The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, which has been used liturgically the past three Sundays, today, and will be used the next three Sundays, and which can be looked at as a sermon or pep talk or instruction, probably to both Jewish and Gentile Christians, suggests that the people had begun to forget these basics.
With that as a background, Mark’s Gospel story of Bartimaeus might make more sense to us than just being a miracle story, a sort of “fix-it” situation. Recall how the miracle stories in Mark, and generally in the
other Gospels, function. Read through Mark again, at your leisure, and notice how often Jesus is confronted and interrupted in his ministry by someone’s human suffering.
Mark’s point is that in this Jesus of Nazareth, in his words and actions, in who he is, resides the Creator’s own authority and loving power. Over and over, Mark proclaims that in Jesus we have to do with Godself, the Lord of all life. But he presents Jesus as saying and doing things which cause us to ask, along with the crowds, the disciples, and the questioners: “Who, then, is this man?”
Richard Niebuhr says: “Revelation means for us that part of our history which illumines the rest of it.” It’s the event from which we can go forward or backward and gain some understanding of the whole. Jesus is God’s revelation in person, in whom we see God’s righteousness in the flesh. In Jesus God discloses Godself to us as Knower, Judge and our only Savior.
The miracle stories are the testimony of faith. They’re not shared so much to create faith as to witness in faith, often in retrospect, to God’s mysterious power in Jesus. They don’t offer easy answers. We come away asking: “Who, then, is this?” -- a good and righteous man?? a prophet?? a compassionate carpenter?? a visionary dreamer?? Or is he the One in whom God’s power and purpose, God’s presence and person, takes hold of us in awesome redeeming mercy, steadfast love, and amazing grace??
Mark uses this story of Bartimaeus and an earlier healing of a blind man to convey a message on blindness of the heart. As you read Mark, you realize that all along Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand, didn’t “get it”, or simply let it pass over their heads: which is a form of hardness of the heart. After Jesus feeds the 4000, the disciples worry about enough food to eat! In Mark 8, an exasperated Jesus blurts out: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?...” So Jesus heals the blind man.
Then follows Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, the first acknowlegment of Jesus as God’s Anointed One. This admission bridges the gap between blindness and insight, confusion and confession in faith. Mark uses the story to say that unless God opens our eyes, unless God illumines our minds, then even those who seem to be closest to Jesus and claim to understand the most are blind people when it comes to perceiving the presence of God’s reign in Jesus.
After Peter’s confession, Mark’s emphasis shifts, and these are the Gospel passages we’ve been reading and reflecting on the past few Sundays. From now on Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem and toward the cross that awaits him. Mark says less now about Jesus’ works, and the response demanded by faith, and focusses on his teaching, especially on the cost of discipleship, which is suffering and death.
Bartimaeus’ story places before us the mystery of God in Jesus. For Mark, Bartimaeus, though probably a historical person, serves as a symbol of all of us: his brokenness, desperation, his persistent cry for mercy is ours and the world’s. We, too, are blind and in need, as he is.
Notice also the contrast with last week’s Gospel. James and John, the Sons of Thunder, or “Sons of Entitlement” as Stephen B. Chapman, Old Testament Professor at Duke University calls them, rudely, and inappropriately engage in a power grab attempt: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” When Jesus asks; “What is it you want me to do for you?”, they respond that they want box seats next to him in the kingdom, one on the right, one on the left. They totally missed or ignored what Jesus had said to the disciples, not five minutes before: “...See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over...they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him...”
In contrast, Bartimaeus seems to have realized how much he needed Jesus’ mercy, for he doggedly cries out, even when “sternly ordered”, Mark says, to keep quiet. And again, Jesus asks: “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus asks for sight, for vision; but Mark says that when he received his sight “he followed [Jesus] on the way...”
Whether Bartimaeus realized it or not, we know that that “way”, of course, led to Jerusalem, to that supper with Jesus’ disciples where he would say: “This is my body, broken for you.”
You and I need to be very sure that we know what we, in our blindness, ask Jesus for when he says to us: “What do you want me to do for you?” Because the sight that Jesus gives us will lead us ahead on the road, as it did Bartimaeus, with Jesus to our Jerusalem. But that doorway and path to mercy, and vision, and love which Jesus is is the only way, ultimately, to God.
St. Augustine wrote: “If [Jesus] had not consented to be the way, we should all have gone astray...I do not say to you, seek the way. The way itself has come to you: arise and walk.”
The Way who is Jesus, indeed, comes to you and me this morning in our sharing of the Eucharist, saying: “This is my body, broken for you.” “What do you want me to do for you?”