This morning I’d like to draw attention to some important connections between the account of the healing of Bartimaeus that we have just heard and other passages in Mark’s Gospel. I’m indebted to work of Mark Hoffman, a Lutheran pastor and writer for his analysis.
Today’s reading concludes a section of Mark’s Gospel that began with the healing of another blindman. The two passages, and indeed other healing stories in the Gospel, share many similarities. Jesus recognises the affliction, he takes action to heal it, and the result and the recipients response is described. If we look closely though we can see some clear differences. In the first story Jesus’ attempted healing results in the man seeing imperfectly. You may recall that after putting saliva on the man’s eyes, Jesus asked “Can you see anything?” and the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. It’s a very curious passage, the response of the blind man reminds me of the experience of trying on someone else’s glasses. As Mark Hoffman points out, the Bartimaeus story is surely not an account of Jesus having improved his sight restoration technique. But what then is the purpose of the story?
Bartimaeus provide an example that contrasts with others in the Gospel in a number ways that are significant.
The first blind man was passive, we’re told that some people brought him to Jesus and begged him to touch him. Bartimaeus on the other hand, though he cannot see, when he hears that Jesus is passing by, cries out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” This is the first time that the Royal title “Son of David” is applied to Jesus connecting him to King David. When Jesus enters into Jerusalem the crowds shout – “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Whilst Bartimaeus is given this insight into Jesus identity. Understanding Jesus often takes rather longer just like the process of gaining or regaining sight, it isn’t always instantaneous.
Immediately after the account of the healing of the first blind man, Peter himself became an example of imperfect vision. Jesus had asked the disciples at Caesarea Philippi “who do you say that am?” and Peter answered him “You are the messiah”. So far so good but then Peter rebukes Jesus for suggesting that his messiahship will follow a path of suffering and death. He in turn is rebuked “Get behind me, Satan! (Jesus says) For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Bartimaeus’ perceptiveness is further illustrated by comparing his story with the Gospel from last Sunday when Jesus asked James and John. “What do you want me to do for you?” and they asked for positions of honour and glory. Bartimaeus, in contrast, asks for sight and he receives it both physically and spiritually.
Perhaps most importantly, Bartimaeus not only grasps Jesus’ true identify but he responds, he follows Jesus. Jesus is explicit about the path of discipleship “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” he said. The rich man though, who approaches Jesus asked “good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus responded “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor… then come, follow me”. He went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Bartimaeus on the other hand respond immediately – throwing off his cloak we are told, perhaps his only possession, he sprang up and came to Jesus. After his sight is regained we’re told very simply that Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the way.
Bartimaeus exemplifies the disciple who grasps Jesus’ identity, sees where the way ahead leads and despite its difficulty, follows and believes Jesus and this passage might be particularly helpful for us all at this moment in time. The pandemic forced all of us to re-evaluate our lives. Sometimes what we found was inspiring, like the response that we saw in many communities with many people reaching out to their neighbours in need. Sometimes what we discovered though was uncomfortable for many of us. The veneer of control and self-sufficiency was exposed as illusory. Some of us attempted to turn again to Christ for consolation but perhaps, like the rich man, went away grieving. I am aware in my own heart and in the world around that the desire for security has asserted itself very strongly. The experience of vulnerability was unpalatable and now as we want to get back to normal life measures to protect ourselves and others are often inconvenient. I want a full tank of petrol so that I need not be anxious about being able to drive the car, I want my third vaccine to boost my immunity, I want to fly abroad on holiday again. In my public health role I’m involved everyday in working to promote uptake of the vaccine to protect the NHS, to protect our economy.
These are all in themselves sensible responses, individually and as a nation, and we of course have a responsibility to care for ourselves. There is a peril in this moment as well though I think if that tips over into indifference to others. The realisation of vulnerability may lead us to double our efforts to secure our place in the world at the expense of our brothers and sisters elsewhere.
Whilst many of us worry about our boosters, two thirds of the world’s population are not yet vaccinated. As we anticipate the COP meeting in Glasgow we see similar global disparities on an even grander scale. Others elsewhere in the world are far more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than us but the sacrifices of radical change in our own lives loom larger than the risks to theirs and building our own defences looks far more appealing.
There are voices in our world that cry out for help. In today’s Gospel, Bartimaeus called out for help. In response we’re told, many sternly ordered him to be quiet, whatever they were hoping of in following Jesus it didn’t include a blind man at the side of the road. Jesus though stood still and said, “Call him here.” And the disciples did respond, they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you”.
Today, as we look to blind Bartimaeus we pray that we might better grasp Jesus’ identity and his call on our lives and seeing where the way ahead leads that we might have the strength to follow a path of sacrifice and trust in our Lord’s eternal victory.
To him be all glory, now and to the ages of ages.