Saturday, October 28, 2006

Seeing Jesus Again for the Very First Time

Text: Mark 10.46-52

Sometimes what the Bible does not say is as interesting as what it does say. For example, how many gallons of ink have been spilled in wondering about what Jesus was doing in the twenty or so years before he began his public ministry. The public ministry of Jesus began (Luke tells us) when he was “about thirty years old” (Luke 3.23). The next earliest story we have of Jesus (also from Luke) is his visit to the Temple when he was about twelve years old (Luke 2.42). Twenty years of Jesus’ life pass in silence. Did he spend the time quietly working as a carpenter in Nazareth? Did he travel beyond Palestine? Was he abducted by aliens? But the New Testament leaves with nothing but silence.

I’m even more intrigued by the story of the woman caught in adultery. When she is brought before Jesus, he stoops to the ground and writes in the dirt with his finger. (John 8.6) It’s the only account the Bible gives us of Jesus writing. What do you suppose he wrote? One preacher suggested that Jesus wrote the names of the men in the crowd who had committed adultery themselves!

Today’s gospel also leaves us with an intriguing silence. “Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"

Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples arrived in Jericho and that they left, but tells us nothing of what happened in between. How long were they there? Did Jesus teach and preach? Did he weave any new tales of prodigal sons and good Samaritans? Of lost sheep and priceless pearls? And above all, I wonder, did he work any miracles? But undoubtedly something happened while Jesus and the disciples were in Jericho.

But before we get to what might have happened in Jericho, consider the significance of Jericho itself. Jericho, now as then, is an important town. It is situated in an oasis in the desolate wasteland between Jerusalem and the Jordan River. It is about 15 miles east of Jerusalem, just on the other side of the hills that stand between Jerusalem and the Jordan. It was an important commercial center and trading post on the principal road that connected Jerusalem with the Jordan Valley and points east. But its religious significance outweighed even its commercial significance. Jericho was the point at which the Israelites had entered the Promised Land. Jericho symbolized God’s fulfillment of the divine promise to Israel that they would enter and possess a land flowing with milk and honey.

Thus Jesus’ choice of routes into Jerusalem was full of significance. He could have traveled from Nazareth to Jerusalem via the flat coastal plain, passing along near the sites of modern-day Haifa and Tel Aviv. But instead he chose the rougher, more arid interior route of the Jordan Valley. Jesus’ journey recapitulated Israel’s journey. But there was a difference: Israel journeyed from the wilderness to the promised land, but Jesus journeyed from the promised land to the cross. However, each went via Jericho.

So, what do you supposed happened between the first and second sentences of today’s gospel reading? Between “they came to Jericho” and “as he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving”? That something happened is beyond doubt. Something happened that came to the attention of blind Bartimaeus.

Imagine Bartimaeus’ world. Marks tells us that Bartimaeus said to Jesus, “Let me see again”. Bartimaeus is different from the blind man whose healing is recounted in the 9th chapter of John’s gospel who was blind from birth. Bartimaeus had once had sight but had lost it. I imagine that Bartimaeus’ desire for healing was greater, much greater, than the blind man in John’s gospel. He had had something precious and had lost it. The loss of sight must cause inconceivable anguish. I imagine that Bartimaeus had had to struggle with bitterness because of his enormous loss.

It is somewhat redundant to refer to Bartimaeus as a “blind beggar”. He was blind, so of course, he was a beggar. He had no alternative. He sat beside the road and begged for spare change. However, Mark portrays Bartimaeus as a man of decisiveness and action, not as a passive victim. Rather than passively accept his fate, Bartimaeus refuses to be ignored. He shouts. He makes a scene. He shouts Jesus’ name. The crowd hushes him. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet…” But Mark tells us that Bartimaeus “cried out even more loudly” and shouted Jesus’ name again.

A detail I find especially poignant is that when Jesus notices Bartimaeus and calls for him to come to him, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak. What do you suppose that cloak represented to Bartimaeus? Just how many cloaks would a blind beggar of the first century possess? Perhaps he had a begging bowl and a staff, but I doubt he would have much else. That cloak may have represented anywhere from 25% to 50% of Bartimaeus’ possessions. It is even more powerful when we think of the story of the rich man who came to Jesus earlier in the tenth chapter of Mark’s gospel. When Jesus told him to sell all that he had and give the money to the poor, he “went away grieving, for he had many possessions”. What a contrast with Bartimaeus who, with joyful abandon throws away his cloak, perhaps his most expensive possession!

As a sightless man Bartimaeus’ only way of learning about the world was via his other senses, mainly his sense of hearing. What Bartimaeus knew about Jesus he would have learned by listening. So whatever Jesus did during his visit to Jericho, Bartimaeus must have learned about it by listening to the buzz of the crowds. He could not observe directly.

From the few remarks of Bartimaeus that Mark records, it is plain to me that Bartimaeus knew two things about Jesus. First, he believed that Jesus was the Messiah. As Jesus is leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus shouts, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” “Son of David” is a messianic title. The Messiah was thought of as the heir of the throne of David, the one who would re-establish a united kingdom of Israel and Judah, as David had. Secondly, Bartimaeus knew that Jesus could heal. When he and Jesus come face to face, Bartimaeus poignantly says, “My teacher, let me see again”.

So much for what Bartimaeus knew about Jesus. What do you suppose Jesus knew about Bartimaeus? Again, we don’t know how long Jesus had been in Jericho or what he had done there. Perhaps he had taught extensively. Undoubtedly, he had healed. Otherwise, why would Bartimaeus have begged Jesus to heal him? More than likely, Jesus was tired. But most importantly, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, to the cross, to his death. There must have been much on his mind and heart. And then suddenly, as he was leaving Jericho, faintly, from the edge of the crowd that thronged around him closely, he heard a noise, some kind of disturbance. And then it came again, and the second time, he could make out the words, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus told the crowd to bring to him the man who was calling out for him.

Perhaps the most powerful detail in this story is the question that Jesus asks Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” It is powerful because it is almost word-for-word what Jesus had said to James and John in the story immediately preceding the healing of Bartimaeus. “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’” (Mark 10.35-37)

What a contrast! James and John had wanted glory, power, fame, and perhaps riches. They had wanted the choicest seats in the Kingdom of God. In contemporary terms, they had wanted Jesus to choose them as his running mates! But Bartimaeus had only wanted his sight; he only wanted Jesus to restore the ability he had once had to see the orange sunset, the petals of a daisy, the smile of a loved one.

Mark forces us to ask the questions: Who was really blind? And who really received their sight? Plainly, the rich man whose great wealth had kept him from “inheriting eternal life” was blind when he came to Jesus and blind when he left. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, threw away the greatest part of his worldly possessions. Can you see his cloak flying from his hand as he runs toward Jesus as fast as his blindness would permit him?

James and John were at least as blind as the rich man who could not part with his great possessions. They understood the kingdom of God in terms of power and status; for them the kingdom was about who was in and who was out; who had front row seats and who was in the “nosebleed” section. In contrast, Bartimaeus asked for nothing more (and nothing less) than God’s first creation and gift to the world: light.

How do we know that Bartimaeus was healed? That’s obvious, isn’t it? Mark says that “immediately, he regained his sight…” Nothing could be clearer. However, there is more, much more. Bartimaeus could have regained his sight and remained blind.

Mark has placed the story of Bartimaeus’ healing in a very significant place. It takes place immediately before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It takes place just before the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. Jesus, as I said earlier, is on his way to Jerusalem, to the cross, to death. Everything in Mark’s gospel leads up to this point. Although Mark tells us of only one other blind man that Jesus heals, it could be argued that virtually everyone in Mark’s gospel is blind, especially the disciples. The disciples consistently fail to understand what Jesus is all about. Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah but is horrified when Jesus foretells his death on the cross. James and John ask Jesus to give them preferential treatment.

Blind Bartimaeus is one of the few people in Mark’s gospel who really see. And we know this by the last five words in chapter ten. “Immediately he regained his sight, and followed him on the way”.

Mark presents us with a stark choice: Will we be like the rich man and let our possessions or accomplishments come between Jesus and us? Will we be like James and John and think of the service of God as a means for self-advancement? Or will we be like Bartimaeus? Will we let nothing keep us from crying out in prayer to God? Will we toss aside whatever gets in our way and run as fast as we can toward Jesus? And above all, will we “follow him on the way”, even though we know that it is the way of the cross?