Blind Bartimaeus


TEXT: Mark 10:35-52

While I was living in Atlanta, it was the practice of our Sunday School class to go out to a nursing home once a month on a Sunday afternoon, just to visit with residents. Those who had been going on a regular basis knew many of the people and had some usual people that they visited with. When I went for the first time, however, there was no one in particular that I was supposed to visit, so I was left to find someone.

The building was structured so that the rooms in each wing emptied out into a large common room, where residents ate, visited, and were entertained. I chose a wing, and went into the common room. As I began to look around, I felt uneasy. All around me were elderly residents--some in wheelchairs moving around, others sitting just staring into space, some talking to themselves for want of better company. I was surrounded by a great aching need for human concern and companionship, but I could only visit with one or maybe a few at most. How would I make such a choice? It seemed to me like the kind of moral dilemma that social scientists like to pose when they want to know what you would do when three people are drowning and you can only save one of them.

But I was not left in my dilemma long. As I began to walk around the room, a woman reached out from her wheelchair and grabbed my hand. "Please, please," she begged, "Come and talk with me. No one talks to me. Please, don't go. Please, sit down with me. Please, won't you hold my hand." I sat down. I held her hand. And I listened for about an hour as she told me of her life--repeating many events, asking me to find out her name, because she couldn't remember.

As I was driving home that afternoon, the story from Mark of blind Bartimaeus came to my mind, and I felt as if I had been given a brief glimpse of the divine heart in my experience that afternoon. I had walked into a room filled with suffering. I knew that. I knew that just about everyone in that room needed a visit that day. More than that, I knew that undoubtedly there were people who needed a visit much more desperately than the woman who had grabbed my hand. She did have relatives who came to see her and cared for her. Others, I am sure, had no one. I knew that. I was very aware of the need all around me. And yet, when someone took my hand and openly pleaded with me, I could not refuse that call.

Imagine Jesus. He's on the road through Jericho, on his way to Jerusalem. In fact, the next passage in Mark is his triumphal entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate on Palm Sunday. It's a crowded place, and undoubtedly Bartimaeus is not the only beggar on the road. Beggars waited at the gate of every city, depending on the mercy of those who came and went. And it could well be that Bartimaeus is better off than some of the other beggars there that day. Jesus sees them, just as he commonly saw beggars at the gates of every city and town.

Jesus has a lot on his mind. There is one week left in his life, and he knows that the worst suffering humanity can design awaits him in Jerusalem. It was common for the Romans to crucify offenders along the roadways so that people could see what awaited those who broke Roman law. Perhaps there were crosses along the road that day. Perhaps he knows that in just a few days his body will feel that these beggars by the road are lucky to be where they are.. They are not being whipped, condemned, and nailed to a tortuous cross. Jesus walks down the road. He sees the beggars -- some crippled, some blind, some too old to work with no one to care for them. He continues to walk, his face set toward Jerusalem.

But suddenly he hears a wailing cry, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" He walks on, but the plea comes again -- louder, more pitiful, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Such a cry is too much for the divine heart. The final hour must wait, if just for a moment. Jesus stops. "Call him," he says, and Bartimaeus jumps to his feet. Bartimaeus throws off his cloak -- probably his only warm clothing, his blanket and his coat -- tosses it aside, in a place where it will be stolen in a moment. He doesn't care. Jesus has stopped for him. He comes to Jesus, groping his way through the crowd.

At last he reaches Jesus. Jesus sees him. A blind man, a beggar, standing before him. His need is as obvious as the summer sun. But Jesus still asks him, "What do you want me to do for you?" "Rabbi, I want to see." Just a simple exchange -- asking for the miraculous as though he were asking for the time of day -- and Jesus gives a simple reply -- "Go, your faith has made you well."

Before my experience in the nursing home, this passage of Scripture was a problem for me. Not because Jesus healed Baritmaeus, but because it seemed to focus on the need for asking. If Bartimaeus had not called out, there is every indication that Jesus would have kept on going and Bartimaeus would have remained blind. What does this mean? Why not help those who don't ask? That bothered me. What about those with some dignity, who don't make a spectacle of themselves but suffer in silence? What about the pain of the silent masses? Don't they matter? Why does Jesus seem to insist that we have to grovel to be helped? He knows what we need, the Bible says so. Then why make us ask?

One response is that, in asking, we are constantly reminded of the source of all good things. When we must pray every day, even for our daily bread, we never forget the source of our daily bread. But there is another point in the asking that comes out more clearly as we consider Bartimaeus or the woman in the nursing home. The correct question may not be "What about the people with too much dignity to make a spectacle of themselves?" but rather, "What about the people who are too proud to ask for help."

I think this particular healing story is meant to convey a message about pride. And I think that not so much because of what is in the story itself, but because of the story that comes immediately before it. (When you study scripture, never look at one passage by itself. See where it sits.) If you look back, a few paragraphs before, James and John, two of the three disciples who were closest to Jesus, came forward and asked a rather presumptive question of Jesus. "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." Jesus responds, "What is it you want me to do for you?" The exact same words that he asks Bartimaeus. And they reply that they want to sit on his right hand and on his left -- the places of honor -- when Jesus is glorified. Jesus denies their request, it's not his to give, and must teach again the lesson of service and humility.

I think these two stories are put together for us to make the comparison, tying them together with the words of Jesus, "What is it you want me to do for you?" Look at the difference in approach. The disciples approach boldly and say, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." In other words -- we want you to serve us. How different that is from the cry of Bartimaeus, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" and who waits until Jesus bids him to approach. And how different are the requests. In these two passages, it is the disciples who are blind and blind Bartimaeus who truly sees.

I propose to you this morning that the desperate cry of Bartimaeus or the cry of the woman in the nursing home -- the deep cry of the soul for help -- is the truest evidence of humility that there is. And I propose further that such humility provides the only adequate home for real faith. In this country we are raised to believe that we should be able to take care of ourselves. We should be self-sufficient, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. One of the things I learned these past few days is that we expect others, who don't have boots or bootstraps, to do that as well. Dependency for us is a dirty word -- we are the people of the independent spirit.

Nobody knows this better than I do. I come from Rhode Island, the state with the statue of the Independent Man on top of our state capital building. Rhode Island was the last state to ratify the Constitution -- holding out because it really wanted to be its own country -- all 30 by 40 miles of it. And I was raised Baptist in the state where the Baptists were founded -- Baptists whose fundamental governing principle is autonomy. Every congregation is independent. You don't get more independent than an American Baptist from Rhode Island...although "Live free or die" definitely comes close.

And to a degree, independence is good. We have all seen the psychological damage done when children cannot gain independence from their parents at the proper time, or when people live very restricted lives or never reach their full potential because they lack the confidence to strike out on their own. The whole fight for which Martin Luther King stood was the fight for people of color to truly be independent, to be able to make their own decisions and not have decisions made for them. Independence has its proper place. There is a place, however, where independence does not belong, and that is in our relationship to God. When we look at our relationship to God and the universal order of creation, we are confronted with our limitations, and with our complete and utter dependency on a power greater than ourselves.

Perhaps some of you remember the impact of the first pictures of earth from space. In an instant the world of science and space travel gave us a theological moment -- a moment when so many seemed to sense, "I am so small when compared to the vastness of space and the scope of the earth." You may remember the T-shirts with pictures of the Milky Way and an arrow pointing to a pinprick of space reading, "You are here."

This is the perspective of humility. This is the perspective of the person who has run headlong into their own limitations and has been knocked to the ground by the encounter. Bartimaeus had been knocked down by his blindness. The disciples would not be knocked to the ground until the end of the next week when Jesus would be arrested and they would flee, even after promising to stand by Jesus even unto death, when they would see all their hopes for greatness dying on a wooden cross.

We have not known humility until we have stared our own limitations in the face. Not by simply acknowledging that they exist but by running headlong into them and being forced to cry out like Bartimaeus -- "Son of David, have mercy upon me!" This is the moment that marks the beginning of salvation -- the moment when we realize our own blindness, our own blindness, our own desperate condition, our own inability to save ourselves -- our realization that we too need a savior.

That moment is the time that our faith in ourselves dies. We always believed that we could, but then one day we discover we can't. It is the moment that leads either to despair or to joy. If we have no God outside of ourselves, we face despair -- I can't do it, and if I am the ultimate force in the universe, there is no hope. Psychology books will tell you that the root of despair is self-centeredness.

But, if we do believe in a God outside of ourselves, a God that is greater and beyond us, the moment that our own failings and human limitations knock us senseless is the moment that gives birth to faith to faith. In that moment when we find ourselves desperately crying out to God, "Son of David, have mercy on me! I can't do any more, God! I just can't do it -- help me!" Suddenly that becomes the moment when we realize that we were never intended to do it all in the first place. For the first time, we realize that the work has already been done by one far greater than we are. There was no need for us to have been blind, we only had to be willing to see through someone else's eyes.

Jesus is passing through the city this morning. What will you ask of him? To sit on his right hand or his left, demanding his service as James and John did, or will you cry out for his mercy like Bartimaeus? Are we ready to acknowledge that there's something -- anything -- that we can't do -- that we need help -- that Jesus can give us what we need in this hour? How silly we must seem. The God who made the earth and the heavens, who set all this in place, who created the human body, with all its miracles and wonders -- do we honestly think that the God who did all that can't handle our little problems? Our problem is safe in the hands of God, and the God who ordered the universe, who put the stars in place and determined the course of the winds, that God is at work to order our lives as well.

Jesus is passing through the city this morning. Will you call out? Or will you sit like the other blind beggars at the gates and simply let him pass by?


©2002 Anne Robertson

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