Knowing Our Needs
Scripture - Mark 10:46-52
It took some weeks of persuasion before they came to see me. The adult son was desperate to get his ailing & depressed mother into some kind of a home where she would be properly cared for. As long as she lived with him he could not do his own work or have any private life. She swamped him with demands for help & attention. I guess, having gone through this exercise myself, they came to me as experienced, not necessarily an expert. At least, I hope that was their impression.
We looked at several options. There were small communities, & large communities, nursing homes, & senior housing. Any of them could have been real possibilities. The mother, though, saw some flaw in each of them which became, to her, fatal. None of them would do. After an hour she turned to her son with triumph gleaming in her eyes. “See!” she said, “He could not do anything for us!”
But the truth was that she did not want anyone to do anything for her. She wanted to go on being a victim, putting pressure on her son - & everyone else in sight – to feel sorry for her.
Jesus’ question to Bartimaeus addresses exactly that possibility. What do you want me to do for you? Do you, Bartimaeus, want to give up begging? Do you want to have to live differently, to work for a living, to have no reason to sit by the roadside all day whining at passers-by? It is quite a challenge, that little question. And Bartimaeus rises to the challenge splendidly. He wants a new life; not only sight, but the chance to follow Jesus. Imagine seeing for the first time in many years & imagine that the first thing you saw was Jesus on his way up to Jerusalem!
Mark is quite clear: Bartimaeus is a model to imitate. Unlike the disciples, who had not really understood what Jesus was about, he is already a man of faith, courage & true discipleship. He recognizes who Jesus is – he calls him Son of David after all. He clearly believes Jesus can help him – he is told your faith has healed you. He leaves his begging – his cloak would be spread on the ground to collect the money. And he follows Jesus on the way – the way was the early Christian’s word for what we call Christianity.
He makes a stark contrast with the disciples. Remember how, when Jesus said to James & John, “What do you want me to do for you?”, all he got was a request for power, prestige, & glory? As with the blind man in chapter 8, the healing of Bartimaeus is a sign that Jesus is trying to open the disciples’ eyes, this time not just to see him as Messiah but as the one who would give his life to bring salvation to all.
When Jesus says your faith has saved you, the word saved refers once again to physical healing. For any early Christian, though, it would carry a wider & deeper meaning as well. The different dimensions of salvation were not sharply distinguished either by Jesus or by the gospel writers. God’s rescue of people from what we think of as physical ailments on the one hand & spiritual peril on the other were thought of as various aspects of the same event. But again, not for the first time, we see that the key to salvation, of whatever kind, is faith. That is why anyone, even those normally excluded from pure or polite society, can be saved. faith is open to all; & often it is the unexpected people who have it most strongly. And faith consists not least in recognizing who Jesus is & trusting that he has the power to rescue you.
This is the kind of story that lends itself particularly well to quiet meditation. Let’s take some time, close your eyes, & imagine yourself in the crowd that day in Jericho. It is hot, dry & dusty. (It almost always is there.) You are excited; you are with Jesus; & you are going up to Jerusalem. Suddenly you hear someone shouting from the roadside. He is a nuisance. It is even dangerous. If enough people call him Son of David, someone in authority is going to get alarmed. What are you feeling? Try to remember other times when you have felt like that. Then watch as Jesus, never put out by what annoys his followers, turns to speak to the blind man. How you feel about that? Do you want this beggar joining the party? How about when Jesus speaks warm & welcoming words to him? Has he ever spoken to you like that? How do you feel as you set off together up the hill to Jerusalem?
Now imagine yourself as the blind man. We all have something, by no means necessarily a physical ailment, that we know is getting in the way of our being the people we believe God wants us to be & made us to be. Sit by the roadside & listen to the crowd. How are you feeling when you discover it is Jesus coming by? Call out to him. When he calls you, put everything aside & go to him. And when he asks you what you want him to do for you, go for it. Do not look back at the small, selfish comforts of victimhood. Ask for freedom. Ask for salvation. Ask for sight. And when you get it, be prepared to follow Jesus wherever he goes.
You can open your eyes. The blind man seeing Jesus’ true identity is both poetic & practically significant. So often in the gospels, the people Jesus’ disciples want to keep away from him are the ones who become examples of true discipleship. Bartimaeus rightly recognizes Jesus’ identity, is commended for his faith, & commits the ultimate act of discipleship in Mark – he follows Jesus along the way.
That last detail might seem insignificant at first, but it is the most radical part of the whole story. This man, who has demonstrated his able body by throwing off his coat, springing up, & coming to Jesus, has just regained his sight, & would seem to be well-positioned to take a place among the community in Jericho. But that is not what he does. Instead, he is healed only to follow Jesus directly to Jerusalem, which in Mark, is to follow him to the cross.
Those of us who fall easily into the “normal” life of the wider community are often tempted to try to pull those on the fringes into some semblance of mainstream, a so-called “middle-class” life. But Bartimaeus is more interested in taking his newly healed, newly whole body to the cross with Jesus. Why wouldn’t he? The community that has left him to beg on the side of the road might make a place for him now that he can see. But their hospitality to him is predicated on his ability to work; on his ability to be on his own.
Bartimaeus instead has found a deliverer. He has found one who has offered to make him whole, while asking nothing in return. He has received this gift from Jesus, given freely with no expectation of compensation. He has found someone who loved him as he was. So, he joins this motley procession into Jerusalem, this new community that is rooted only in the hope & love they have found in Jesus. He follows the messiah into the new kingdom.
Is this what our church looks like? Are we a procession of people uprooted from the world & on our way to Jerusalem with Jesus, or are we simply an extension of the community in Jericho? Do we invite the exiles among us to join us on the way to crucifixion & resurrection, or are we just trying to move them into “normalcy” so they can join the comfort of the mainstream?
There is a reason it can be so frustrating to try to help somebody who has been excluded or stigmatized climb into the life of the mainstream community. There is a reason people self-sabotage & resist the “help up” that is offered to them. They have seen the emptiness of that communal life. They have been unwanted there. On some level, they know that there is no hope there. There is no love in that community. Will they find sincere hope & love in the church? In the people of the cross? Can the blind see the messiah, the Son of David, in our congregation? And if they do, will they join our procession to Jerusalem, or will you see them walk on the way with Jesus, leaving you behind in Jericho?