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 full readings for this morning can be found here.)
In the name of the Living God, who creates, redeems and sustains us. Good morning, good morning. It’s an important question, this question Jesus asks. It’s such an important question that we heard it last week as well. You may remember, last week James and John (the Sons of Zebedee, whom Jesus calls the Sons of Thunder) came to Jesus and he asked these two brothers the same question: “What do you want me to do for you?” And we hear the echo of that question in today’s Gospel: “What do you want me to do for you?”
So, last week, we heard a story about two disciples who were blind to Jesus’ real power, and today we hear a story about a man who receives the gift of sight. And maybe we begin to see Mark’s point: any talk about a spiritual journey that leaves out the notions of sin and struggle and stumbling blocks is just a myth. Because a real spiritual journey involves setbacks and a slog through the gravitational pull of our former lives.
Our Gospel story today finds Jesus “on the way.” Jesus is constantly on the move in Mark’s Gospel, and in fact, it’s exhausting. I think it’s a reminder that the Christian life is always a journey, a pilgrimage. And in today’s reading he both arrives in Jericho and leaves that city. Now, Jericho is an important city in the biblical canon, a city with a story most of Mark’s hearers would recognize. You see, Jericho was a mighty city with strong walls. But scripture tells us that when God ordered Joshua to march around the city for 6 days and sound the trumpets on the 7th day, those mighty walls crumbled. So, Jericho is the city where God broke down the walls.
Lots of us build walls, either to keep God in or keep God out. We build walls to keep God in Sunday morning but may not want much of that God stuff to leak into our workplace, or our life with our friends, or the golf course, or the time we set aside for ourselves. The people with Bartimaeus tried to keep him away from God, to keep him from embarrassing himself or them as Jesus passed by. But just as before at Jericho, God is in the business of knocking down walls.
As Jesus passes by, a blind beggar is sitting by the roadside. Now, there’s a couple of interesting things at work here. First, most of the people that Jesus heals in Mark’s gospel are unnamed. Usually, it’s just “a woman,” or “a leper” or “a child.” But Mark gives us the name of the man in this story. His name is Bartimaeus, which means the son of Timaeus, or Son of Honor. There’s a certain amount of irony in that name because there’s not much the world would see as honorable in a blind man begging by the side of the road.
But there’s another important name here in the story. When Bartimaeus learns it’s Jesus who’s going by, he cries out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” We may miss some of the nuances in the original Greek, because the word we translate as “cries out” carries with it a connotation of craziness. But when he calls Jesus a “Son of David,” he’s saying he’s in the royal line, that he’s a king, that he’s the Messiah. He shrieks for “mercy,” which tells us that Bartimaeus cries out from the core of his suffering and lamentation.
The crowd around Bartimaeus is trying to get him to shut up, to be quiet. Maybe they’re embarrassed by his display of need, or maybe they’ve just gotten tired of this blind beggar by the road. At any rate, Bartimaeus won’t be silenced—again he shouts “Jesus, Son of David have mercy on me.” And then Jesus does something he’s never done before in Mark’s gospel and won’t do again. He stands still. Jesus stops.
I wonder how often in our own lives we are compelled to stop what we’re doing and answer a cry for help. In some sense, this scene is the linchpin, separating everything that’s gone before in Mark’s gospel from the next Chapter, where Jesus goes to Jerusalem to suffer and die. And at the very center, at this moment of silence, we find the heart of Jesus, filled with compassion for this blind beggar by the road. Jesus calls Bartimaeus over and Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and goes to Jesus. I wonder about that cloak. Is it his shame that he’s throwing aside, or his reluctance to ask for help in a world that would rather forget about him? And Jesus asks him this terribly important question, the same question we heard him ask last week: “What do you want me to do for you?” Hidden within that question are the two subsidiary inquiries: who are you now and who do you want to be?
And Bartimaeus doesn’t ask for money, or power, or a position. He wants to see again. He wants that wall that separate him from the rest of the world, that wall of darkness to be torn down. Jesus tells him that his healing lies in his faith, and Bartimaeus’ sight is restored. And we don’t know much about what happened to Bartimaeus after that; all Mark tells us is that he followed Jesus on the way.
You know, every time I hear this story about Bartimaeus, I think about a story I heard from my friend and former spiritual director. Some of you may have known him, he was a bishop in this diocese, Bishop Bob Hibbs. Well, one day Bob was in India for a meeting, in Delhi. And he was taking a bus to this meeting, and he missed his stop, and he actually rode the bus to the end of the line. Well, he got out and was walking, and Delhi is like a lot of large cities. If you make a wrong turn, you can find yourself in some very dangerous places.
Well, Bishop Hibbs was there in this vast city in a very poor neighborhood, and he came upon this immense trash heap. It smelled awful and he could see the smoke rising from it. It was, quite literally, a Gehenna at the end of the line in Delhi. And then he noticed something remarkable, because in places, this heap of burning garbage was moving. And upon a closer look, he saw that there were people there, crawling among this rubbish pile. And for them, for the desperate people who lived there, it was like their grocery store or their Walmart. And Bob said he prayed the most astonishing, most audacious prayer of his life. He prayed, “Lord, let me see this the way you do.” Lord, let me see this the way you do; Lord, let me see. And he told me that for a moment, for a fraction of an instant, he thought he could.
So, I’m wondering if we shouldn’t all try that now and then. When we confront a situation that’s full of hopelessness, or when we confront a world that’s full of anger and selfishness, or when we have come to the end of our rope with people we love or even people we don’t, maybe we could pray, “Lord, let me see this the way you do.” And maybe, just maybe, those walls will begin to tumble down. Lord, let me see. Lord, let us see. Amen.
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2021