Rev. Dean Myers
46 They came to Jericho. As [Jesus] and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 49Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ 52Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
I want you to know that I considered changing my sermon plans this morning to address the acts of violence and near-violence that dominated the news during the week just ended. I decided not to do that, in part because I suspect I would be preaching to the choir. I believe we are all horrified not only by what happened and nearly happened, frustrated by our unwillingness to address gun violence, disturbed by the spirit of acrimony, hatred, and division that is running wild in our land, encouraged at the very least indirectly by the attitudes and words of many in positions of authority.
I hope you will hear in what I have prepared an invitation to a renewed commitment to a more perfect way, the way of Jesus, the way of love.
What do you want Jesus to do for you?
I mean for you…you, right here, right now…worshipping God in Christ Episcopal Church, Shaker Heights, Ohio, on Sunday, October 28, 2018.
And I mean Jesus…what do you want Jesus to do for you?
My question to you and me this morning is a variation on the very question Jesus himself asks of the blind beggar Bartimaeus in Mark 10: What do you want me [Jesus] to do for you [Bartimaeus].”
As we take a closer look at the event itself, I hope you will be able to hold that question in your consciousness during my sermon, through our celebration of the Eucharist, and into the world as you leave the sanctuary. For it is, perhaps, the most important question you can ever ask.
What do you want Jesus to do for you?
On the surface, Mark’s story of the restoration of Bartimaeus’s sight looks like so many of the other healing stories in the gospels that we are tempted not to give it close attention. You know, you hear one healing story, you hear them all. I admit, that’s what I first thought when I realized it was the gospel text for today. We’ve heard so many such stories in recent weeks, what’s one more?
Our Wednesday morning Bible study group discovered that there’s far more going on than is immediately apparent, and some of it must surely be quite intentional on Mark’s part. I’ll try to give you a brief rundown…but don’t forget the question I’ve asked you to remember! And please, feel free to look at the text of Mark 10 printed in your Sunday bulletin as I speak about it. I will not suspect you of nodding off to sleep!
First off, the core words of dialogue in this story appear in all three of the synoptic gospels; that is, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In each of the three, this is the last healing Jesus performs before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what the church calls Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday begins the final and decisive week of Jesus’s earthly ministry, the week of his death leading to his resurrection on the first day of the following week, on Easter Sunday.
In addition, in Matthew and Mark the story of Bartimaeus is the last recorded event of any kind before Palm Sunday. Although Luke inserts the story of Zacchaeus and the parable of the talents between the two events, it is clear that this healing occupies a special place in the minds of the gospel writers.
Mark offers another clue to the story’s significance in a choice of words, a choice that is obscured by the Revised Standard Version of the Bible and many other translations and versions. Verse 46 says that blind Bartimaeus “was sitting by the roadside,” calling for mercy from Jesus. Verse 52 tells us that seeing Bartimaeus “followed Jesus on the way.” “Roadside” in verse 46 and “way” in verse 52 are the same Greek word. Mark’s telling of the healing of Bartimaeus is bracketed between two appearances of the single word.
That is significant, because the earliest followers of Jesus were sometimes called “people of the way.” They were seen as people who followed Jesus on his way, speaking, acting and living according to his example. Followers were not “believers” only–in the sense of someone willing to give intellectual assent of some kind about Jesus–but they were doers. They walked as he walked, in his way. And the story of Bartimaeus, which begins with him, poor and blind, sitting by the way, concludes with him sighted, and apparently up and about, following Jesus on the way.
Those things in mind–the place of the story just before Palm Sunday, and the dual use of the word for “way”–let’s run through the story itself, remembering that the question for us today is the one Jesus asks Bartimaeus: What do you want me to do for you?
Jesus and his disciples are leaving Jericho accompanied by a large crowd. The blind beggar, Bartimaeus, knowing Jesus has been in town, sits by the road shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” This may be his last chance. He is so desperate that he ignores those who tell him to shut up and cries out ever more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Bartimaeus is using one of the most exalted titles available to identify Jesus. The “Son of David” is the heir to the throne of David, Israel’s greatest king. He is to return to earth and lead an army to restore Israel to its rightful dominant place among the nations. From such a powerful and commanding king one like Bartimaeus can only beg for mercy.
Jesus hears Bartimaeus’s cry for mercy, and asks someone to call him. Someone from the crowd that had been trying to silence him apparently sees an opportunity here for Bartimaeus, and urges him to “take heart”–to have courage–because Jesus is willing to meet him. Bartimaeus excitedly throws off his cloak, springs up, and makes his way to Jesus, probably knocking over things and bumping into people along the path.
And then, before Jesus himself, he must answer one question from Jesus, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Stop here. What would you have said?
Our answer may seem obvious because we know how Bartimaeus answered. But what if we didn’t know that? I confess some broad contours of the kinds of things I might have said: Thank you for asking, Jesus. Please make people who pass by me more generous in their giving to me. (Better yet, give me a large inheritance from great aunt Sarah!) Please make people pay attention to me, and not always silence and ignore me. Help my muscles not get so stiff and sore from sitting on the side of the road all day. Please provide white canes and service dogs for blind folks right now; we shouldn’t have to wait thousands of years for such things, should we?
I think I’d have been too polite to ask Jesus for what I really lacked and wanted. After all, it would put him to the test, in front of his admiring crowd. Jesus might not think restoring sight to a guy like me was worth his effort; he might treat me like the fool I don’t ever want to seem to be…a fool for asking, a fool for believing, and a fool for trusting.
Besides, what would I do if I did get my sight back? If I were suddenly able to fend for myself, and not be dependent as I am now on others? I’d have to get a job, be productive, make a difference, and maybe care for someone else. I am not sure I want to go there and do that! I kind of like my personal Egypt, after all; it’s comfortable, it’s known.
When Jesus asks us, “What do you want me to do for you?” we better be ready to give an honest answer, a courageous answer, an answer from the heart.
The blind man says, “My teacher, let me see again.”
“Son of David” has become “my teacher.” Bartimaeus’s new title for Jesus seems to make the playing field they are both on a little more even. The exalted king has become, somehow in his mind, a personal instructor, mentor, teacher, trainer. Bartimaeus casts himself as Jesus’s disciple, his follower. He is a disciple, at least a would-be one, even as he asks Jesus for his sight!
Bartimaeus simply asks his teacher that he see again. Jesus invites Bartimaeus to go, for his faith has made him well. Bartimaeus own faith in Jesus his teacher gives him sight, and though Jesus bids him to leave, he instead follows Jesus “on the way.”
Bartimaeus’s request in response to Jesus’s question is specific, it is clear, it is verifiable. So, let me see again risks failure, risks change, risks disappointment. It is a request that does not wander into theories, get lost in abstractions, or wallow in what-ifs and maybes.
Jesus does exactly what Bartimaeus has asked, freeing the once-blind man to see and to choose to follow him. The story of the restoration of Bartimaeus’s sight is a story of his initiation into Jesus’ discipleship.
Which will have its ups and downs, and they will begin at once. The “big up” of Palm Sunday will be followed by the deep down of Good Friday will be followed by the really “big up” of Easter Sunday. All along the way, there will be opposition, danger, and resistance. Discipleship is not easy, and we have no knowledge of how long or how faithfully Bartimaeus followed Jesus’s way. We just know he made a start; we all know that making a start is the first thing we must be willing to do.
Is a positive response a sure thing when we ask Jesus directly for what we want and need? I wish I could promise that. Is a positive response such as Bartimaeus got from Jesus necessary in order to be a faithful disciple of Jesus? I hope that is not the case. Do we have to get exactly what we want if we are to follow him?
Although there is no instance in the gospels in which Jesus does not heal when asked, we know that, going back as far as Paul and his “thorn in the flesh,” not all approaches to Jesus for healing since then have come out as hoped. In fact, many have not.
Here is a take on the problem of unfulfilled expectations, of unanswered prayers, based on the example of Bartimaeus: Ask of Jesus what you truly want and need, but make every request in the context of your desire to follow him and to travel his way, knowing his way may not be your way.
We may pray to win the lottery if we want (and perhaps we will win!) but the more important question is, How will I employ whatever resources I have to walk the way of Jesus? And surely pray to Jesus for healing from illness or release from pain, but hold this question in your heart as well, Whether or not I receive the exact response I want, am I determined to live as Jesus lived for as long as I am able.
When we look beyond our seemingly immediate needs and wants to our desire to live the way of Jesus, our understanding of what we need will be modified, and however our wants are addressed, we will be satisfied. We will know we are traveling the way of Jesus, and that his way is the way of life, even in the face of death and disappointment.
This morning, in the face of horrible bloodshed in a house of worship and violence threatened and real throughout our land, we affirm again that the way of Jesus is the way of peace, of compassion, of healing, of forgiveness, and of change achieved by non-violent and respectful means. The way he did it.
What do you want Jesus to do for you?
However we answer that question in this community today, may we answer it in the full assurance that we are and desire forever to be Jesus’s faithful disciples. We are always walking his way…the way that Bartimaeus saw to walk.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.