Bartimeus and the Backpack


My kids’ elementary school recently collected sixty backpacks for Syrian refugee children camping out on the Greek island of Lesbos. I helped sort the bags and transport them to the central depot.

Most of the backpacks were new, bought especially for the refugee children. They contained fun things like crayons, books, and small toys. They contained useful things like colorful rain ponchos and flashlights. Nearly every backpack also had toiletries: Band-Aids, toothbrushes, and fruit-flavored tubes of toothpaste.

One backpack was different from the rest. It was old, dirty, and had holes on the bottom. It contained a used toy car, an Incredible Hulk figurine with the paint fading off, and some old, worn-down coloring pencils.

It also contained an electric toothbrush, the bristles worn from use, and a sticky, half-empty tube of toothpaste.

When we asked the students and their parents to donate backpacks, we asked them to fill the bags with things they thought the refugee children would need. Looking at the contents of this particular bag, I wondered what the giver had been thinking.

Maybe he did not know about the tents in which the refugee children were living. Of course, a tent was no setting for an electric toothbrush.

Maybe, after selecting some used toys, the giver also thought that a refugee child would not mind using a used toothbrush – or the remains of an old tube of toothpaste.

Maybe, though, the giver did not think much at all.

For better or for worse, the things in this particular backpack said more about the person giving them than about the child who would receive them. Instead of reflecting the Syrian child’s needs, like most of the bags we had collected, the used electric toothbrush revealed a misshapen perspective of the giver, however positive his intention.

The conclusions we draw about other people often say more about us than they do about them.  Those issues we identify as other people’s problems, for example, are the issues we perceive to need fixing and sometimes even, our assistance.  Yet those other people might not necessarily recognize themselves in our view of them, much less in our solutions for them.

A biblical story recounts the moment that Christ meets Bartimeus, begging on the side of the road. Bartimeus sits on the margins of his community because of his disability: his blindness. As a permanent cripple, he has no social worth. His blindness defines him completely, because the community has decided he is worthless.

Yet when Bartimeus draws the attention of Jesus, Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

What an amazing question. Is the answer not obvious to the rest of us?  The blindness of Bartimeus is the root of his misery. Yet Jesus still asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Unlike the community, however, Jesus does not define Bartimeus by his blindness. He does not see a man with a shortcoming. He does not even frame Bartimeus within personal conventions, thinking, ‘Oh, look, another cripple who wants me to fix him.’

Jesus does not decide, with the rest of the community, that Bartimeus’ biggest problem is his disability. Instead, he gives the outcast a clean slate.

By asking him first, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus allows for the possibility that Bartimeus might be someone beyond the blind beggar – someone who might have other requests than healing. Christ sees a whole person, of whom blindness is a singular characteristic and not even a situation that necessarily needs fixing. He sees him as whole.

Jesus’ question, then, is the greatest gift he gives to Bartimeus. His question to Bartimeus is a bigger gift than the healing about to take place.

Most of us do not possess the power to heal others miraculously. That is great news. It gives us the opportunity to practice ‘meeting Bartimeus’ – in the people in our own daily lives – and seeing him as whole, without being able to fix him.

It gives us the opportunity to examine ourselves, too. What conclusions do we draw about the people we meet? What does our way of looking at them say about us?

What would happen if we practiced seeing others as whole?

We might see them as radiant and holy. We might see them beyond their shortcomings – and our own.

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