By Mark Michael
“We grope for the wall like the blind, we grope like those who have no eyes … For our transgressions are multiplied before thee, and our sins testify against us; for our transgressions are with us, and we know our iniquities.” Isaiah 59:10, 12
It was the night before Halloween, and we should have been peeling apples. I was eight and had gone along with my grandmother to peel apples in my great-aunt’s basement with lots of uncles, aunts, and cousins for our family’s annual apple butter boil. As I said, I should have been peeling apples, but instead I was lying on my belly under Auntie Doll’s front hedge with my cousin Mary Beth and Doug Walker, the coolest kid in the fourth grade.
We had a pile of freshly fallen acorns in front of us and we were scouting out the headlights moving along Big Pool Road. We really should have been peeling apples. Doug threw an acorn as hard as he could at an approaching car, hit it right on the driver’s side window, but the car kept moving. Mary Beth threw an acorn at the next one, then another one. Every time we heard that ping we fell into peals of laughter. It was the coolest thing we’d ever seen.
Then it was my turn. The truck was moving a little slower, and I rose up and whizzed the acorn through the air—bull’s eye! Right on the windshield! And then we heard the horn blow, and the brakes screech, and we took off as fast as we could, running down across the yard, through the garden, down into the cow pasture. We laid down in a wet clump of weeds next to the fence. We could hear the man’s yelling from our hiding place, his shouting at the people who came to the door of Auntie Doll’s house, and my heart was pounding in my chest.
And all of a sudden, it came over me, a fear of sorts, a disgust at what I had done. What was funny a moment before now seemed terribly serious. I started crying, and Doug told me to shut up, but not so loudly. I could tell that he wasn’t feeling quite right about things either. I was a little afraid of getting in trouble, like when I pummeled one of my brothers, but this felt much worse.
I felt as if I had broken some kind of deep code, that I would be forever marked as a criminal, that somehow when people saw me from now on, they would be thinking, “There goes that Mark Michael—he may look like a nice boy, but really, he’s a hooligan.” “Damn hooligans,” that’s what Dad called those teenagers who busted in the mailbox every fall. Now I was one of them. I felt like I had disappointed my family and everyone else I know. I was convinced that I had done the worst possible thing in the world.
We lay on our bellies for what seemed like hours until Mary Beth guessed it was safe to come out. We walked back into the basement and I found my grandmother, but I wouldn’t look her in the eye. I don’t know if she ever told my parents. I was never punished by anyone, but the whole incident tortured me for weeks. Finally, I confessed it all, with a few tears, to my Sunday school teacher. He told me to tell God that I was sorry, and that would be enough, that God would forgive me and give me a new start. I can still remember what it felt like to get that off my chest. I don’t know if I’ve felt that relieved since.
My misadventure under Auntie Doll’s hedge is my first memory of sin. It was a term I knew at the time, my Sunday school teacher made sure of that, but it wasn’t something that I had really understood at the heart of my being. I knew pretty clearly at eight that right and wrong were different, and that wrongdoing usually brought punishment. But sin is wrongdoing made personal, and until that night at Auntie Doll’s, I hadn’t grasped the way that evil could affect the whole of my life. It scared and shamed and disgusted me—made me feel like a stranger to myself.
For the first time I can remember, I was genuinely sorry—full of sorrow for what I had done—the technical term is contrite. Throwing those acorns broke open my heart, and opened up in me a longing for healing, restoration and forgiveness. This was the first time I ever experienced what the moral theologians call a “sense of sin”—a deep understanding that our evildoing really matters, that it’s not just “no big deal.” There I recognized that evil changes us, and that only God’s mercy can really fix us.
The prophet Isaiah describes a similar moment happening among the people of Israel, a recognition that they have sinned, and a turning to God for mercy. Most scholars think that this passage is part of the third section of Isaiah, a prophecy meant for the people who had returned from exile in Babylon. There had been great hopes for that generation of returners. Isaiah’s second section was addressed to them, and sings the praises of this exciting time of new beginnings, and the hope that they would recognize God’s power and mercy, and would live differently from their ancestors.
But things clearly hadn’t changed very much. The people were redeemed, freed from their oppressors, but they weren’t converted. They were just as unjust as before, just as untruthful in their speech, just as quick to oppress the poor, just as tempted to give up on God and run after idols. It was as if the whole miracle of the return from exile had been a bit of a bust, spiritually speaking. Isaiah describes the people as blind: “we grope for the wall like the blind, we grope like those who have no eyes, we stumble at noon as in the twilight.” The metaphor is no accident—those optimistic prophecies of a generation before sometimes talked about how those who returned from exile would have their eyes opened by God, they would be able to see and know him unlike they had ever done before. And those prophecies, apparently, had missed the mark badly in this new generation.
Why are the people blind, why are they so far from God and his purpose for them? It’s not God’s fault, Isaiah stressed—it’s not that his hand is too short to reach them, or that his ear won’t listen to their needs. “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,” he says, “your sins have hid his face from you.” The blindness that has fallen over the Israelites is an indifference to their own wrongdoing, a failure to recognize their sin. We don’t always toe the line fully, they tell themselves, we have some problems in our society. But they won’t recognize their own part in the evil of the world, they won’t let their heart be broken open so they can weep for their sin.
You might have noticed when the passage was read, though, that there is a shift partway through. The focus turns from God’s denunciation of the people’s blindness to a recognition, at least among a few of them, of the real roots of the problem. “Our sins testify against us, we know our iniquities: transgressing and denying the Lord, and turning from following our God.” Among some of the people, there is a kind of awakening, a brushing away of the cobwebs so they can start to see more clearly.
The sense of sin is starting to dawn for them, and the door to God’s merciful embrace is cracked open just a little. Sadly, for Isaiah, it isn’t enough. God still must return to fix things. Too few of the people will be able to see the light, and perhaps their response will be too half-hearted. God must come down as a warrior to set things right, to judge the wicked, and perhaps, we hope, to open a few more eyes, so that people might own their sin, and turn to him for mercy.
The people who designed our lectionary have chosen wisely to match this lesson from Isaiah with the story of the healing of Bartimaeus. The healing of this blind beggar isn’t just another miracle story. Mark has clearly designed it to mean a bit more than it says. Bartimaeus begs Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me”—forgive me, he means, heal me of all my blindness, physical and spiritual. Help me to see myself and to see you in the clear light of truth. And when Jesus does heal him, his commendation is clear—“your faith has saved you.”
This isn’t just the story of one blind man, it’s the story of every sinner who turns to God for help. It’s my story, the one about the acorns and the breathless confession to my Sunday school teacher, and it’s the story I have acted out so often since then, as we all do when we live by the help of God’s grace. God invites us to see ourselves like Bartimaeus, blinded by our sin, sorry and helpless, completely unable to fix ourselves. He invites us to turn to him for the healing he alone can provide. “Lord, have mercy” is our cry and the voice returns—“your faith has saved you.”
For me, at least, there have been few greater blessings in the moral life than a strong sense of sin. It didn’t prevent me from doing things that were much worse than acorn throwing, though since that night in Auntie Doll’s backyard, I’ve only threatened moving vehicles from behind the wheel. The sense of sin helps us to be more watchful over our thoughts and actions, to realize that bad choices will always effect everything else.
Though we often ignore its pleadings, our sense of sin challenges us as well. Something we might have done without a thought in the past will give us pause when we heed the sense of sin. It fine-tunes our conscience, helps us to hear the truth more clearly. God uses it to open our eyes more and more each day, to wipe away a bit more of the film that keeps us from really seeing the truth. I’m sure that psychologists must be right when they say that the sense of sin can sometimes be damaging, that it can trap people in guilt and anxiety. For me, though, the sense of sin has been deeply liberating. It throws me back time and time again upon God’s mercy and love, sets me free to rise up and go in peace.
Today, when we make our confessions to God, we will set aside a little more time than usual to look over our lives and see where we have turned away from God, where our transgressions cry out to him. Ask God to open your eyes a bit more, to let you see yourself a bit more clearly. And when you cry out to him for mercy, know that he will answer you with full forgiveness and healing. He still opens the eyes of the blind and gives new life to those who ask him for help.
The Rev. Mark Michael is rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Md., and editor of The Living Church.