88- AT THE GATEWAY OF JERICHO

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In the middle of the desert of Judea, in the valley of the Jordan, Jericho lies like a green, circular tapestry, the city of roses and palm trees, the oldest city in our country…..

Bartimaeus: Thank you, countrywoman! God give you joy for this dinarius….!

A Woman: Say that again! We all need to be happy! Go home, Bartimaeus, and buy yourself something to eat….

Bartimaeus: No, madam. I’d rather stay here. There’s nothing in my house. A lot of people pass this way. I don’t get to see their faces, but…. I smell their joys and sorrows…. and that’s living! Please, please, I’d like to stay here….

At the gateway of Jericho, along the wide and dusty road that leads to Jerusalem, blind Bartimaeus was seated, begging alms…… for many years. Although his beard was spattered with white hair, he was not yet old. His nervous hands clasped a greasy well-worn cane…

Woman: Well, countryman, God bless you!

Bartimaeus: May God’s twelve angels guide you, madam. May God reward you!

Bartimaeus held the dinarius carefully and kept it in his pocket. Then he closed his unseeing eyes and began to journey in the valley of memories….

Ruth: Uff! Here is the leather, Bartimaeus… It weighs more than all the tripes of a whale…..

Bartimaeus: What do you know about whales, when you’ve never been out to sea, you dense woman?! Ha, ha! But I do know that you’re getting stouter than Jonah’s whale! Ha, ha! I can’t even carry you in my arms anymore!

Ruth: Hey, you’re tickling me! Ha, ha! C’mon, stop that ribbing now, you’ve got to cut the leather. A lot of orders are pending…..

Bartimaeus: Okay, okay….. C’mon, woman, give me a hand. Bring me the razor…

Bartimaeus had his small tanning shop in one of the the long streets of Jericho. He lived with his wife, Ruth, a cheerful and resolute woman, whom he loved even in his dreams. Months and years had passed, and Bartimaeus’ life was filled with joy, thanks to his work, the love he had and his friends…..

Bartimaeus: Ruth, bring me the needle…

Ruth: The needle? I haven’t got it…..

Bartimaeus: Neither have I….

Ruth: Let’s see, Bartimaeus, let’s see…. How disorganized you are…. Where the hell…..? But…. it’s right there on the coffee table, my gosh! Had it been a snake, it could’ve bitten you!

Bartimaeus: Where’d’ya say it was?

Ruth: There, stupid, don’t you see…?

Bartimaeus reached out his arm to the table, and groped until he found the long and thick needle he was using to sew the pieces of leather …..

Bartimaeus: Okay, okay, now I’ve got it….

Ruth: You didn’t see it before?

Bartimaeus: No, no,woman. I couldn’t see it…..

The disease spread rapidly, and in a few months Bartimaeus’ dark eyes were deprived of light forever. He couldn’t use the needle, nor cut with a razor. He had to stop working in the shop. Anguish and sorrow filled his house. Like two unwelcome guests, they became his constant companions when he was seated at the table during the day, and at night when lying beside his wife….

Bartimaeus: Ruth….. oh, Ruth…… where are you? Woman, where’ve you been, Ruth, Ruth!

A Woman Neighbor: May I come in, son?

Bartimaeus: Who are you……

Neighbor: I’m Lydia, Ruth’s “comadre”…

Bartimaeus: Where is she?…. When I woke up, she wasn’t here…. Where’s she?

Lydia: She’s gone, my son.

Bartimaeus: What do you mean?

Neighbor: Try to understand, son…. You can’t see….. and you can’t work….. She’s still young…. She has the right to be happy.

Bartimaeus: What silly things are you saying?

Neighbor: What she wanted me to tell you…. that she was going to Bethany, to her parents’ house…..

Bartimaeus: With another man….? She went with another man, didn’t she?! With someone who’s not blind like me!…. Tell me! Tell me!

Neighbor: Look, son, since you haven’t had any children….

Bartimaeus: But we love each other!….. Unless it doesn’t matter anymore.

Neighbor: Bartimaeus, try to understand…. Life has been okay with you….. but not with her….

Soon enough, Bartimaeus had to close down his shop. His blindness had left him in anguish, without his work and the love of his wife. Little by little, his friends, showing him cold compassion, had abandoned him….

Bartimaeus: This was not the life she wanted…. Not this kind of life…. What about me?…. All my little savings are gone…. What can a blind man do?…. Beg? But I’m still young and strong enough to work and… how stupid of me! The blind are a good for nothing lot!… They must be led by the hand…. If they forget their canes, then they’re no better than children… They are useless….. There’s no choice but to beg for alms, like beggars do…. I curse the day I was born! Is this why I came out of my mother’s womb? God! Why did you make me see the light, and then deprive me of it?

A few days later Bartimaeus was groping his way, with the help of a cane, through the street where the residents of Jericho and the traders from other cities passed. Seated along the border, he began to beg for alms. Later, when it was dark, he would go back to his old and solitary house. Feeling so weak for not having wanted to eat nor to talk to anyone, he would just lie down on the mat and press his dead eyes with his closed fists….

Bartimaeus: It’s always night for me…. always! It’ll always be so forever!…. How was the face of Ruth?….. How did she look? I can’t remember anymore how her eyes looked…. her lips…. I’ll never see her again….. What am I living for? Nothing! Nobody needs me and I…. need no one….. I just want to get out of this nightmare….

With too much effort, Bartimaeus stood up from his mat and began to rummage around his empty shop.

Bartimaeus: The sycamore tree at the patio…. yes….. A rope will do…. It will be difficult, but it will only be for a moment… It’s more difficult to live like this, expecting nothing… only death…. which doesn’t have to go after me…. since I’ll go seek death myself…. Yes, yes… that’ll only take a while…. and everything will be over! But where the hell is that rope? Where….? Damn it! And everyone will say: “He has gone mad”… I couldn’t care less…. No, no, I didn’t go crazy, I just became blind, which is worse…. The rope was somewhere here…. the rope…. where’s the rope…? God, where the hell is that rope?!! Did you hide it from me, God?… Or was it the devil?….. Damn the two of you!….. Can’t I even choose to hang myself?

Bartimaeus was crawling all over the shop, looking for the thick rope with which he used to bundle the bales of leather… He looked in all corners for the rope, in vain….

Bartimaeus: Damn, damn! Where’s the rope? Where?… I want to die!… I want to die!…. I want…. I want to live…. I…. I want to live…. I want….. to live.

Bartimaeus: Why hadn’t I killed myself that day?… No, it was not the devil…. Now I’m dead sure it was God who hid the rope from me… it was God who gave me the desire to live… I don’t know how you got here, Bartimaeus, old, lazy bones, after all these years of pitfalls and frustrations… But here you are, stronger than the sturdy sycamore at the patio, appreciating the fragrance of the most beautiful roses in the world… This is life, I say…. And life is worth living, good Lord…!

Boy: Goodbye, Bartimaeus! We’ll talk again next time!

Bartimaeus: Hold it, little boy…. Why the hurry?

Boy: The prophet of Galilee is leaving Jericho…!

Bartimaeus: Who, Jesus of Nazareth?

Boy: Yeah!. He’s heading this way, with lots of people! I’m gonna tell my friend to see him!

As we were leaving Jericho, many men and women of the city went out to the street to see us off….

A Woman: Long live the propet of Galilee!

A Man: Down with the Romans and the people’s oppressors!

Bartimaeus: Hey, give way and let me pass, damn it! I haven’t seen the prophet yet and I wish to see him!

An Old Woman: Jesus, when are you coming back to Jericho?

Man: We hope to see you next Passover!

Bartimaeus: I want to see the prophet!

Man: Stop yelling, you idiot!

Bartimaeus: I want to see him!

Woman: Shut up, will you, Bartimaeus!

Bartimaeus: I want to see him! I want to see him!

Man: How can you see him, when you’re blind, damn!

Bartimaeus: Then, let him see me… prophet Jesus! Jesus!

Jesus: Who’s that guy screaming, grandma?

Old Woman: This blind troublemaker here… the one in the middle…

Jesus: Give way, please… and tell him to come over…

Man: So, you got away with it, Bartimaeus… C’mon, slip through the crowd…. the prophet is asking about you……

Blind Bartimaeus, his face radiant with joy, cast his beggar’s cloak in the air, threw his cane away, and suddenly stood up, and made his way through the crowd till he was facing Jesus….

Bartimaeus: Jesus, the prophet…!!!

Jesus: Here I am. What’s your name?

Bartimaeus: Bartimaeus. I’m blind…

Jesus: Why were you shouting?… Did you want something?

Bartimaeus: Yes, if you would allow me to touch your face…

Jesus paused and closed his eyes for a moment…. Bartimaeus stretched his arms toward him and touched his wide forehead, his cheeks, his nose, the shape of his lips, his thick beard….

Bartimaeus: Thank you, prophet. They’ve been telling me a lot about you. Some say you’re ugly. Others say you’re a good man, still others say you’re this and that…. Now I know…

Jesus: How long have you been blind?

Bartimaeus: Oh, for many moons now… it’s been ten years since…

Jesus: So, you’ve been waiting for ten years…

Bartimaeus: Well, hoping and despairing… Once, I wanted to take my life. But God hid the rope from me…

Jesus: And now?

Bartimaeus: Now, I’ve learned to accept it. Life is beautiful until the hour of death. Don’t you think so?…. Well, so……

Jesus: Wait, Bartimaeus, don’t go… will you let me touch your face?

Bartimaeus: You…… touch my face? But you’re not blind….

Jesus drew near and placed his hand on the eyes of that man who never stopped smiling…

Jesus: Your hope served as your cane through all these years… You had the vision to see what matters most, Bartimaeus… and you saw it with your heart.

Bartimaeus: And… and… now I can see you… No…. this can’t be…! I can see your face, prophet! I only knew about you through hearsay, but now, I can see you with my own eyes!!

The city folks of Jericho pushed us and they shouted with all their enthusiasm. They were saying that Jesus was the Messiah, the one our people had been awaiting for many years! Bartimaeus was weeping with joy. He was with us for a long while, as we undertook our journey back to Galilee… At the gateway of Jericho, along that dusty road lay the dirty beggar’s cloak and his old cane….

*Comments*
In the middle of the desert of Judea, Jericho appears as an oasis, fertile and green. It is also known as the “city of palm trees.” The roses of Jericho were famous (Ecl 24:14) although we are not sure if these are the same flowers that we know as such at present. Some people believe that these flowers are the adelfas, which are typical in a tropical climate. Nevertheless, Jericho is an authentic green land. The so-called Fount of Elisha, watering the whole of the land, accounts for its fertility. Tradition has it that it was Elisha, the disciple prophet of the great Elijah, who had purified and enriched its otherwise saline waters (2 K 2:14-22).

The gospel hardly gives us information about the person of Bartimaeus – although it preserves his name, a detail that is less common in the scriptural/biblical history of miracles – and the cause of his blindess, etc. In this episode, Bartimaeus gives us a picture of a man about to commit suicide. His failure in life – in his work, his marital life, his friends – has been unbearable. Having been in extreme desperation and having descended to the darkest pit of helplessness, he learned to hope. The miracle performed by Jesus on his dead eyes teaches us that life always has a meaning, in spite of everything. The meaning is sometimes too obscure to discover, too difficult to comprehend. Those who have suffered a lot are aware of this – but this can only be appreciated if we give life a chance to show us what it has in store for us.

The act of suicide is very rare in the Bible. It appears only once in the entire Old Testament (2 S 17:23). Other cases would be those of the warriors who would rather die than to fall into the hands of the enemies, like what happened to Saul, the first king of Israel (1 S 31:1-6), although these deaths acquire a more distinct meaning compared to a “dispassionate” suicide. In the New Testament, the only case of suicide would be that of Judas. This is in view of the great respect for life that characterized the whole people of Israel. For the Israelites, life came from God and it belonged to him solely. The human being was destined to live, and life was always better than death. Some books of the Old Testament, marked by a certain pessimism, related that death was better than a life of sickness (Ecl 30:14-17). In any case, Israel’s people prioritized life.

There is not a single word in the Bible orienting Christian reflection on suicide. However, after knowing the attitude of Jesus and his words, it can be said that in a Christian context, there should not be any condemnation for the suicidal person. (Sometimes, especially in past years, a church burial was denied a suicide victim, as a form of posthumous punishment.) Suicide is resorted to as a consequence of desperation, fear, an extreme psychological maladjustment, etc. None of these, which can be the basis of such a dramatic decision, should be a cause for rejection or condemnation because this whole gamut of human flaws always find compassion and understanding in Jesus.

In this episode, Bartimaeus has something in common with Job, that biblical character who rebelled before God because he thought he was not deserving of his misfortunes: sickness, destruction, abandonment by friends (Job 3:1-4; 20-23; 6:2-4). At the end of the book, Job utters to God the same words that come from Bartimaeus’ lips: “I knew you only by hearsay, but now, I can see you with my own eyes…” (Job 42:5). Although we must stay away from sorrow and pain, try to avoid it, minimize it and fight it in order to become faithful to the will of the God of life, sometimes we cannot escape from it. We have to accept our own limitations. In this case, the positive acceptance of pain and sorrow, can make us more mature, more tolerant, and more understanding. In other words, we become wiser in the face of life and before God’s mystery. Pain can be a passageway to a new way of facing the reality of God. Like what happened to Job and to Bartimaeus.

(Mk 10:46-52; Lk 18:35-43)

88- AT THE GATEWAY OF JERICHO

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