Seeing and Believing
A sermon preached on Mark 10:42-52 in The Chapel of the Good Shepherd at The General Theological Seminary on Friday October 2nd 2009
“Take heart! Get up! Jesus is calling you!”
Bible characters get the strangest nicknames. As a graduate from Methodist, Anglican and Mormon Sunday Schools, I feel particularly qualified to make such a sweeping generalization! In an effort to impress on my young mind the core life-lessons of the Bible, a long series of earnest and well-meaning teachers have left indelible fingerprints on the associations I immediately make in my mind when I hear the name of a particular Bible character. “What one thing,” my teachers surely must have asked themselves while preparing the Sunday School lesson, “What ONE thing can I impress on these young minds about the character in today’s lesson?
I know I’m not alone. Try these on for size and see if they feel familiar to you, too:
When the resurrected Jesus suddenly appears to his disciples in locked room, scaring them half to death, one particular disciple is missing on that first day of the week. When he finally shows up and the others tell him what they have seen, he either will not or cannot believe them. His Sunday-school nick-name? You know it: “Doubting Thomas.”
(Oh, this takes me back!) Let’s try another.
When this particular disciple is warming himself by a fire in a courtyard and one of the High Priest’s servant girls points him out twice as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, he swears at her and says she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. And the cock crows for the second time. His Sunday-school nick-name: “Denying Peter.”
And in today’s Gospel reading we learn about someone who was reduced to begging because of an illness or an accident that had robbed him of his sight and then his dignity. The writer of Mark gives him a name – Bar Timaeus – and my Sunday school teachers gave him his nickname: “Blind Bartimaeus.”
It’s a clever thing to impress on young minds a sure way to associate a name with a defining behaviour or an infirmity. But in the end, it’s also a disservice to reduce any one person – real or imagined – down to a single thing, to flatten her life out as if she were nothing more than that one thing, at best a caricature – frozen in a cartoon frame.
And in Bartimaeus’ case, it can be downright misleading. Yes, Bartimaeus was blind – an important detail for Mark’s story. But, as I hope we rediscover today, Bartimaeus was so much more than his most easily identifiable characteristic.
To hear the spirit of today’s lesson, it’s important for us to back up – about eight verses before today’s lectionary snippet, to the earlier exchange between James, John and Jesus as they are on the road, going up to Jerusalem. Jesus has just taken the twelve aside for private instruction, sharing insider-information – special knowledge: Jerusalem, he tells them, looms ahead; and, speaking in the third person, Jesus teaches them that:
- the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes;
- they will condemn him to death;
- they will hand him over to the Gentiles;
- they will mock him and spit on him; and flog him and kill him;
- that after three days he will rise again.
At this point in Mark’s narrative James and John approach Jesus and make an extraordinary demand: “Teacher [they say] we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And Jesus asks them (these hand-picked, chosen disciples with whom he has shared secret knowledge so powerful that it couldn’t be recorded anywhere in scripture)
“What is it you want me to do for you?”
And James and John say (as we lean in to see how anyone might use such an incredible opportunity):
“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory. [We don’t mind. You choose. One on your left, one on your right.]”
Jesus replies: “You don’t know what you are asking. ”
The other disciples listening in are just as surprised – even upset. Mark tells us that they begin to get angry with James and John. Jesus calls them off and gives them a focused teaching about those who aspire to position and power, and about servanthood:
“For the Son of Man [Jesus says] came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
You are blind, Jesus seems to be saying,
- Blind to who I am
- Blind to what I am about to do
- Blind at who I intend you to be.
Luke annotates Mark’s story this way:
“But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.”
The Bartimaeus story, which follows right on the heels of this James / John / Jesus dialogue, teaches us far more than Jesus having powers to restore sight. Mark holds before us two stories of blindness – weighing the blind ambition of the vision-impaired Disciples on one hand and holding out the practical behaviours and demonstrated attitudes of Bartimaeus on the other. Mark shows us his portrait of the ideal disciple – part of the larger purpose of his Gospel, and in doing so he chooses an outsider over two insiders: Bartemaeus, son of Timaeus.
Although Mark’s details are spare, we can say quite a bit about Bartimaeus:
- He sits on the side of a busy road, in a prime location for receiving charity.
- He hears that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. (Luke fleshes out Mark’s story by having Bartimaeus ask the crowd what all the noise is about. “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by” they tell him.)
- He bellows out above the commotion: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
- When several onlookers tell him to shut up, Bartemaeus persists louder than before:
“Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus not only hears him, but stops dead and shouts back himself: “Call him here!”
The onlookers go from shushing to encouraging Bartimaeus:
“Take heart! Get up! Jesus is calling you!”
And this blind beggar throws off his cloak, jumps up out of his dusty place and moves towards the sound of Jesus’ voice.
Using words unmistakably similar to the ones Jesus uses earlier with James and John, Mark’s conceit is complete:
“What do you want me to do for you?”
(And here’s a glimpse into the power of the original oral story that floated about before Mark first committed it to writing. Although – as with the first-hearers – we know the end from the beginning, it’s always “new” again with each retelling. And it’s in these new moments that the Holy Spirit does her work in helping us regain our vision.)
Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.
“My teacher, [answers Bartemaeus] let me see again.”
And then Jesus does something very interesting. Rather, it’s what he doesn’t do:
- Jesus doesn’t lay hands on him – doesn’t even touch him.
- Jesus doesn’t confect an elaborate spit ball of mud for his eyes, nor does he say any incantation of healing or exorcism.
- Jesus doesn’t tell Bartimaeus to wash himself ceremoniously to make the miracle “take”.
- Jesus simply dismisses him.
“Go!” Jesus says.
As in “Go on, then!” As in “You go now!”
“Dismissed!” “See!” “Your faith has saved you from blindness!”
Immediately, Mark tells us, Bartemaeus regains his sight and follows Jesus “on the way” – Mark’s code phrase for the shape and character of the life of a disciple.
From what blindness is Jesus calling you today?
What mind-set or what situation is Jesus calling you to abandon?
- Throwing off that cloak that conceals, binds, disguises or confines you?
- Rising up in blind faith from safety, from the familiar, away from the narrowness and limitation of a person, place or thing?
- Recognizing the opportunity that Messiah is passing by and seizing the moment?
- Accepting Jesus’ invitation, moving towards his voice, Jesus himself arrested by your cry for mercy?
- Following him on The Way, pursuing The Truth and the Life all the Way to Jerusalem – and on to Golgotha, and into the tomb – sealed and then emptied?
- Taking to heart Christ’s question of you: “What do you want me to do for you?”
- Crying out with Bartemaeus: “Rabbi, let me see again!”
This is what a discipleship looks like, Mark is telling us. This is how disciples behave.
This is both the seriousness and the discipline that Peter is talking about in his letter we heard earlier:
Above all, [Peter writes] maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another [Peter urges - and] without complaint.
Serve one another. Speak the words of God. And do all of this so that God is glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.
For to God alone, [Peter reminds us], belong glory and power for all time. 
Christ still asks us in our time: “What do you want me to do for you?”
And today, we reply, crying out from the Baptismal font of new birth to the Eucharistic Table of new life:
“Lord God, Lamb of God,
you take away the sins of the world;
Have mercy on us!”
Our Good News is that Jesus heard Bartimaeus then just as he hears us today, for his divine ears are finely tuned to the mercy cry of all:
- the Denying
- the Doubting
- the Blind
And in a word, Jesus heals us and sends us out into the world:
“Go!” he says. “Your faith has made you well!”
“Go in peace – to love and serve the Lord.”
 Mark 10:49
 Mark 10:33
 Mark 10:37
 Mark 10:45
 Luke 18: 34
 Paraphrase, 1 Peter 4:7-11
 The Book of Common Prayer, 356
 The Book of Common Prayer, 366