Every time I read the story of Blind Bartimaeus, something new comes to my attention. Perhaps that’s why we read scripture over and over again...to listen for new nuggets of wisdom, new glimpses of the holy, new insights into the Kingdom. For me, the Bible is not a static document that was put together centuries ago...it is constantly calling me back to learn again and anew.
When I read through this Sunday’s gospel lesson, I was first struck by the historical context of what was going on at this point in Mark. Jesus is heading to Jerusalem for the Passover. He has been healing, teaching and preaching along the way. He has talked about what it means for him to go to Jerusalem--that he will suffer and die at the hands of others. He has admonished those closest to him for not understanding what it means to follow him.
At the same time that Jesus is walking with his friends to Jerusalem, the Roman officials are also preparing for Passover. Pilate has called in extra troops to manage the increasing number of people that will be coming into Jerusalem. There is great anxiety in the air about the possibility of an uprising among the Jewish people. The threat of someone wanting to overthrow the Roman regime is palpable. This is where Jesus is headed. Jerusalem isn’t just the center of his faith tradition, or a place of great celebration and remembering of the liberation from Egypt...it is a place that is occupied by a political and military power that is fraught with tension and fear.
And along the way is this blind beggar--Bartimaeus--calling out to Jesus of Nazareth, Son of David--to heal him.
If I were to stay on the historical and theological trajectory of this story, then the next point of interest is that by calling Jesus “Son of David,” Bartimaeus is publicly identifying Jesus not only as the Messiah, but also a rival king. This identification alone is enough to set off the feared insurrection in Jerusalem...and it will eventually lead to Jesus’ arrest and trial.
But there’s also something much deeper happening than politics here.
In identifying Jesus as “Son of David” Bartimaeus “sees” what the other disciples have not--that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. This moment serves as the culmination of a series of events that have happened in the Gospel of Mark...the restoration of sight to the blind man at Bethsaida in chapter 8, as well as the ongoing wrestling with spiritual blindness about what it means to follow Jesus and the coming of the Kingdom of God in chapters 9 and 10. Here in this identification of Jesus by the blind Bartimaeus and the subsequent healing of Bartimaeus:
...Jesus confronts not only... physical blindness... but, more significantly, the spiritual blindness of his closest followers who have failed to fully grasp the upside
down Kingdom that Christ has brought near to the world.
(Victor McCracken, Feasting the Word: Year B, Volume 4, Kindle Edition, location 7637)
But this story is not just one of politics and anxiety. And, for me this time, it’s not just a story about miracles and healing. This time, I also noticed that there was a sense of calling, or being called, in this story that is worth paying attention to.
So let’s look again at Mark:
Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out [or call out] and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out [or called out] even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they (the disciples and the crowd) called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
In my notes here, I highlighted every instance of calling (or implied calling) and came up with 5 times in 7 verses. That’s almost one calling a verse. So for me, that’s an indication that it’s worth paying attention to.
Again, here are those 5 times:
--Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus (2xs)
--Jesus tells those who are following him to call Bartimaeus
--The followers call Bartimaeus
--They relay Jesus’ message of calling
And here’s why it’s important...Bartimaeus RESPONDS. The text tells us that he sprang up, threw off his cloak, went to Jesus, was healed and then FOLLOWED HIM.
That’s a 5 point response by the way...for those of you keeping track.
You see, it’s not just that Bartimaeus “saw” Jesus for who and what he really was--a healer, teacher and preacher, the one who invites the outcast in, the Messiah--but he responded. The text says that he threw off his cloak and that he followed Jesus. He left behind his old life as a beggar to follow Jesus. And not just to be a follower, but one who would go into Jerusalem with him.
This week I’ve been thinking a lot about how we “domesticate” the holy in our lives. What I mean by that is how do we experience the Divine in ways that make it easier.
For example...I’ve been reading this book about Marian apparitions that occurred in France from 1667-1871...just a little over 200 years of apparitions. While many people believed what they saw, or the stories they heard, there were also people who didn’t believe because of the messages that came along with the apparitions...messages about repenting from sin, messages to pray more, messages to care for the least of these. The messages that came with these apparitions were “too hard” for some people, and so they chose to ignore or disbelieve the apparitions.
In the same way, many who followed Jesus, including those closest to him, often chose to ignore or not believe in the very hard message he had about discipleship--that it means giving up old ways, giving up old patterns of behavior, being willing to follow Jesus even when it is scary...all the way to Jerusalem. While Bartimaeus certainly gave up his cloak and followed Jesus, we never hear about him again. We never hear what happens when he arrived in Jerusalem with Jesus and the other disciples and followers. Did he still see Jesus as the Messiah, even though he was arrested, tried and crucified? Or did he deny even knowing him the way Peter did? We don’t know.
So for me, this story serves as a reminder that we have a choice. We can cry out to Jesus and then respond to his call, following him even into the hard parts of life, or we can chose to remain spiritually blind, disregarding the grace, healing and love that Jesus so freely gives. The choice is ours.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.