Rector, Casey Shobe Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe, D.Min.
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
October 28, 2018
Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 25

Bartimaeus and Bananas

Texts:

A few years ago, I read about a scientific experiment involving four monkeys and some bananas at the top of a pole in their cage. [1] At first the monkeys competed against each other for the bananas, and the strongest ones got the most. The weaker ones had to find strategic times to get their bananas, but all of the monkeys were eventually able to eat.

  • Then the scientists changed the environment by putting a pail of water at the top of the pole. Every time a monkey tried to climb the pole, it got doused with water and was unable to reach the bananas. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for all four monkeys to stop going after the bananas.
  • Then the scientists took the pail of water away, but the monkeys, having learned from experience, didn’t attempt to climb the pole to get to the bananas. They had learned to not even try.
  • Then the scientists replaced one of the original monkeys with a new monkey. The new one saw the bananas and immediately started climbing for them, but the three original monkeys grabbed the newcomer by the tail, yanked his feet and pulled him down. They were trying to protect him from being doused by water, even though the pail wasn’t even there any longer.

Over time, the scientists replaced all four of the original monkeys with a new monkey. And then a second and third time. Gradually several generations of monkeys entered the cage with the bananas at the top of the pole. For a while, there was more tail pulling and leg yanking—attempts to protect one another from the phantom bucket of water. But over a few generations, however, an interesting phenomenon occurred: the newest monkeys crawled into the room, stared at the bananas, but never even tried to climb the pole. No competing. No water. No tail pulling. No leg yanking.

So palpable was the spirit of defeat in the enclosure that they didn’t even bother.

I don’t know about you, but I have met people who remind of those monkeys. Some of them are so used to getting defeated, being hurt, having their hopes or their plans crushed, that they have just stopped trying. But others are only distantly acquainted with that sort of discouragement, and yet, they seem to lack any aspiration to know something better or different. A spirit of defeat has gotten into their souls like a virus, and they, in turn, spread that defeated attitude to everyone around them. I’ve known more than a few churches like that, where they no longer even bother to go for the bananas any more, but just go along to get along, passively accepting the way things are as the way things have to be.

Which brings me to today’s gospel story. A blind beggar named Bartimaeus is hanging out on the road out of Jericho. When he hears that the wonder-working rabbi named Jesus is passing by, he starts shouting his head off to get the man’s attention. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” It’s a beautiful story with a happy ending – one of my absolute favorites in the Bible – but this week I have been focused on one particular moment, a moment that occurs before the miracle. I’m talking about the moment the crowd turns to the blind beggar Bartimaeus, who is crying out for help, and tries to shush him. It jumped out at me this week in a way it never has before, and at first, I just chalked up their efforts to silence the man to simple frustration at the commotion he must have been making. I mean, Jesus passing through was about the closest thing they’ve come to a celebrity sighting, and no one likes the obnoxious fan in the crowd who keeps you from hearing the concert.

But the more I’ve sat with this story this week, the more I’ve realized how much that crowd reminds me of the monkeys in the experiment. Jesus is passing through, but they don’t seem able to connect his presence with the possibility of anything better. The proverbial bananas are right there in front of them, but it’s almost like they’re so conditioned by the way things are – by the constancy of the challenges and brokenness and disappointments of life – that they no longer think anything else is even possible. You blind fool, this really is all there is, and all you’re doing when you try for something different is make a lot of pointless noise.

Bartimaeus must have been a remarkable person, someone who made quite an impression on the apostles and early church, because of all the miracles in the Synoptic gospels, he is the only recipient who is actually identified by name. And what makes him so remarkable is his vision – and I’m not talking about the sight Jesus helped him regain. I’m talking about his vision. One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Antoine Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Well, Bartimaeus could see better than anyone else around him – better even than the disciples, and they’d been following Jesus around for months – because his vision wasn’t dimmed by cynicism; it wasn’t clouded by resignation to the status quo. His eyes may not have worked, but he could see the possibility and promise in front of him.

Which is why he didn’t listen to the crowd as they tried to silence him. He was passionately, relentlessly hopeful, and he knew that Jesus had the power to accomplish things the rest of us couldn’t even ask or imagine. In a sense, Bartimaeus is like the monkey who broke the pattern in the experiment, who didn’t succumb to the hopelessness and despair of the others, and wouldn’t let anyone tell him there weren’t bananas to be had.

It’s all too easy to be the crowd in this story. You know, to accept as normal the way things are as the way things will always be. The news this past week has been deeply upsetting, though it feels like we’ve heard these stories before, haven’t we? Like the caravan of men, women, and children walking north from central America, fleeing the violence and desperation of their own countries to seek new, safer lives. Or the images of the famine-ravaged children in Yemen, starving because of a war whose main victims have been innocent people. Or the explosives targeting people who represent a detested political ideology. And then, of course, came the news from Pittsburgh yesterday, where a man armed with military-grade weaponry and overflowing with bigoted, politicized hatred opened fire inside a synagogue, killing 11.

The details are new, but the stories are the same. Which makes it easy to be the crowd. To be locked in cynicism. To be convinced that this is all there is. To be so exhausted from getting doused by water that we stop even trying. To decide that things are never going to get better and silence or diminish those who claim otherwise.

But that is not who we are meant to be. Disciples of Jesus Christ are called, not to be the crowd, but to be Bartimaeus. We are called to follow the example of that amazing blind beggar from Jericho, whose faith made him well. We are called to see the world through the eyes of our hearts, and imagine a different possibility, a different reality than the one we are faced with today – to see it so clearly, and desire it so deeply that, like Bartimaeus, we will leap at the chance to lay hold of it, working against all odds, dismissing the voices that would stifle us. The eyes in our heads might see only what is cruel and callous in the world around us. But the eyes of our hearts can and must see the world as God intends it to be.

Yes, the world is full of buckets of water, but we are called to go after the bananas anyway. To keep climbing the pole even everyone around us has given up. And the world still has plenty of cynical crowds, but we are called to follow in the footsteps of blind Bartimaeus: to keep crying out even when others tell us to be quiet; to walk the way of love, rather than the road of hate; to be relentlessly hopeful in the face of overwhelming odds; and to spring up when Jesus calls our name, no matter what others may say, because, just like Bartimaeus, he’s asking us what we want, and his mercy and our faith will make us whole.

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[1] For this section on the monkey experiment I am indebted to L. Gregory Jones’ article “Monkey Business” from The Christian Century, September 9, 2008. Jones credits Kevin Forde’s book Transforming Church, David C. Cook Publishing, 2008.