “son of the Unclean” isn’t so much a name as an epithet. In Semitic usage, referring to someone as the “son of X”—the way that Jesus calls James and John the “sons of thunder”—is a way of saying that they embody that characteristic. If Bar-Timaeus is an epithet, it’s one that confirms that the man is an outsider.
This certainly explains why the people sought to get him to shut up rather than bother Jesus. They saw him as unworthy of Jesus’ time and attention. But it is Bartimaeus who calls out to Jesus, “Son of David!”—clearly a messianic title. He gets it. He sees who Jesus is. So much so, that when Jesus asks what he wants, he just says, “To see again, rabbi.” There’s no equivocation as happened with the father of the possessed boy earlier, who said, “If you’re able…” To Bartimaeus, Jesus is able. No question. He’d only heard that Jesus was there, but he saw clearly enough to know who he was and what he was capable of.
But even as an outsider, as a “son of the unclean,” he possesses the one thing that Jesus has demanded of his disciples: faith. Jesus tells him, “Your faith/your trust has healed you.” Bartimaeus’ trust in Jesus is so complete that it is capable of restoring sight to him—who can already see more than the others around him.
We find a similar scene in John’s gospel, when after Jesus heals a man born blind, he tells his critics, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (John 9:41 NRSV)
IV. SEEING AND VISION
In the show See, there is an interesting limitation that the chieftain’s sighted children have. His son, chafing against being prevented from joining in combat, insists that his sight gives him an advantage. The chieftain provokes his son into trying to strike him and the son is stunned to discover that he can’t land a punch. His father ducks out of the way with every throw.
“Years of being sighted has led you to trust your eyes and so you move through this world clumsy and loud.” If we’re extending the metaphor that sight is knowledge, then the chieftain is accusing his son of having knowledge but not wisdom. He knows but doesn’t understand.
We see this, too, in the gospel. Peter, who has like Bartimaeus, confessed Jesus as messiah, does not understand what it means to do so. Interestingly, the first person that Jesus restores sight to doesn’t see clearly at first: people look like trees walking around. Jesus has to take a second step to give the man clear sight.
Perhaps this is our condition, too. We know enough to confess the things that Peter and Bartimaeus do. And we might even understand them better than Peter did at first. But do we truly understand? Are we really seeing?
A. The Lens
You could conclude that we’re pushing this metaphor too far, but there is something important to note in the “faith as vision” analogy.
See, we don’t see objects—we see the light that bounces off them. That sounds like a strange distinction, but if you’ve ever tried to make out colors in low light, or taken a picture of a scene in which the camera used a different light setting than your eye, you’ve seen how light changes the way we see the world.
Someone once noted that this is how love works. Just as all you really see is the light rather than the object itself, when you behold your beloved, all you really see is the love reflecting off them. The love becomes a method of seeing and shapes the way we see.
This is how faith is meant to work. Faith is like a light we shine on the world. And the light we shine helps us to see the world not as it is, perhaps, but as God intends it to be.
The light of faith helps us to see a broken world and imagine it whole. It helps us to see a world of injustice and imagine it just. The light of faith helps us to see a carpenter from Nazareth and know him to be our hope and salvation.
In the end, the stories of restoration of sight are not about the visual cortex of the brain or the optical nerve; they are about the heart. The openness of the heart to see God at work in the midst of a broken and hurting world.
And once again, it is Bartimaeus who provides us the model. At the end of the story we are told that after receiving his sight, Bartimaeus follows Jesus “along the way.” Now, the word translated as “way” can also be translated as “road” and that seems to be the most obvious meaning here. Jesus and his entourage are leaving Jericho and heading down the road; after his healing, Bartimaeus follows him down that road.
But “the Way” was also the oldest name for Christianity. It spoke to the Way of Discipleship that Jesus called his followers to walk. And so, in an even more profound sense, Bartimaeus doesn’t just follow Jesus down the road, he follows Jesus on the path of discipleship.
And so, we, too, gifted to see with the lens of faith, gifted to see the power of God at work in the world, gifted to see the world as God intended it to be, are called to do likewise. Having been given that sight, we get up and follow Jesus in the Way.
Mark 10:46–52 • Then they came to Jericho. As he, his disciples, and a sizable crowd were coming out of Jericho, Bar Timaeus (“son of the Unclean”), a blind beggar, was sitting along the road. 47 When he’d heard that Jeshua the Nazarene was there, he started to cry out, “Jeshua, Son of David, have pity on me.” 48 A lot of people scolded him to get him to shut up, but he shouted even more, “Son of David, have pity on me!” 49 Jeshua stopped and said, “Call him over.” They called the blind man over: “Have some courage! Get up; he’s calling you over.” 50 Getting rid of his garment, he jumped up and went to Jeshua. 51 Jeshua responded, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said, “To see again, rabbi.” 52 Jeshua said, “Go—your trust has healed you.” Right away, the man could see again and he started following Jeshua along the way.