Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

As age catches up with me, my eyes aren’t functioning quite the way I’d like them to. First, floaters burst in upon my field of vision, casting large shadows upon my retina—initially only in one eye, then also the other. Over time they dissipated into grayish cobwebs, slightly ameliorating the annoyance. Next, the optometrist informed me both of my eyes have cataracts. She kindly referred me to an ophthalmologist, who offered additional bad news: Blocked tear ducts had resulted in dry eyes, which in turn had caused a slight tear in my left eye, leaving a permanent scar.

What’s more, the ophthalmologist said, you have a condition called Fuchs’ endothelial dystrophy (FED). I went home and looked it up: It turns out to be a genetic condition that causes swelling of the cornea, blurs one’s vision, and sometimes leads to complete blindness. It looks like I’ll become a regular at the eye doctor.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion: Blindness is a problem, healing is a blessing. Though I do believe this truism holds, I also think a major caveat is required. Three vignettes may illustrate why.

First, Plato’s cave. Remember the story Socrates recounts in book 7 of The Republic. Prisoners tied up from childhood stare at the end of the cave. Puppets, held up over a low wall situated behind the prisoners, cast their shadows upon the end of the cave in the light from a fire that burns some distance behind the low wall. The prisoners mistake the shadows for reality. When one of them is untied and can move about, his perception becomes progressively adjusted to the truth of reality: First his eyes hurt as he looks at the fire, then he walks out of the cave into the light, and finally he looks straight into the sun. The prisoner has been healed. Blindness was his problem, healing is his blessing.

But imagine, says Socrates, the man turning back into the cave and suggesting to his fellow prisoners that he untie them so as to show them reality. Rather than face it, they would dispose of the messenger. Socrates knows (and experienced) the trouble with restoration of sight. It may lead to your death.

Second, Blind Bartimaeus. In Mark’s Gospel, the healing happens right before the Triumphal Entry. It is actually the second healing from blindness. The first occurs back in chapter 8:22–26, where Jesus spits on the eyes of a blind man from Bethsaida and twice lays his hands on them. The two stories are bookends, and as a result the entire section (8:22–10:52) is about healing from blindness—especially the spiritual blindness of the disciples and us.

Three times in this section, Jesus tells his disciples he is about to suffer, be killed, and then rise from the dead. The first time, Peter rebukes him (8:33). The second time, the disciples start debating which of them is the greatest (9:34). The third time, James and John ask to be sitting at his right and his left in glory (10:37). The disciples have eyes, but they fail to see (cf. 8:18). They are blind to the cruciform shape of the road ahead.

When Jesus comes by, Bartimaeus is sitting by the side of the road (hodos; 10:46). Once Jesus has saved him, he gets up and follows Jesus on the road (hodos; 10:52). Blindness was his problem, healing is his blessing.

The remarkable healing takes place as Jesus leaves Jericho and heads for Jerusalem. The three passion predictions are about to come true. Blind Bartimaeus, unlike the disciples, experiences healing—salvation. His eyes have been opened to the great good of believing in the Son of David, even if it involves suffering and death. As a result, he now clearly discerns the road (hodos) ahead as a via dolorosa. He has been healed for a purpose, namely, to suffer with Jesus.

Third, COVID-19. We all long to be healed—or to avoid catching the virus. We anxiously seek measures to hang on to life. Sickness is the problem, vaccination the blessing. True, vaccination has saved many lives. But am I wrong in thinking that we have come to view sickness (and death) as the ultimate problem, and vaccination (and physical healing) as the ultimate solution?

Physical health is a great good. But it is neither the only nor the ultimate good. Both Socrates and Bartimaeus were prepared to give up everything, including their lives if need be. Both knew that recovery of sight would put them on the road of suffering and death. Both knew there is no greater good than the embrace of truth itself, even if it leads to suffering and death—cruciformity, New Testament scholars would call it.

We might think blindness is at issue only in the first two vignettes. I am not so sure. The coronavirus does cause physical sickness and death—but its most serious effect may be spiritual blindness.

Obsessive cultural fear of physical suffering and death has blinded and immobilized us, like prisoners staring at the end of the cave. We have let elderly parents languish alone in care homes for multiple months on end; we have willingly shied away from the communal worship of God to which we are called; we are in the process of putting many thousands of people out of a job for refusing compliance; and we are about to force vaccination even upon children, who have no need of such a protective shield, solely for the purpose of making ours impenetrable—all because we have made physical health our ultimate good. 

I suspect our blindness is more like that of Plato’s prisoners than that of Bartimaeus: Bartimaeus was aware of his miserable condition and cried out for restoration of sight. Our cultural blindness is like that of the prisoners in Plato’s cave: Blind to our blindness, nothing infuriates us more than people questioning our ability to see. This fury comes to the fore whenever someone points out that something is amiss with today’s myopic focus on the virus's physical effects. Anyone questioning this cultural short-sightedness is censured, cancelled, and silenced.

Eagle-eyed Socrates and Bartimaeus both knew better than Jesus’s disciples where the blind lead those who are cured. Unlike the disciples, Socrates and Bartimaeus didn’t need three passion predictions to realize that suffering is in store both for Christ and for us.

We must recognize that our culture’s pursuit of comfort and health above all else is the antithesis of the redemptive mission of our Lord. For Christians, nothing is greater than the unambiguous embrace of truth and faithfulness—the kind demonstrated both by Socrates and Bartimaeus—which in today’s culture is likely to put us on our own via dolorosa. We must be fearless at the prospect. After all, it is through cruciformity that we share in the redemptive mission of our Lord.

Jesus asked Bartimaeus what he wanted from him. The blind man said: “Master, let me receive my sight.” Watch what you ask for. For it is people whom Jesus has given sight that are about to get martyred.

Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles