HIV/AIDS, Opioids, and The Public Health Crisis of Moral Blindness: We Need Bartimaeus
I have long held that Blind Bartimaeus is not the main character in his own story, or at least the only main character.
When we take Bartimaeus as the focus of this passage in Mark, we do receive many important lessons. We reflect on things like persistence, trust, and responding to the call of Jesus, being brave enough to walk toward him even when we can’t see where we’re going.
There’s also a deeply meaningful interpretation around the significance of Bartimaeus “throwing off his cloak,” as the text says. A beggar’s cloak was a vital part of his economic viability and daily survival, and to throw it away was a huge risk.
But I realized several years ago that there is another moving story layered under the main story in this passage.
Bartimaeus is not the only one whose life is changed irrevocably in this encounter with Jesus.
This is a conversion story, but it’s not necessarily Bartimaeus who is converted.
He already has faith in Jesus, that’s why he’s crying out for Jesus’ mercy when Jesus comes into town.
Bartimaeus knows who he’s talking to and what he is called to do. Although he may be blind physically, he has crystal clear vision spiritually.
Who is really blind in this story? Who needs conversion?
Notice where they begin. Bartimaeus is shouting at Jesus, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Then verse 48: “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly.”
The crowd wants to hush Bartimaeus up, to avoid embarrassment for their town in front of this visiting celebrity.
But Bartimaeus won’t shut up, and then, in one of my favorite verses in the Bible, we read, “Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’”
Jesus stood still.
It’s such a small, quiet action, but it changes everything.
Jesus will not allow himself to be swept along by the crowd and their misguided priorities. He stands still, and says, in what I imagine is a quiet but clear voice, “Call him here.”
And that is the moment of the crowd’s conversion.
“And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’”
Then Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and the rest of the story goes forward.
But the crowd has shifted 180 degrees, from hushing up and hiding Bartimaeus from Jesus, to urging Bartimaeus to take heart, get up, and answer Jesus’ call.
That’s phenomenal, and has so much to teach us.
Where are we trying to hide people away, get them to be quiet, keep them from embarrassing us?
Whom are we preventing from coming to Jesus?
And when do we notice Jesus standing still among us, telling us to call someone to him?
It’s worth thinking about.
I was sharing this interpretation with our 9 a.m. Adult Forum at St. Francis, and Anne Foster, one of our lay leaders, took it a step further.
In what I consider a truly brilliant exegesis, she raised her hand and said, “You know what? This reminds me of the AIDS crisis. Back then when people were getting sick and dying, and it was predominantly in the gay community, the rest of us wanted to shut them up and hide them away. But they were crying out for help. They needed healing. And we needed to change for that to happen. I doubt that our church would have gone through the journey of welcoming and integrating LGBT folks if they hadn’t stood up and cried out and demanded to be noticed like Bartimaeus.”
I thought that interpretation was fantastic, and really helped bring Bartimaeus’ story alive in our own time.
I was trying to think of an even more modern interpretation, something that’s happening in our society today, and what came to mind is the opioid crisis.
And what makes the early years of the AIDS crisis and today’s evaluation of the opioid crisis similar is that both are framed by society in moral terms.
In the early 1980s, people called AIDS the “gay cancer.”
Some people actually believed that the devastation of HIV on individuals, families, and the entire gay community was a manifestation of God’s wrath, punishing people for homosexuality.
That idea is of course ludicrous, and as HIV/AIDS began to spread beyond the LGBT community, the straight, white, middle class majority finally had to take notice and take action, out of pure self-interest if nothing else.
The same trajectory is happening now with the opioid crisis.
People view substance abuse disorder as a sin, a weakness, and a moral failing. People say addiction is a choice, the way they used to say sexual orientation was a choice.
The science says differently in both cases.
But the atmosphere of fear and contagion around both AIDS and opioid addiction has driven people to “other” those affected by them as hard and fast as possible.
Deep in our hearts, we know that any one of us could fall victim to either of these terrible diseases.
But we will take any opportunity we can find to give ourselves a false sense of security, supposedly based on our superior “choices”.
I believe the same toxic dynamic was at play between Blind Bartimaeus and his fellow townspeople. They considered him “other” both because of his blindness and his status as a beggar.
And whether they could articulate it or not, they viewed both conditions as contagious.
They wanted to hide him away to keep him from embarrassing them in front of Jesus.
But they also wanted him silent and hidden because, “out of sight, out of mind.”
If he stayed quiet and obscure, they wouldn’t be reminded of his suffering and need, suffering and need that they could alleviate if they chose to. But they don’t want the responsibility of time, money, and emotional investment.
And more than anything else, they don’t want to become like him.
I think the parallel between the early days of the AIDS epidemic and what’s happening today with the opioid crisis are all too clear.
We don’t want people to know that this kind of thing is going on in America, the richest and most openly self-congratulatory nation in the world.
And we don’t want to become like “them.”
We push away as hard as we can the possibility of disease, addiction, and their attendant suffering, poverty and death. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet.”
What we have is a public health crisis.
But it’s far more than the simple reality of an infectious disease or a substance abuse disorder.
The public health crisis happening today is exactly the same one that was happening in 1980, and exactly the same one happening in the first century in Jericho.
Our public health crisis is one of moral blindness.
It’s not Bartimaeus who was blind, it was the crowd.
And it wasn’t just Bartimaeus who needs healing and conversion, it’s us, the crowd.
We don’t know we’re blind, and we don’t know we’re sick.
We didn’t know HIV/AIDS was our problem, and some of us don’t know today that opioid addiction in our problem.
We think that if we don’t have symptoms, if we test clear for sexually transmitted infections, if we’ve never hoarded prescription pain killers or never shot heroin, it’s not our problem.
And we wish all these sick, annoying, pitiful people would just shut up and quit embarrassing us, quit awakening us to their suffering, quit reminding us that any of this could happen to us too, at any moment. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet…”
“…but he cried out even more loudly.”
The early LGBT rights activists and HIV/AIDS activists were the Blind Bartimaeus’s of their day.
They stood up and demanded to be noticed, and their efforts bore fruit in the research dollars that are saving lives even today.
Who among us is being called to be Blind Bartimaeus in the opioid crisis?
There’s not a single one of us who isn’t connected to drug addiction, whether we have struggled with it ourelves, or have watched a friend or family member be overtaken by it.
That means that any one of us could be the Bartimaeus standing up, causing a ruckus, demanding the crowd take notice and be a part of the journey of healing.
The public health crisis of moral blindness consuming us today of course extends much more broadly than just the issues of HIV/AIDS and opioid addiction.
Immigration, climate change, racism, transphobia—you name the suffering population, and we want to ignore it, up to and including the very Earth herself.
We need the two key ingredients that led to the crowd’s conversion and healing in this story from Mark: the voice crying out demanding justice, and Jesus calling us to bring the suffering to him directly.
My prayer for us is that we take Bartimaeus’ words to ourselves, admitting our deep need for healing: “My teacher, let me see again.”
Jesus’ response to us will be the same as it was to him: “Go; your faith has made you well.”
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