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Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost October 28, 2012

I have never had the experience of being blind. The closest I have come is once in college when I was being inducted into an honor society. They put blindfolds on us and led us through the woods at night. I had to depend on others for direction and guidance. But I knew it was temporary. In the morning they took the blindfolds off, and I could see again. I have never been marginalized, either, unless I have done it to myself. I started a new dance class this fall, and when I got there, only six people were in the room. I felt isolated and alone – on the outside because some had taken the class before. But the teacher soon made me feel welcome, and I now feel a part of the group, even though I sometimes have to ask to do a step again. 

Since I have not been blind or marginalized, I have no idea what Bartimaeus must feel,  sitting there on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, but I can guess that he is desperate. He has once seen and been part of a community, but now he is relegated to the status of a non-person. The disabled were problems to be avoided, not people to be helped. Many thought that they had sinned in some way to be in this condition in the first place. 

Beggars were looked down on too, but Bartimaeus cannot do anything else. He lays out his cloak and calls out for alms. Sometimes he gets money, and sometimes he does not. There are many beggars competing for the attention of the public. Some days his cloak holds a meager amount of coins, and he is able to eat. He leads a hand-to-mouth existence, barely getting enough to get by. The only possession he seems to have is his cloak.

So when Bartimaeus hears a  great crowd coming down the road that led from Jericho to Jerusalem and he hears that Jesus of Nazareth is leading the procession, he decides he is not going to let this opportunity slip by. He has heard about Jesus and his healings somewhere. Maybe he has even heard about the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida. At any rate, he is determined to get help if he can. He begins to shout out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me”. His shouting causes the crowd to order him to be quiet, to not be a nuisance, to keep his place. Maybe Jesus was teaching and they wanted to hear his words. Maybe they just wanted to be near him. Whatever the reason, they could not see their way clear to inviting Bartimaeus to be one of them. They wanted him to stay on the outside. But Bartimaeus is persistent. He continues to cry out to Jesus. He figures he has nothing to lose and everything to gain by his pleas. 

Over the noise of the crowd, Jesus finally hears Bartimaeus calling him. He stops and the crowd stops with him. The noise dies down. Jesus says to the crowd, “Call him here.” All of a sudden, the crowd changes its tune. Now that Jesus wants to see Bartimaeus, they are all eagerness to call him. “Take heart, get up, he is calling you.” “Wonder of wonders”, Bartimaeus thinks, “I am going to get an audience with Jesus. This is just what I’ve been hoping for”. He throws off his cloak and springs up eagerly to come to Jesus. Jesus has compassion for Bartimaeus, – not only for his physical disability, but for his social and economic position as well. He says, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus knows exactly what he wants. “My teacher, let me see again”. Jesus has mercy on him and heals him with the words, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Bartimaeus’ belief that Jesus could work miracles, that Jesus might help him, and his own persistence in asking make him ready to receive the healing when it is given. Bartimaeus is an instant part of the community again, ready to take his place in society. He is given permission to go by Jesus, but Bartimaeus has other ideas. He leaves his cloak behind and follows Jesus on the way. 

This story is the end of a section in Mark that revolves around different kinds of blindness and seeing. It begins with Jesus healing a blind man at Bethsaidaand ends with the story of Bartimaeus. In the middle are the three passion predictions, which the disciples are unwilling or unable to understand. They argue about who is the greatest, when Jesus talks about being last of all and servant of all. When Jesus asks James and John the same question he asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?”, they want the power and prestige of sitting at the right and left hand of Jesus when he comes into his kingdom. The disciples are blind about Jesus’ future and their own. They are spiritually blind throughout the narrative in contrast to the two men who have their physical blindness healed. Bartimaeus even becomes a disciple. 

The story of Bartimaeus is more than just a healing story, scholars say. It is a call story as well. The verb “call” is used three times. Bartimaeus calls Jesus, Jesus calls for Bartimaeus, and the crowd does Jesus’ bidding by calling Bartimaeus to Jesus. Bartimaeus is healed by Jesus when he comes near and out of gratitude follows him. 

He throws off his cloak, the symbol of his old life, as the fishermen left their nets to follow Jesus. Bartimaeus is the last disciple called in Mark (Phyllis Kersten), and he answers Jesus’ call. He does not know what he is getting into because he still expects a Davidic Messiah to reign over Jerusalem, but he is no worse off than the “insiders” who have been following Jesus for months. 

There is good news for us in this story as well as questions for reflection. First of all, Jesus can hear our pleas for mercy above the noise of the crowd. Whether it is the crowd of voices in our heads that say we are not worthy of mercy or that Jesus doesn’t heal anymore or any other negative thinking, or the voices of culture inviting us to make something else a god and ignore Jesus, Jesus knows the desires and longings of our hearts. He knows what we need, and he will give it to us because he wants good for us. All we have to do is be ready to receive it when it comes, so we can “see clearly again” and not have any blind spots to God’s presence and grace. We know that God is beside us in good times and bad, and we can trust God to act on our behalf. 

The good news begs the question, “Do we know what we want Jesus to do for us?” The disciples knew – they wanted power and authority. They wanted the wrong things. Bartimaeus wanted to be healed and he was. What are the things we most desire? Do we want to be free from fear about the future? Do we need help forgiving ourselves or someone else? Is there an addiction we are powerless over, or maybe some character flaw we want to overcome? Jesus can do what we cannot, though we usually need to do our own part by asking, even if it is to say, “I believe, help thou my unbelief.” We can even ask God to help us see clearly what we need more than anything else. 

We have put ourselves in Bartimaeus’ position; now what about the crowd’s? If we reflect on being a member of the crowd, it is bound to be uncomfortable. We want Bartimaeus to stay marginalized. We don’t want him to be our problem. We would rather ignore him. How often have we wished that someone would stay an outsider that we could ignore. Lee Canipe talks about going through the paper, looking at headlines about many grim issues and responding “Not my problem” before turning to the sports page. How often do we ignore something, hoping it will go away? What can we do to change that – join an organization, send some money, say a prayer? On the other hand, are there times we bring the marginalized into our midst as God is calling us to do. That is the good news of God’s grace at work within us. 

After reflecting on all of this, we may wonder what kind of disciples we are. Are we willing to give up our old lives for new ones? Can we give up our possessions as Bartimaeus gave up his cloak and the disciples laid down their nets? Can we take our first fruits and give them to God to use for the upbuilding of the church or do we always give the leftovers? Does our gratitude for salvation lead to generosity or not? Discipleship is about being obedient. We are told to seek for our own needs and for the needs of others and to seek the kingdom above all else. In seeking the kingdom our blind spots will be healed and we will see Jesus clearly.

AMEN

       - Rev. Ann Barker

 

Works cited:
Phyllis Kersten, “What Bartimaeus Wanted”, The Christian Century, blog post Oct. 20, 2009
Lee Canipe, “Just Ignore It”, The Christian Century, blog post Oct. 22, 2012