Scripture Readings: Mark 10: 46-52, Hebrews 7:23-28
This text gave me fits as I worked with it over the course of the week. Originally I jumped on the chance to preach on blind Bartimaeus. I’ve always liked this story, it is so rich. Ah, what should I share with the good people of First Pres? How about the sheer persistence of Bartimaeus? Nothing would stop his wanting to come face to face with Jesus. He had heard the stories of Jesus and knew that this is the one who might heal him. No, not that. Something else kept pulling me away from preaching on persistence. What about the insider/outsider issue that surfaces from the disciples attempting to keep Bartimaeus at a distance from Jesus? Something in this text turned me away from that. Ah, what about Bartimaeus’ response to the calling of Jesus, throwing his cloak down and immediately rushing to Jesus? No, something else kept gnawing at me.
And then I realized what it was. I just coming round and drawn to what Jesus tells Bartimaeus after Jesus asks him what he wants. “My teacher, let me see again.” “Go, your faith has made you well.” Your faith has made you well. It’s one of those comments from Jesus that kind of tighten my stomach muscles. This may sound sacrilegious, but I want to reach into the text and slap Jesus. Why can’t it be something Jesus does, why didn’t he say, “Go, I have healed you.”? I want this to be a God or Jesus or Holy Spirit action, not a Bartimaeus action. Like earlier in Mark when Jesus heals that other blind guy from Bethsaida, the one who we don’t know his name. Jesus rubs his spit in his eyes and he can see. It even takes Jesus doing it twice for the miracle to work completely. But it was all Jesus! This guy just had to open his eyes and see. Nothing about his faith!
And I’m not really that upset that Bartimaeus received his sight. Praise be to God that he received his sight. But what about all those others since the early first century who believed and had faith who weren’t healed, whose prayers weren’t answered? Now, I know there can be misguided requests to Jesus. We saw it last week when we heard Jesus ask the same question to James and John that he asks Bartimaeus. “What do you want me to do for you?” They wanted the places of power and prestige in Jesus’ coming kingdom. But Jesus has to remind them that he can not give them what they ask, that the first must be last and the last must be first. But what about all the other Bartimaeus’ in the world, those who were last, those who have called out to Christ because of blindness, cancer, or a sick child? Was their faith not strong enough? Not good enough? Not enough?
Carol Howard Merritt shares the story from when she was nine years old and she and her dad went to a healing prayer service. Her dad suffered from a neurological disease that was slowly destroying his body. He had given up on the doctors and specialists and was now he was looking for a miracle. At the service, the preacher called on people from the crowd, healing them, performing one miracle after another. The service continued on for hours, but the preacher never called out for her dad. She said, “I stood there, a fervent, religious little girl, and I prayed, as hard as I could, that God would heal my dad—that his feet would become straight and his back would no longer be twisted. I believed with my whole being that it would happen. After seeing miracles all around, I knew if I had enough faith, God would heal my dad. But the songs and prayers ended, and we walked out, with my father’s hand bearing down on the back of my neck and his same halting steps. My heart was crushed.” In her words, the magic formula does not always work.
But is Mark giving us a magic formula? Insert enough faith, or at least the right kind of faith and God will give you what you want? Does God sit in his throne listening to prayers that have been filtered through a divine faith-o-meter? “Nope to that one, not enough faith today. Here is one just over the line, disease cured.” I’ve heard too many stories and cried with too many people who have a deep love of God and faith that God is working in and through their lives to know that if there was a faith-o-meter, it would max out.
Mark must be up to something else, something different in this text when he talks about faith and what is happening to and with Bartimaeus. Now, don’t hear me discounting the issue of the incredible miracle that takes place or the need for a deep faith in our lives. But this passage opens up when we look at what it took for Mark to get us here and the direction that Mark wants us to go. Someone once said that the Gospels are just passion narratives with a long introduction. And the healing of blind Bartimaeus marks the end of the introduction and the beginning of passion story. It is the transition point between the two, incorporating parts of the introduction of who this Jesus is and his passion.
What is so interesting here is that Bartimaeus is named and he follows Jesus on the way. That might not seem like a big deal but none of the other people that Jesus heals in Mark is given a name. A possessed man in Gerasene, a girl restored to life, a woman healed, a blind man, a boy with a spirit. No names, just people who have an encounter with Jesus, who are made whole, and then told to go and not tell anyone how these incredible miracles happened in their lives. The last time we find someone named who then also follows Jesus is clear back in chapter one when Jesus calls Simon Peter, Andrew, and James and John. And all along the way, Jesus keeps saying why he is here, to declare that the Kingdom of God is at hand, that he must undergo great sufferings, be killed and be raised on the third day. And time after time, those that follow him just don’t get it and basically reject what he keeps saying. Even when James and John ask to be at Jesus’ left and at his right, Jesus tells them, “Don’t you get it? Don’t you understand? Don’t you see who I am?” Jesus wants them to open their eyes and see.
With Bartimaeus, Jesus says, “Now you will see who I am.” The next place we find Jesus is entering Jerusalem to the sounds of crowds crying “Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” and the waving of palm branches. Now, this is what the disciples had in mind, how they pictured what would happen to the Messiah, triumphantly entering as a King! And a few days later, they would scatter as Jesus is arrested, put on trial, crucified, and buried. Then word would get to them that he had risen from the dead. He was King, alright, but in a way that they never could have imagined. He had died and risen from the dead not to overthrow the Romans, but to overthrow all those things that separated us from having a loving relationship with God and each other. He died so we could live into the Kingdom of God here and now and live into the promise of the life to come. He died so we could follow him. He died so we might fully live.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t cry out to God in our suffering, it just helps us realize and see who we are crying out to. For in Christ, God came down and took on human flesh, was born in a stable, grew up to be the friend of sinners and advocate of all who are poor and oppressed, sick and broken, and was therefore tried and condemned in a courtroom and executed on a cross. He walks with us in our pain, because he lived our pain. I do not understand why the pain does not always go away, but I do know that in Jesus Christ, God is there.
We never hear about Bartimaeus again in scripture. The last word is that he followed Jesus on the way. I think Mark is saying something more than they just headed down the road together. In the early church, Christians were known as followers of “The Way.” And Jesus invites us to put our faith in him as well as we follow him as well, to see and experience his love and grace as we live out our lives of discipleship with him and each other. Amen.