The following sermon was preached as part of my section for my preaching class at Yale Divinity School. This is one of two full length sermons I will have to give in class this semester. The text is the Gospel from Proper 25: B (Mark 10:46-52). You can listen to the sermon over on SoundCloud.
While this may be surprising for a Gospel passage read at the end of October, this morning’s text is about two things: discipleship and the cross. Forget the outrage that stores are carrying Christmas stuff before Halloween – today’s Gospel jumps right over the incarnation season and heads directly for Lent and Good Friday.
This morning’s text is the concluding story of Mark’s discipleship catechism – Mark’s teaching on what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Over the last several weeks, we have heard stories of the importance of amputating everything that separates us from the love of God. We have heard of a rich man and a camel going through the eye of a needle. We have heard James and John asking Jesus for the best seats in the Kingdom of God. After hearing story after story of what not to do, we finally have an example of what true discipleship looks like. We have arrived at the story of Bartimaeus.
From the very beginning of this passage, the Gospel writer gives the reader a clue that something big is going on here. Unlike the other thirty-something healing stories in the four Gospel narratives this is the only story – with the exception of Lazarus – where the person who is healed is named. Typically, the closest we ever get to learning the identity of someone is through relational contexts, such as Jairus’ daughter. By doing something so different, Mark is telling the reader: PAY ATTENTION. THIS IS IMPORTANT. THIS WILL BE ON THE FINAL EXAM. But what is so important about another blind person receiving their sight?
As soon as Bartimaeus hears Jesus along the road he starts shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He does not ask for the mysteries of eternity, he does not ask for the top place in the new world order: Bartimaeus asks for mercy. You see in the time of Jesus, if you were to have some sort of physical illness, if something in your body did not function properly, it was believed to be because you did something to anger God. It was because you were a sinner. It is with an impassioned desperation to be made whole, to be allowed back into society, to be made visible that Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me!” He knows what is wrong with him so when he finally is called by Jesus and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” He has an answer, “My teacher, let me see again.” Let me see.
From this point the Gospel moves very quickly:
“Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”
Unlike the other healing stories, Jesus does not spit in the dirt and make mud, nor does he even touch this blind man. Jesus heals Bartimaeus with a word. It is through his faith, through his recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, through his recognition of his own need for mercy, compassion, and healing, that Jesus heals him. While Jesus tells Bartimaeus to go it is not the same declaration he makes to others who have been healed. Bartimaeus is not told to go home and keep this miraculous occasion a secret – no Batimaeus is allowed to follow Jesus on the way.
The striking characteristics of this pericope do not end with this brief dialogue and sending. Bartimaeus’ actions speak volumes to the actions required of a disciple – of a follower of Jesus.
After crying out to Jesus and being discouraged by the crowds, Jesus calls out to Bartimaeus, but Bartimaeus does not know – he does not hear Jesus:
“And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.”
Now I don’t know about you, but springing up is not something I do. Rolling out of bed, shuffling to class – yes. But springing up, who does that?
In springing up, Bartimaeus demonstrates the excitement, enthusiasm, and eagerness to approach Jesus that all disciples, all followers, are called to have. In the midst of the overwhelming and oppressive heat and humidity of Jericho, Bartimaeus uses all the energy he has to encounter the incarnate nature of God.
In his haste to meet Jesus, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak. His cloak is presumably his most treasured possession and certainly contains any money he has made or food he has brought along for his day. Yet he throws all of that aside – he casts off everything that he has to run to Jesus. Unlike the rich man who cannot image selling off the vast amount of land and stuff that he owns, unlike James and John who want to own the best seats in the proverbial house, Bartimaeus gives it all up to follow Jesus.
Bartimaeus – without even knowing it – shows us the true meaning of discipleship. He shows that to be a follower of Jesus we must cast aside everything for the gift of seeing Jesus and we must do so with all energy, excitement, and eagerness.
Stepping beyond this miraculous event in Bartimaeus’ life, this text – these concluding verses of Chapter 10 – serve as the bridge between Jesus’ Galilean ministry and his fate in Jerusalem.
Throughout the proceeding chapters of the Gospel narrative, Jesus has been hinting at what his coming ahead of him. As soon as the encounter with Bartimaeus has concluded, we begin the next chapter with Jesus entering Jerusalem.
This bridge from discipleship to entering Jerusalem teaches us something vital about what it means to be part of the Jesus movement. It seems to me that Jesus’ call to discipleship seeks not our cognitive assent, nor our churchly habits, nor our liturgical proclivities, nor theological sophistication, nor doctrinal correctness, nor any other poor substitute we have created throughout history. Discipleship comes down to one simple question: do we want to see?
Do we like Bartimaeus cry out to Jesus “Have mercy on me?” Do we beg, “Let me see?” Or do we keep our heads down and not make a scene to keep appearances up that everything is wonderful? Do we wish to keep our blinders on so we only see that which makes us feel good? Do we shield our eyes from that which makes us uncomfortable?
When our lives and ministries are characterized by encounters with the blind who want to see, the lame who want to walk, the deaf who want to hear, the hungry who want to be fed, the naked who want to be clothed, the captive who want to be set free – When our lives are characterized by encounters with Bartimaeus then, and only then, do we get to see a glimpse of what is means to encounter the holy and living God. Then do we get the gift of sight to see Jesus revealed in our very midst.
While Bartimaeus may have asked Jesus for his physical sight, the whole of these chapters of Mark – the whole of Mark’s discipleship catechism is about healing spiritual blindness. It is about taking off the blinders of this world and putting on the glasses of the kingdom of God. It is about taking off the lenses that force us to see what the world wants us to see and looking out from the view of the cross.
Bartimaeus refuses to be defined by his circumstances or by the expectations of those who are able to see, who appear to be close to Jesus, and who assume the right to speak on his behalf. He ensures that his cry will be heard by Jesus. This is the dedication we are called to embody – this is the life that Jesus begs us to live. We who have been blessed with sight, we who have been blessed with physical health, with food, shelter, and the comforts of this world are called to reach out and make sure that no stumbling block is put in the way of those who want to call out to Jesus. We are called to join their shouts of justice – to join their cries to Jesus, “Have Mercy on me, for we are sinners in your sight!”
At this point in the gospel, Jesus has been making his way to Jerusalem and now with the seeing Bartimaeus by his side he has entered that fateful city.
I wonder what our lives and ministries would look like if we had our eyes opened, if our spiritual blindness was healed so that we could see Jesus’ fate in Jerusalem? I wonder what would happen if we recognized that all our lives are pointed to the cross. For in his death on the cross Christ reveals the blindness of his followers – he reveals the blindness of each and every one of us. But, in his resurrection – in his triumph over death and the grave – Jesus gives his followers eyes to see the good news of God’s ongoing reign.
As followers of Jesus – and members of the Jesus movement – our sight has been restored. So the question remains: do we want to see the world around you? Do we dare to see the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, and the marginalized? Or do we wish to put our blinders back on?
If we choose to accept the sight Jesus offers – the sight of a man healing, comforting, showing mercy; the sight of a man accepting the very worst that humanity has to offer on the cross – then we can no longer live as if we have blinders on. We must accept the reality that Bartimaeus experienced: encountering Jesus has life-altering consequences. Once we encounter Jesus, there is no turning back. We must work together, we must live into the promises of our Baptism, we must continue in the apostles’ teachings and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers, we must persevere in resisting evil, we must repent and return to the Lord, we must proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, we must seek and serve Christ in all persons, and we must respect the dignity of every human being.
When Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” We must be bold enough to reply, “My teacher, let me see.”