Homily from the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year B
The healing of blind Bartimaeus is one of my all-time favorite passages from the Gospels. Not just because it’s a great story about a miraculous healing. But because of (and forgive what might sound like technical analysis) it’s structure.
At the time of the writing of the Gospels, the structure of a story, the deliberate placement of sentences in a particular way, was much more significant than it is today. Today, when someone writes a story, the meaning of the story is conveyed mostly in simply what the sentences say. However, 2,000 years ago, the meaning of a story was conveyed just as much as when, and in what order, the sentences were said.
There’s a particular structural device the authors of Sacred Scripture would use in telling a story to draw attention to the most important point, the central idea of the story. It’s called a chiasm. A chiasm is a literary device where sentences or clauses are arranged in a mirror-like structure. Basically, the first half of the chiasm reads in a particular order, then the second half of the chiasm reads in the opposite order.
Perhaps I can best explain this with an example well known in American culture. There’s a chiasm you all know by heart, the most famous words ever spoken by President John F. Kennedy at his Inaugural Address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” You could call this a 4 part chiasm:
- Part 1 is “Ask not what your country”
- Part 2 is “can do for you,”
- Part 3 is “ask what you”
- Part 4 is “can do for your country.”
Do you see how Part 1 mirrors Part 4 and Part 2 mirrors Part 3? This is why this device is called a chiasm. It’s named after the Greek letter “Chi” which looks like our “X” and you could diagram the structure like an “X.”
Another well known chiasm-filled story is “Green Eggs and Ham” by Dr. Seuss. Listen carefully to this 6-part chiasm. We read forward in the the first three steps:
- Part 1: “I do not like them, Sam-I-am”
- Part 2: “I do not like green eggs and ham.”
- Part 3: “Would you like them here or there?
Then we read backward in the next three steps:
- Part 4: “I would not like them here or there. I would not like them anywhere.”
- Part 5: “I do not like green eggs and ham.”
- Part 6: “I do not like them, Sam-I am.”
Well, as I said, the Bible uses chiasms all the time. And many, many times, the Bible literally uses chiasms to point to the most important point, the central idea of the story.
Today’s Gospel is a big chiasm. Let’s take a look at it to see which sentences mirror each other and what the central, most important point of the story is. Open up your missalettes to today's Gospel.
The first step is our first sentence: “As Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus, sat by the roadside begging.” It matches the last two sentences of the passage; look near the end: and Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.
Now, as opposed to JFK’s inaugural or “Green Eggs and Ham” the verses here do not mirror each other by using the exact same words. Rather, they mirror each other in that Bartimaeus has been radically changed and is now doing the opposite of what he was doing before. In the first sentence, Bartimaeus is just sitting there by the roadside. In the last sentence, Bartimaeus does the opposite: he’s up and moving, a new disciple of Jesus, following him on the way.
OK, look at the second sentence: “On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, ‘Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.’” Now look at it’s mirror verse a few sentences down: “He threw aside his cloak, sprang up and came to Jesus. Jesus said to him in reply, ‘What do you want me to do for you.” In the earlier sentence Bartimaeus is still sitting there crying out to Jesus in faith. In the later sentence Bartimaeus does the opposite: he springs up and goes to Jesus in faith.
Now, the next step: After Bartimaeus cries out “have pity on me” we read: “And many rebuked him telling him to be silent. But he kept calling out all the more, ‘Son of David, have pity on me!’” Skip the next sentence and you’ll find it’s mirror verse: “So they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.’” These two sentence illustrate very vividly the reversal of change. In the earlier sentence, the people are telling Bartimaeus to shut up. In the later sentence, all of a sudden they’re doing the opposite, they’re encouraging him, “Take courage; get up.”
Why? Why all this change? Why does Bartimaeus go from just sitting by the road, to walking along the way? Why does he go from calling out to Jesus, to getting up and going to Jesus? Why do the people stop on a dime and do a complete 180, going from telling Bartimaeus to shut up, to encouraging him? The center verse of this passage tells us the reason why?
“Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’” Jesus is the center of this Gospel story. He is the center of the reversal of all behavior in this Gospel passage. Likewise, Jesus must be the center of the story of our lives. And he is the center of the reversal of our less-desirable behavior.
Jesus is constantly walking down the road of our lives. And he is constantly stopping to call to us just as he called to Bartimaeus. When he does, on which side of this story do you want to be? Do you want to be spiritually blind or do you want to have spiritual sight? Do you want to sit by the road or do you want to get up and follow Jesus? Do you want to discourage the faith of others or do you want to encourage them to meet Christ?
The Eucharist we are about to receive is the same Christ who effected all the change we heard in this Gospel? The Eucharistic Christ must be the center of our lives just as he is the center of this Gospel. This Eucharist is the great chiasm of our lives. Our lives build up to this point, aiming at the Eucharist, the summit of our lives. And our lives proceed from this Eucharist, the source of our lives. How will this Eucharist change us today?