I guess I made it a whole week in the New Testament, huh? Our Gospel story today in Mark is familiar to many. If anyone asks if you know the story about Blind Bartimaeus, most people recognize the name. What gets confused are some of the details. Was he the guy with mud on his eyes? Is he the one who begged and whose parents make him testify before those in the Temple? Is Bartimaeus the one who is blind because of sin? What’s worse, the story is one of those “Synoptic problems.” Details differ between those relating the story. Did this occur on the way into Jericho? On the way out? The synoptic problem is simply the biblical commentators’ acknowledgement that the stories of Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t always agree. We live in a society that is full of Law & Order, NCIS, and all kinds of other criminal shows. This generation understands that witness testimony often differs on details, which is why forensic evidence is so important in trials. Human beings tend to pay attention to different things at the same event.
I was thinking of this yesterday as I left the office. George and Maxine were swinging by church to place the flowers on the altar as I was heading toward a football game at the house. We stopped to chat a couple moments. I asked Maxine if she had her house back in order after the big family visit for the baptism. Maxine laughed that things still weren’t clean. Then we shared a laugh about our prospects, Karen and mine, if our kids each just have a couple children. Finally, George and I talked a little shop about a couple small things at church. If you were to grab the three of us in, say, a decade, and ask us to recount the encounter, how would we remember it? George might remember it was a bit of a business visit. Maxine might remember it as a “I told you so moment.” I might remember it as a warning. Whose recollection would be wrong? We pay attention to details that are important to us; we don’t just record facts.
In the healing of Batimaeus, Mark is interested in telling other parts of the story than his counterparts Luke and Matthew. In particular, Mark has been building a Dagwood sandwich worthy of the comic strip character’s name. Mark will often tell stories with so-called sandwiches and meat. The meat is the important teaching he wishes to convey within the narrative. Sometimes, Mark crafts sandwiches within sandwiches within sandwiches. Such is what is happening in our reading. Let’s look and feast.
Events are now progressing rapidly. Jesus and His disciples are leaving Jericho and headed toward Jerusalem. We all know how the story ends. As they are leaving, a blind man named Bartimaeus cries out to Him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” As many of you know, it was customary for beggars to sit at the gates and beg for alms. Typically, they spread out the cloak and begged, hoping passerby’s would toss a coin or three onto their cloak. We might say their cloak was their business or storefront. Unlike the blind man in the first healing in Mark, though, who remains passive to Jesus, Bartimaeus aggressively seeks healing from Jesus. Those around the poor blind tell Bartimaeus to be quiet, to quit bothering the rabbi. But Bartimaeus only gets louder. Jesus stops and tells the crowd to call Bartimaeus to Him. Those who moments before were sternly telling the blind man to be quiet are now full of encouragement. “Take heart; get up, He is calling you.”
Bartimaeus, Mark says, hopped up and cast aside his cloak and came to Jesus. Throwing off his cloak is an amazing act in itself. That was his blanket at night, his wrap during inclement weather, and his source of income by the gates. We might say it was likely his most valued treasure. But, at the summons of Jesus, the blind man casts it aside, his only really valued possession, and goes to our Lord. Compare that to the response of the rich young man or even the Apostles James and John, whose concern is, shall we say, more in line with the world’s thinking than God’s.
“What do you want me to do for you?” So often, Jesus asks these words. So few people give Him the right answer. Last week, if you read the Gospel while I preached on Job, you might recall that Jesus asks the same question of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who want to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand when He comes into His glory. Jesus tells them they do not understand what they are asking. He will not enter into glory the way they expect. He will enter into His glory through the Cross, and two thieves have already been prepared to sit at His right and His left. The Apostles are focus on temporal goods, on power. Jesus is focused on something far more important.
Blind Bartimaeus somehow sees Jesus and the focus of His work. Our first hint was the title he uses to address Jesus. Others call Him Rabbi or Teacher. Jesus calls Himself the Son of Man. Bartimaeus is the first to call Jesus “Son of David” in Mark’s Gospel. To us, sitting on this side of the Cross and Resurrection, the titles may seem interchangeable, but to 1st century Jews, the title “Son of David” was equated with God’s Anointed or Messiah. Somehow, despite the blindness in his eyes, Bartimaeus is able to see Jesus for who He is. Was it the stories of all the healings? We do not know. We only know that a blind man sees Jesus as the Son of David in his midst and capable of the healing for which he so longs! More amazingly, when pressed by the Son of David what he wants done for him, the man says simply “My teacher, let me see again.”
As you can see, there is a tremendous irony in the man’s request. In many ways, the faith of the Apostles is not yet as mature. The blind man healed at the beginning of this sandwich sees only shadows and figures that look like trees. Not a few verses later, Mark teaches us how his brother and sister Apostles and disciples saw Jesus. Some see Jesus as the path to worldly honor and prestige. Some will see the glory of the Transformation and yet miss the teaching of Jesus of how His glory will be achieved. At least one will actively oppose His teaching of a suffering servant. Some will be jealous of their relationship with Jesus, uncomprehending of the fact that one who casts out demons in His name can long oppose Him and His mission. Some will cast out marginalized children, forgetting that He teaches they must be childlike in their faith. On and on the list goes. The disciples sort of get it. But like the first blindman, they do not see clearly. None do, until blind Batimaeus.
And let’s look quickly at the healing. In healing the first blind man, what does Jesus do? He makes must with dust and spit. And, if we want to be careful, we notice that the complete healing does not take place on the first try. What is required for Him to heal in all His power? Faith. Think of your favorite healings. Those stories which truly speak into our souls are those where Jesus’ power is sought by others. If I but touch the hem of His cloak . . . Why could we not cast out the demon? . . . And let’s not forget the rich young man who cannot follow Jesus and goes away grieving because he had many possessions. In whom or what did the rich young man trust? His wealth. Over and over again we see Jesus’ power sufficient to meet any need, and over and over again we see examples of those whose faith is strong and able to claim the healing power of Jesus for themselves and others who must spend a bit more time in the presence of the Lord. And the Apostles clearly fall into this latter group. As with the Syrophonecian woman and so many others, though, Jesus simply tells Batimaeus to go, his faith has made him well. Bartimaeus sees what the Apostles, the Pharisees, the Temple priests, and the crowds have missed. The Son of Man is the Son of David. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant with David.
What do you want me to do for you? In many ways, I wish this was the assigned reading for next week, Healing Sunday. But I think its occurrence this week gives us all time to think. What do we want from Him? So often, when people approach the altar rail asking for prayers, I ask that question. I often wonder if we approach the throne of grace confidently. Do we come to this rail as did the hemorrhaging woman, those little children, Jairus, or even blind Bartimaeus? Do we come confident in the belief that Jesus is sufficient for any need we might have? Or are we more like Peter? Like Paul? Like James and John? Or even more like the rich young man? Do we come with our own conditions, our own baggage, and an unwillingness to trust in the Son of our Father in Heaven who wants only abundance for us? Or do we come expecting Him to heal us or, if we are like Paul, in need of a thorn in our side to remind us that His power is made perfect in weakness? Week in and week out we come to this rail, and I wonder what we seek? What do you want Me to do for you?
It seems this lesson in Mark, aside from some other more obvious commentary on discipleship, gives us also a bit of lesson about healing. First of all, we learn that healing does not come easily. Yes, Mark pays little attention to the miracle itself. Jesus just cures blind Bartimaeus with a word and adds a commentary to it. But notice the effort required of Bartimaeus. When he calls out to Jesus, the crowd tries to silence him. Rather than listen to the crowd, however, Bartimaeus calls louder. He risks infuriating those upon whom he is dependent for a living. He risks a cuffing or assault in which he will possibly never learn the identity of the one striking him. And he even risks the comfortableness of his surroundings, no matter how unenviable we might think them. He risks losing his spot and his cloak, both of which are essential for him in this blind condition for scratching out a meager living.
Bartimaeus is not alone in Mark’s Gospel. Jairus must ignore cultural norms and even the mockery of the mourners to see his daughter restored. The Syrophoenician woman likewise must overcome cultural norms as well as the fact that she is a gentile woman seeking a Rabbi’s help. The paralytic man’s friends must lift him onto the roof and then dig their way through the thatch and mud so that they can lower him down. You think the homeowner was not likely to notice the hole after the crowds dispersed? The hemorrhaging woman fights through the crowd and then dares to answer Jesus in full view of the crowd when confronted by His question. The list goes on and on. Many of those in Mark’s narrative must display incredible persistence seeking the healing they desire. How often do we, though, give up on Jesus because of the crowd around us? How many times do we hear the God does not work that way any more and live as if such testimonies are truer than God’s Word? How many times do we tell ourselves Well, I asked once, I guess that is a “no?” Heck, how many of us ask for the wrong thing when we find ourselves in Bartimaeus’ position? How many of us truly know what we desire or need?
The second lesson regarding healing in Mark’s narrative is the requirement that one must go to Jesus for healing. It makes sense to us as Christians. The Son of Man is the Son of David is the Son of God. But in this world in which we live, how often are we told that real healing is to be found in the care of doctors, of mental health professionals, or in crystals, or in some channeling of the universe’s life force, or some other idol? Either Jesus is who He says He is or He is not. Either He is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, of God’s grace, and of all that He revealed in Scripture, or He is not. We live in a pluralistic age that likes to confuse us, that likes to convince us that truth is relative, that there are any number of paths to the same destination. Part of Mark’s testimony is that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light. Jesus is the God incarnate/Man divine. More importantly, He lived the life the Father asked of Him. And for that obedience He was raised from the dead as proof of the testimonies He gave us. How do we know Messiah came otherwise? Yet how often are we too quick to seek anyone and anything but the One who promised to redeem all things in our lives? How embarrassed are we to speak our need to the One who seeks and knows our hearts?
Those of us watching the story unfold might think Jesus’ question is out of place. If He knows what I need, why ask? For all His grandeur and glory God desires that we choose to follow Him. God always gives us a choice to follow or reject. More amazingly, when we realize we have rejected, He sent His Son so that we could simply repent and try again! But God always gives us a choice. It does not matter whether it is you or me, our neighbor, our co-worker, Jonah, Paul, Peter, the Syrophoenician woman, or any other character you admire in Scripture or life. Everyone has a choice. Bartimaeus’ answer stands in contrast with those who do not choose correctly. The rich young man goes away grieving because he had many possessions. James and John are thinking only in terms of worldly power. Bartimaeus, though blind, sees clearly who Jesus is and what He offers! And He readily accepts the opportunity.
The third lesson that we get in the story is the reminder that there may not be a next time. I was advised, when I proposed starting a healing service at Advent, that many of us would be loathe to come forward for healing for any number of reasons. I must say, I listened to the Advent crowds and found my expectations lowered. But the response of those who have come forward, as well as that of Bartimaeus, reminds us that there may not be a next time. What if Bartimaeus had decided, “I will wait until Jesus comes back this way and ask to gain my sight?” This is Jesus’ last pass through of Jericho. What if Bartimaeus had waited? Similarly, what if today or next week or next month is the time that God has set that appointment for you or for me? What do you want me to do for you? What if we meekly say nothing and keep to our current condition?
Lastly, the healing requires a response. Bartimaeus does not simply go back and sit by the road. The healing is something too joyful for him to contain. So, what does he do? He casts aside everything and follows Jesus. He follows Jesus on this journey that will end in a few short chapters. He follows Jesus on this road that leads to Calvary. Unlike those so far in the story, He follows Jesus wherever He leads. What if Jesus answered our prayer? How would we react? Would we be another of those who testified to His saving and healing grace? Or would we do our best to slip back into the crowd and live the life we have chosen?
I know I have been a bit heavy today. I can feel it. My job and my intention is always to afflict us where we are comfortable and to comfort us where we are afflicted. Perhaps, sitting here this morning listening to me drone on, you have recognized times in your life where the crowd has gotten the better of your determination, where you realize that you have treated Jesus as if he was of secondary or tertiary importance in your healing, or where you feel like you gave the Lord the wrong answer. Maybe as the week goes along and the seeds I have planted germinate, such will be the places in your mind to which you turn. Two things you need to hear: (1) Even if you have missed an opportunity, that was not the last time He was passing through your life. Each moment you live, each moment you breathe, you have another opportunity to ask for the healing you need. Next week, we will live that request more intentionally, but such answers can be given at any time. (2) If you have forgotten who Jesus is, if you have been seduced by the world, you stand in good stead. You stand in the company of none other than the Apostles and disciples who accompanied Jesus! And just as His grace and love and forgiveness made them into the men and women we admire from afar, so is His grace and love and forgiveness capable of transforming each one of us into a Bartimaeus of this place and this time! What do you want Me to do for you? That, brothers and sisters, is the question before us all, this day and every day.