Theological Education: Healing the Blind Beggar
by Walter Brueggemann
Walter Brueggermann is professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 5-12, 1986, p. 114. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found atwww.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Mark 10:46-52 records a standard healing miracle. There is a person in need who comes to Jesus. Jesus acts and the person is healed. We may be jaded enough not to believe in the story, or else so familiar with it that we don’t notice what is going on. It is, however, a story that has much to tell us about what it is that theological education should be helping the churches to do.
We should first notice that the man is described as "a blind beggar." That is an interesting juxtaposition. He has a physical ailment -- he wants his sight back -- but he is also a beggar. I wonder about the relation between his blindness and his status as a beggar. Perhaps he was blind and therefore could not get an education and could not work, and so he ended up as a beggar. Perhaps. But there are blind people who do not end up as beggars. Perhaps, because he was a beggar, he never had access to nutritious food or to health care, and so became blind. The cause-and-effect relationship between the man’s poverty and his blindness is difficult to determine. It may be enough simply to note that physical ailments often accompany poverty and powerlessness. When one quits caring and hoping for things, one often gives up on physical well-being as well.
The social location of the man looms larger in the narrative than we may at first recognize. For the story does not simply concern the blind beggar and Jesus. There is a third actor: "many of the people." They are a nameless, faceless mass. We might say that they represent public opinion or peer pressure. I do not know what they have to do with the man’s blindness, but surely they have something to do with his status as a beggar. It is in relation to them that he is a beggar. They have established the norm which categorizes him as such.
The odd action of "many of the people" draws our attention to them. The text says, "They told him to hold his tongue." They wanted the beggar silenced. The people’s effort to silence the blind beggar reflects their wish to keep him a beggar -- dependent and blind. If the man were healed, if he were to shake off his powerlessness, he would begin to demand food and care. Eventually he would enter the job market and perhaps even reclaim the patrimony that he had lost. If he were to do that, it might mean that someone else would lose status. The blind beggar’s silence, on the other hand, would ensure that the status quo would be maintained. In a similar way, in every society, powerful institutions -- churches, schools, courts, hospitals -- serve to keep people in their designated slots.
The action in the story is begun by the blind beggar: "He cried out." He turns out to know more and trust more and ask more than the people expected from a blind beggar. First, he addresses Jesus with a christological title: ‘Son of David." He knows it is "Messiah time," the time when the blind see and the poor have their debts canceled and beggars become citizens again (cf. Luke 7:22-23) Who would have thought that a blind beggar would know it was this time? Second, he dares to issue an imperative. He asks that the power of the powerful one (Jesus) be given to one who has no claim except the courage to cry out. The blind beggar names and entreats Jesus. The people rebuke him, but he asks again. He will not be dismissed. He gains his voice from his hope and belief that Jesus is the Messiah. He had waited long enough for the promises which God had made even to blind beggars. God now needs to be enjoined to keep those promises.
The people do not want to concede that it is the time for fulfillment. They have an interest in postponing that time, because it would mean sharing power with beggars and being surrounded by more people who speak out and make claims.
The beggar does not speak in vain. Jesus says, "What do you want me to do?" The beggar has been heard. The beggar’s response to Jesus is terse and unambiguous: "I want my sight back." I want to be whole. I want access to public life. If I get my eyes, I will quit this begging. I want my dependency to end. I am entitled to more. And I will have it.
Jesus’ response is quick and simple. "Go, your faith has cured you." His faith has done it. His faith is an act of hope which refuses to settle for the status quo: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1) This blind man’s only resource was things hoped for, things not seen, and such faith gave him sight. Faith is an overt act of self-assertion by which the man knows he is entitled to healing. In asserting his faith, the beggar performs an act of subversion; he violates all the conventions and steps out of his assigned role. Faith is the courage to speak, to announce for oneself a new possibility.
This emphasis on the beggar’s act may sound like auto-therapy, as if it is the beggar who heals himself. But, of course, this healing happens only with Jesus as the partner in dialogue. The narrative makes this point in a quite understated way. It is the key presence of Jesus, the name of Jesus, that evokes the hope and that gives the beggar the nerve and the occasion to speak (v. 47). The outcome, in spite of the resistant crowd, is that the beggar receives his sight. Then, we are told, "He followed him." The beggar becomes a disciple, committed to a new life of obedience. This healing does not just allow the man to do his own thing. His new health binds him to his healer.
The meaning of this healing narrative can be summarized this way:
1. The man’s illness reflects a powerlessness in society that leads to economic disadvantage and physical liability (the two tending to go together)
2. The community wishes to perpetuate the man’s powerlessness by forcing him to be silent.
3. Hope leads the man to speak out, which is an act of social subversion.
4. It is the availability of Jesus as a committed partner in dialogue that permits healing to take place. In that dialogue, there is power to transform life. And the unreported result of that transformation is that the community’s life is transformed as well.
What does all this have to do with theological education? I suggest these four points correspond directly to four crucial areas of need in theological education.
1. Theological education that promises healing and liberation must have the sociological imagination (in C. Wright Mills’s term) to see that healing is mediated through social processes and social structures. Religion is never simply about "me and Jesus." It is also never simply a matter of psychology, as if problems are just in one’s psyche or have to do only with one’s self-understanding. Blindness is related to being a beggar, and one is always a beggar in a social context. Theological education in America must overcome its sociological indifference and naïveté. A massive investment in social criticism is needed in the American church, for it is the structures of our society and institutions, wittingly or not, that define people as beggars and that render them blind. In short, theological education must teach students to read Marx as discerningly as they now read Freud.
2. Theological education that promises healing and liberation must face the fact that a key issue in healing, salvation and liberation is power. The key transaction in the healing narrative is the seizure of power by the blind beggar. The question of power has been kept off the table in recent times by a religiousness that emphasizes a personal, psychological quest for happiness, comfort or meaning. But this gospel narrative does not lie. It insists that raising the power issue and jeopardizing the power monopoly of the many are essential to the process of healing. In ministry, the issues of who has power and how it is held, shaped or monopolized are crucial. Those who are kept powerless will not be healed; they will remain beggars.
3. Theological education that promises healing and liberation must recognize that the first step in gaining power is bringing things to speech. The key turn in the narrative is when the blind beggar is able to speak of his pain. The first marvel of the story is that the beggar, rather than be silenced, cries out in pain and hope for the messianic reality.
We face a crisis of speech in our time. (I do not say "language," with which scholarship is now fascinated, for I refer here to the act of speaking, not the structure of language -- parole, not langue.) The crisis of contemporary speech is caused by the silence of those who are on the margins of society. It is also caused by speech that, warped by the modes of technology, involves an exchange of information but does not personally address another person ("Son of David") or announce something about oneself ("have mercy on me") Where there is neither address nor announcement, there will never be healing, salvation or liberation. History moves and life is transformed when the powerless get speech. We need, therefore, in all our institutions, to be asking: Who has speech? Who does the talking? Who does the decisive speaking?
Theological education has been peculiarly entrusted with the treasure of serious speech, of address and announcement. In the scriptural tradition which authorizes us, it is the speech of the poor that begins history (cf. Exod. 2:23-25) In preaching and liturgy it is the speech of the "little ones" that releases transforming energy.
4. Theological education that promises healing and liberation must be unashamedly christological. The healing narrative in Mark is clearly about Jesus. Without Jesus there would be no story to interest us, even as there would be no chance for healing. It is only in the presence of Jesus that the blind beggar is able to seize power.
In recent years we have been fascinated by the models of health defined by Freud, by Eastern religion, by technology, by philosophy. Our situation now is like that of the beggar: the other cures have failed. The cry to the Son of David is the last and only hope.
A christological focus in theological education does not mean using slogans or invoking a magical name. Rather, it refers to the disclosure of truth, given in the crucifixion and resurrection, about where the power of life comes from. The power of life does not come from the usual sources administered by society, nor from any special "gnosis" among us, but only from the news of God’s sovereignty and graciousness and in acts of self-abandonment and obedience. Our culture nurtures us in different truths and tempts us with other disclosures, but the blind beggar shows us that there is only one way to life.
Theological education, then, requires attention to all the factors that we find in the story of the blind beggar. It requires realism about social conditions; awareness of the issues of power and powerlessness; concern to allow those who have been silent to speak; and an emphasis on the centrality of Jesus. Out of all of that comes wholeness. We are not told exactly how wholeness comes, but the concluding message is: "Your faith has cured you."
We are invited by this narrative to relearn the healing process as it is given to us in evangelical faith. (I use the word "evangelical" in its proper sense as the adjectival form of "gospel," and not with all the unfortunate contemporary distortions of the term.) We need to relearn that process, for it is different from a magical conversion, and does not rely on technical solutions alone, as if it were no different from fixing a lawn mower.
Excessive fascination with technical healing is dangerous because it only increases the monopoly of power and drives beggars into deeper blindness. The hard issues in healing and in education are not technical but political.
Alternatives to technical healing which are preoccupied with the self are also to be handled gingerly, because we do not contain within us the power for life. Pastoral healing, messianic healing, has to do with the formation of a community of joy and obedience.
We are -- all of us -- blind beggars, with genuine hurts and handicaps. We are -- all of us -- part of the crowd, and we try to silence the groans of others because they are a threat to our position. All of us stammer for speech, and all of us wonder if we have the nerve to voice our hope in the Messiah. All of us imagine that we know what time it is, but we are not sure.
It is time for theological education to notice the categories of healing that are offered in Mark 10:46-52.
The issue before theological education is whether it will overcome its own vested interests and learn the healing process revealed by Jesus. Without that process, beggars will remain blind and the blind are sure to remain beggars. But new power and fresh possibility are offered wherever Jesus is Lord.