Whatever end of the political spectrum you’re on, and regardless of your opinion of the Reagan Era, you have to admit that Reagan gave some pretty good speeches. One of his best remembered lines is from the speech he gave in 1987 in West Berlin. Reagan gave this speech in front of the Berlin Wall, which confined West Berlin within Communist East Germany, nearly cutting it off from the western world. There in front of the Brandenburg Gate, Raegan uttered those famous words: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
I’ve been thinking about walls this week as I reflected on our Gospel passage for today. There aren’t any physical walls in the story. But, its setting is the outskirts of the city of Jericho, and Jericho is famous for its walls—walls that came tumbling down. You remember the story. Joshua had led the Israelites across the Jordan into the Promised Land. They were encamped outside Jericho—a well-fortified city, encircled by walls. The book of Joshua tells us that Jericho was “shut up inside and out because of the Israelites; no one came out and no one went in.” But, the Lord spoke to Joshua and gave him instructions about how to destroy those seemingly indestructible walls. After some marching, some horn-blowing, and some shouting, the walls of Jericho came tumbling down.
Walls are designed to do two things—to keep things in and to keep things out. Most often those “things” are people. The walls we build aren’t made simply of stones or bricks or concrete. They’re also built of fear and ignorance, insecurity and pain. Whatever they’re made of, the walls in our lives, both the ones we build and the ones others build around us, keep us from being all God has created us to be. They prevent us from connecting with others in God-honoring, kingdom-building ways. That’s the bad news.
But here’s the good news: Jesus is in the wall-tumbling business. At every turn, he breaks down barriers. Jesus dismantles walls that keep people shut out, shut in, and shut up. The question for us is, what walls can Jesus dismantle for us?
Blindness built the walls around Bartimaeus. The physical fact of blindness in that time and place imposed all kinds of barriers. Making a living was practically impossible; blind beggars were as common a sight along ancient roads as the homeless are along our streets today. There was no Braille. There were no rules that made the world safe for blind people, although Scripture does forbid intentionally giving a blind person bad directions or placing an obstacle where they’ll trip over it.
There were other walls, too—walls that society erected, walls that even had their roots in religious tradition. You couldn’t be a priest if you were blind. Blindness made you ritually unclean, so it affected your ability to worship. Blindness was thought to be a punishment for sin, imposed by God. Blindness was so stigmatizing that blind animals couldn’t even be offered for sacrifice.
The blind were thought to be weak and helpless. Blindness was not only a physical condition, but also a metaphor for an inability to understand the truth. Even Jesus spoke of those who could not or would not grasp the truth of his identity as “blind.” Not being able to see was hard enough, but the blind also had to deal with a society that saw their condition as a symbol of ignorance, foolishness, and sinfulness.
The blind were separated from all aspects of community life—economic, social, and religious. But I wonder if blind Bartimaeus hadn’t built some walls of his own. If you’re always being told you’re not wanted, you’re not good enough, you’re “less than” in so many ways, it’s natural to start building some defenses. You need to put up some walls of your own to keep out those who can hurt you. You put up walls of indifference to keep from caring too much about the places you can’t go, the things you can’t do, the groups you can’t be part of. Maybe during those long days along the side of the road, Bartimaeus had built some defensive walls around himself.
But then, something happened on that road leading out of Jericho. Bartimaeus must have sensed that something major was happening. Maybe he could feel the vibrations of more footsteps on the road. Maybe he noticed that he was breathing in more than the usual amount of dust kicked up by passers-by. Maybe he heard the loud, excited voices.
Around him, he hears people talking about Jesus of Nazareth. Did someone tell him who Jesus was? Did someone tell Bartimaeus that Jesus had healed another blind man? Or were the spiritual eyes of this physically blind man so wide open that he could see what others could not—that Jesus was the Son of David, the expected Messiah? We don’t know.
But we do know that Bartimaeus did more than simply hold out his hand, hoping for some extra coins from a larger-than-average crowd. He did more than hide behind the walls that protected him from the disparaging attitudes of those who passed by. He began to shout, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Many of the people in the crowd tried to force him back behind the walls, sternly ordering him to be quiet. But Bartimaeus must have sensed that the walls between him and the world weren’t as impenetrable as they looked. He refused to be quiet. He wouldn’t shut up. He cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And, wonder of wonders, Jesus not only heard him but stood still. Jesus heard him, and saw him, and called him over.
Something in the crowd began to change. The wall between them and the blind beggar began to crumble. Maybe for the first time they, like Jesus, could see over the walls that separated them. Maybe for the first time, they saw more than a blind beggar—they saw a man like themselves, a man who wanted the same things they wanted, a man who wanted to be loved, and productive, and included. Their demands that he shut up became encouragement to get up.
Bartimaeus got up, but not timidly, not like someone used to rejection. Not fearfully, like someone accustomed to being seen as a symbol of everything undesirable. Not defiantly, like someone prepared to fend off expected insults. He sprang up. He threw off his cloak, so nothing could get in the way of his getting to Jesus. And Jesus healed him.
All of us know what it’s like to live with walls in our lives. Some of them are built by others. Some we build ourselves. Like Bartimaeus, we may have physical limitations that wall us off from the places we want to go or the activities we want participate in. They shut us out of the livelihoods we’ve depended on or keep us from living in the house we love. They prevent us from thinking clearly, speaking clearly, seeing clearly, or hearing clearly, shutting us out of conversations and fellowship.
But there are other walls in our lives. The wall that keeps you at arm’s length from the people you love. The wall that keeps you from being truly accepted by those around you. Is it what you wear, how much you weigh, where you work, or where you live? Are you too old or not old enough, too attractive or not attractive enough, too religious or not religious enough? These walls are hard to see, but they are plastered with signs that say, “Your kind is not welcome here,” whatever “your kind” is.
These walls are built on disregard and disrespect, disdain and dismissal. Our spouse still wears a wedding ring but shuts us out of the intimacy we once enjoyed. We have our jobs, but deserved promotions don’t come our way and our co-workers exclude us from coffee break conversations. We have ideas and opinions to contribute, but we are ignored. These walls shut us out of relationships and opportunities that we long for.
When we feel under attack, we start reinforcing the walls from the inside. We build them to keep other people from hurting us. We strengthen them so we’ll be safe inside, protected from the slings and arrows others throw at us. Those we fear will be kept safely in their place outside. Like the residents of Jericho, we harden the perimeter, batten down the hatches and make sure everything is shut up, inside and out, so no one can come out or go in. But that day on the road leading out of Jericho, Jesus showed us that the walls built on our brokenness can themselves be broken down.
When we, like Bartimaeus, call out to Jesus, he will hear us. His saving love calls us to his side. When we place our trust in Jesus, we will find healing and freedom there. The world may continue to build its walls and try to keep us behind them. But, when he gives us his Spirit, walls of powerlessness can’t confine us. When we know that we are absolutely and unconditionally loved by him, walls of rejection can’t defeat us. When we are filled with his mercy and his justice, walls of intimidation can’t contain us. When we put our lives into his hands, walls built of loneliness and uncertainty and fear come tumbling down.
But, Jesus doesn’t break down the walls without our help. We have to participate in the demolition process. Jesus calls us, but we have to respond. We need to be ready and willing to identify the walls around us and ask Jesus to tear down those walls.
As Bartimaeus stood before Jesus, Jesus asked him a question which may seem kind of strange: “What do you want me to do for you?” Why would he ask that question? Isn’t the answer pretty obvious? Bartimaeus does give the answer we would expect: “Let me see again.” Sometimes our pleas to Jesus might be just as obvious. But Jesus gives us the chance to name our brokenness—to name the deepest needs of our hearts.
Jesus knows what walls need to come down in our lives. But he also knows that we need to name those walls ourselves. We need to have a clear understanding of what is keeping us out, holding us back, or shutting us in. We may ask for the healing of relationships, when what we really need is a change in our own hearts. We may ask for physical healing, when what we really need is a greater capacity for trust in God. We may ask for greater acceptance by our peers, when what we really need is a greater acceptance of our peers. Jesus knows that we need to be able to honestly answer him when he asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Because only then will we be able to embrace our new-found freedom as the walls come tumbling down.
Jesus’ breaking down our walls moves us to respond. Bartimaeus’ response was to follow Jesus on the way. When the walls around us come tumbling down, we have the opportunity to follow Jesus—to live the way he lived, and to love the way he loved.
But we also hear the word Jesus spoke to Bartimaeus: “Go.” We are a sent people. When Jesus tears down the walls, he expects us, too, to go—to go and do some demolition work ourselves. We are to tear down the walls that deprive the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and the naked of the basic necessities of life. We are to tear down the walls that shut in and shut out the imprisoned and the stranger. We are to tear down the walls built on “isms” and phobias: racism, sexism, age-ism; xenophobia, homophobia, and all the rest.
We are to tear down the walls that Paul described: the ones between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, and all the divisions we human beings manage to come up with: between conservative and liberal, urban and rural, rich and poor, between nationalities, religions, and cultures. This is especially important to remember today, in the aftermath of te hatred-fueled mailing of pipe bombs and the shootings in the Pittsburgh synagogue, amidst a campaign that reeks of incivility. As we follow Jesus’ command to “go,” we will never face a shortage of walls to march around until they too tumble to the ground.
Jesus spent his entire earthly life breaking down walls. He spoke with both men and women as his equals. He ate and drank with the in-crowd and with the social rejects. He invited both rich and poor to follow him. He touched the bodies and minds of those with obvious illness and disability, and he touched the hearts of the apparently healthy and able. On the cross he continued to break down walls, offering acceptance to the condemned and forgiveness to those who condemned him. After the resurrection, he broke down walls by offering reconciliation to Peter, who had denied him.
He continues that work in us. He offers us the forgiveness and acceptance that breaks down walls, between us and God, and between us and others. He breaks down the walls, allowing light to flood in where the walls once cast their shadows. Wholeness replaces brokenness. Peace replaces division. Confidence replaces fear. By the power of his Spirit in us, we can confidently pray the words of our hymn: “Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away. Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day!” Jesus’ earthly ministry was a wall-breaking ministry, and that ministry is not over, for him or for us. Jesus stands ready with healing and wholeness and freedom in his hands, waiting to hear us say, “Jesus, tear down this wall.” Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young