October 28, 2012 – Teacher, let me receive my sight
When I took my first New Testament class, one of the things that I realized, that I had never really thought about before, is that a lot of work went into the writing of Scripture. Before, when I thought about the gospels, I believed that the Holy Spirit inspired these four men, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, to write down what they knew about Jesus, either from their personal memories, in the case of Matthew and John, or by collecting the memories of others who knew Jesus personally. And that’s true as far as it goes. But there’s a lot more to it than that. John wrote at the end of his gospel: “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” The gospel writers had a lot of material to choose from! The writing of the gospels, like the writing of the whole Bible, involved the careful choice of what to include and what to leave out, how to express it in words that really convey the truth, and how to put it all together.
If you remember in the Old Testament, God spoke to Moses and ordered the building of the Tabernacle, which was an enormous and very elaborate tent that served as a portable Temple for the Israelites all the time they wandered in the wilderness for forty years. God said, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you.” When God’s Spirit inspires someone to create, he doesn’t use the person like a robot, he gives him or her all the gifts necessary to do that work excellently. The Tabernacle wasn’t just intended to function on a practical level, though we can read that it was planned with the most practical detail, right down to the rings and poles that would be needed to carry it when they moved from place to place. But it was also meant to be beautiful; it was built to show forth the glory and majesty of God. And to do that, God appointed people with ability and intelligence and knowledge and all craftsmanship.
Well, when I began to study the gospels, I began to realize that the authors of those four accounts had to use all those same qualities: ability to write clearly and powerfully, intelligence to give order to the narrative, knowledge of Jesus’s life and teachings, and craftsmanship to put all that together into a story with beauty and power, full of that living Spirit that sets the Scriptures apart from anything else you can read, because it speaks not just to your head but also to your heart, transforming as well as teaching. And that is a very long way to say, Mark was a gifted and intelligent writer, who put the story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus right here, at the end of chapter 10, for particular and important purposes. There are actually two stories about the healing of blind men in Mark, and Mark used them as bookends to frame the important section of the story, where Jesus is training his disciples on the way to Jerusalem. The first healing comes in chapter 8, just before Peter’s confession of faith, when he declared, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” That was a turning point in Mark’s gospel, a watershed moment. Before that point, Mark’s story was about the secret of Jesus’s identity, his ministry under the radar, so to speak. After Peter’s confession, Mark shows Jesus getting very focused on preparing his disciples for ministry, and especially the Twelve: warning them again and again about what was facing them in Jerusalem, and teaching them about the ways of his kingdom, that were utterly unlike the ways of this world. And then Mark brought that section of his gospel to a close with the story of blind Bartimaeus.
Mark used these two stories about blindness as symbols of the spiritual blindness of the disciples. The two men that came to Jesus for healing needed Jesus to restore the use of their physical eyes. But just as important, the disciples needed desperately for Jesus to open the eyes of their hearts and minds to understand what it meant to follow him – and what a completely new life he had in store for them. And up until this point, the disciples were as much in the dark as poor Bartimaeus. They just kept getting it wrong, over and over. They were caught arguing along the way about who was the greatest. They tried to keep away the little children whose parents were coming to Jesus to have them blessed. They were completely taken aback when the rich young man who came to Jesus was sent away instead of being welcomed as part of them. And then, James and John took Jesus aside to ask if they could be put in the places of honor when he came into power. They didn’t get it yet; they were still so blind.
And that’s what shows us Mark’s genius in putting this story exactly where he did. This healing story is special in several ways. One is that unlike almost all the other stories about healings and confrontations, Mark tells us the blind man’s name, and even his father’s name. I think that is probably because Bartimaeus became one of the disciples that day, so that many of those who would have read this story in the early days of the church would have known exactly who Mark was talking about. But also, the story of Bartimaeus stands out as important because here at last someone gets it right! Just by who Bartimaeus is, he is a living illustration of what Jesus has been teaching all along. Bartimaeus, a poor, blind, helpless beggar, is certainly what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of “the least of these”: as helpless and humble as a child, without wealth or prestige, neither attractive nor useful to anyone, he is the last of society, the dregs of humanity. And the way Mark writes the story, you can see that the disciples finally begin to have a change of heart; the light finally begins to break through their dull minds. At first, they have their usual reaction and tell him to shut up, stop making a fuss; don’t bother this great Teacher. But when Jesus stops the whole great crowd and tells them to call him, you can see at last that there is a change of heart. “Hey, take heart!” they tell him, speaking with kindness instead of rebuke. “He’s calling you.”
In that moment, they recognized Bartimaeus as a human being instead of a cipher. We know how hard that is to do that ourselves, when we are in a city and walk past homeless people or panhandlers. How often do we make eye contact, seeing those people as real human beings, beloved of God? It is so much easier, so much less scary, to just walk a little faster and pretend we don’t see them, to pretend we are occupied with reading the store signs or watching the passing traffic – it is easier to do anything but look into the desperate, hungry face of that person before us. But the disciples, following the lead of their Teacher, saw Bartimaeus as a person, and they spoke kindly to him. “Take heart, he’s calling you.”
Bartimaeus comes to Jesus in a rush, in all joy and hope and faith. He throws off his cloak – that would be the garment that he used to spread on the street in front of him to catch the money that people would throw to him – he throws that aside, and he leaps up, blind man though he is, and he comes to Jesus. And Jesus asks him a question we’ve heard before, very recently, in fact. “What do you want me to do for you?” It’s the same question he asked James and John, when they came to him to ask to be made his right- and left-hand men. Bartimaeus answers with childlike humility and honesty – he knows his need as clearly as he believes in Jesus power to help him. “Teacher,” he said, “let me recover my sight.” And then Mark tells us that Bartimaeus was healed immediately; immediately his sight was restored, and he followed Jesus on the way.
Mark wrote down the story of Bartimaeus as an illustration of the way Jesus brought light into the minds and hearts of the disciples. It comes at the perfect place in the gospel narrative; it is good storytelling and clear teaching as well. But he wrote down the story of Bartimaeus for us, too, because we are also traveling with Jesus, learning day by day what it means to be disciples. And we also are faced with our own blindness, in so many ways. “Take heart,” Bartimaeus says to us, “He is calling you.” When we’ve gotten bogged down with the problems and weariness of our life; when we’ve gotten lost in the priorities of this world, when we’ve gotten so used to the way things are that we’ve stopped even noticing our blindness, the story of Bartimaeus tells us, “He is calling you. Take heart.” When we are terribly aware that we are unworthy, when we feel crushed by the feeling that we are the least and the very last person that anyone would love or respect, or even notice, the story of Bartimaeus tells us, “He is calling you. Take heart.”
And like Bartimaeus, it takes faith for us to respond. Sometimes it feels a lot safer not to ask God to heal us or to help us or to teach us. Sometimes it is tempting to hold onto the “small, selfish comforts of our victimhood.” We can get pretty comfy on the roadside; our cloak is arranged just so, to catch the odds and ends of kindness that people might throw our way. It’s scary to leave the place we’ve become familiar with even if we are unhappy there. But discipleship is about following, and that means moving on, taking our eyes off of our selves and our troubles and our fears and our blindness and our shame – and stepping out in faith. Bartimaeus showed us what to do – he leapt up, he threw off his cloak, and he ran to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, let me recover my sight.” Just like that – just the act of coming forward, of bringing our need and our helplessness to Jesus, that’s faith. Faith doesn’t require anything more of us than just to trust that we have come to the One who can help us in our need. Mark wrote this story to tell us what Bartimaeus learned: it is faith that makes us well. Because faith means exactly this – to bring ourselves and our blindness and our fear and our unworthiness to the only One who can bring us light and life and make us whole people. And as whole people, he calls us to follow him and to be his disciples.