Saturday, November 07, 2009

A Model Disciple

Sermon preached on October 25, 2009 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Mark 10:46-52 (Proper 25B)

This story of Bartimaeus is rich so I want to take the time to go through it noticing things that are helpful. You might want to have the story in front of you as I do this. This is sort of sermon as Bible study.

The story begins,

Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho.

If you investigate the context, this is part of a journey story. The journey is from Galilee, the region in which most of Jesus’ ministry has taken place, to Jerusalem. What has been going on over the course of this journey is that Jesus has been spending a lot of time teaching his disciples about what is to occur in Jerusalem and they have been spending a lot of time not getting it, or getting lost in distractions like arguing about who is the greatest.

You will also note from context that this is the last story before Jerusalem. The very next story in Mark is Palm Sunday. And if you take a glance through all that is to follow, you will note that this is the last healing Jesus does in Mark’s Gospel.

As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.

The first thing we should notice is that this object of Jesus’ ministry has a name. This is the only time that is the case in the whole Gospel. Why is that so? There must have been something important about this person for his name to have been remembered. What was it? We’ll see if there are any clues in the rest of the reading.

Is it important that this is a blind man? Perhaps it is. Certainly the disciples have been blind to what Jesus is up to. There has been an earlier healing of a blind man in Mark’s Gospel, back in chapter 8. It too followed an incident where the disciples were unable to see. It is followed by the story of Jesus asking “Who do people say that I am?”, which begins his time of teaching the disciples about the true nature of his mission, which has just ended before the Bartimaeus story. The two stories of healing blind men serve as book ends to the period of teaching and serve to emphasize the inability of the disciples to see.

When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Bartimaeus is bold and shouts out to Jesus, passing by with his entourage. One really wonders if he expects to be heard or not; he is probably frequently ignored by passers-by.

He calls Jesus a very unusual thing in Mark’s Gospel, “Son of David.” Nowhere else is Jesus called this. This shows a fairly sophisticated understanding of Jesus on the part of Bartimaeus. It may also be what pricked the ears of Jesus so that he stopped to listen.

Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Bartimaeus calls out from the edges of society. He is a powerless man in a world that is harsh to the powerless. The crowds do not consider him worthy of Jesus’ attention. He, however, is inspired and persistent.

Perhaps he has heard that Jesus has had a particular and peculiar ministry to the outsider and the powerless. Perhaps he has heard that Jesus has declared the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Whatever knowledge from which he is operating, there is tremendous faith here, faith that Jesus will recognize and name in a moment.

So often persistence is required of us. Why doesn’t God answer prayer immediately? I don’t know. I do know that persistent prayer is an antidote to discouragement.

Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

Jesus enacts the last shall be first. The use of the word “call” three times here underscores that this is not just a healing story, but a call story as well, and at the end of the story it will seem as if Bartimaeus has become a disciple.

Who is “they” as in “they called the blind man?” Are they members of the crowd who have quickly changed their tune? Are they the disciples? We don’t know. Whoever it was, they participate in the overturning of the man’s outsider status.

So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.

It’s a wonderful little detail, this throwing off of the cloak. It was more than likely the man’s sole possession other than whatever it was keeping him from being naked. Contrast this to the rich man in the story two weeks ago, whom Jesus invited to give away all that he had, and he went away sorrowful because he couldn’t do it. Jesus had said that it would be hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Here it is easy for the poor, who do not have possessions in their way.

From time to time in our lives we all have cloaks that we need to throw off in order to be in closer relationship with God. Whether we are seeking healing or deeper discipleship or something else, we are often tied down by something, and the more possessions we have the more things are likely playing this role. Like Bartimaeus, we need to throw off that cloak and go to Jesus.

Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

It is a very simple, direct question. Interestingly enough, it is the same question Jesus asked the disciples James and John in the previous passage. Their reply was to sit at his left and right hand in his kingdom. Clearly Bartimaeus is meant as a contrast to them. They ask for privilege that Jesus cannot grant them. Bartimaeus asks for sight which he can. Again, the disciples are blind even though they can see, and Bartimaeus can see even though he is blind.

The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.”

As the question was simple and direct the response is simple and direct. “Let me see again.” The man comes to Jesus with no pretense, no guile, just honesty about his need.

He is healed with no effort on Jesus’ part at all. This contrasts to the previous healing of a blind man in Mark’s Gospel which included the rubbing of saliva on the eyes and the laying on of hands. No show is required here. The man’s faith is enough.

“Your faith has made you well” were the same words Jesus used with the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment. She too had battled the crowds to get to Jesus, clearly an outsider and powerless like Bartimaeus.

Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Jesus says “go,” but it is a somewhat ambiguous “go.” Others he directed specific places. “Go home,” he told the other blind man earlier in the Gospel. And usually he asks that no one be told about what had happened, but that is missing here. Perhaps it’s too late in the ball game to keep the secret. The authorities he is going to confront in Jerusalem already know everything about what he has been doing.

So what happens? Unlike any other story in Mark’s Gospel, the man becomes a disciple. He follows “on the way.” Perhaps this is why he is remembered. He became a disciple, a witness to the resurrection. True, we hear nothing more about him, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

So what appears to be a healing story—and certainly is that—is also a discipleship story, and a “the last shall be first” story.

Bartimaeus ends up being a model disciple for us, more so than those we traditionally call disciples. We should all pray to see clearly, be ready to throw off whatever is in our way, and follow on the way. May this Eucharist continue to give us new eyes so that we can see our true calling.

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