I imagine Jesus’ followers found this whole thing inconvenient.
Jesus and the crowd – Mark makes sure we know it’s a large crowd – were leaving Jericho, and this blind guy sits by the side of the road. They are driving carpool, moving between meetings, maybe making a phone call – you don’t make the light, and there’s this guy there. Holding a worn cardboard sign, looking at you. Except in today’s text we know his name. Bartimaeus is the only person healed by Jesus in Mark’s gospel whose name we know1 – every other time it’s ‘a leper’, ‘a paralytic’, ‘a man with a withered hand.’ Bar-timaeus, literally son (bar) of Timaeus, in Hebrew means "son of the unclean."2 And he won’t shut up: "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" The annoyed crowd tries to get him to keep it down, but that only makes him louder. "Son of David, have mercy on me!" HAVE MERCY ON ME!
Jesus stops: "Call him here." Word gets passed: Go get him, somebody grab him, tell him to come over. The fickle crowd, trying to shut him up just a minute ago, says, "Take heart. He is calling you." He hops up, as quickly as he has hopped up in his life – these verbs are great – throwing off this cloak, he sprang up, jumped up, to Jesus. This is fascinating, because from folks I know who are losing vision, they don’t go places quickly.3 Unless they are in a really comfortable space they move tentatively, testing the ground in front of them. Bartimaeus hops up, and is brought face to face with this guy he’s been yelling at, on whom he has placed so many hopes. And he stands there, catching his breath, waiting. And Jesus says to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" What do you want me to do for you?
This is the point where Mark’s readers begin to see some patterns. All this ‘son of David’ language on the road to Jericho reminds his readers of Joshua crossing over to Jericho into the Promised Land, and of David, the king, who reigned in glory. But even more Mark’s readers think about the contrast with the text just before. This is the second of two paired vignettes that run up against Holy Week. Chapter 11 begins with the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and events tumble quickly towards the cross. But back in 10:35, just before today’s text, disciples James and John come up to Jesus asking a favor. He asks them the same question he later asks Bartimaeus: What do you want me to do for you? Missing the point entirely they ask if they might sit at his right and left hand in glory. Their power play incites a riot among the twelve and their squabbling continues until Jesus tells them (again) that the first will be last and the greatest will be servants.4 Then, leaving Jericho, Jesus also asks the same question of ‘ole Bartimaeus. He just wants to be healed. The followers who find stopping for this unclean blind guy inconvenient find themselves convicted. Mark sets this contrast up, between the power-hungry insiders and those on the margins, blind beggars, who see. Who truly see what God is doing in the world through Jesus. It is this conflict that sets the stage for Holy Week.
But it’s also time for us to answer the question. If you were standing there on the side of the road, and Jesus looked you in the eye and asked, "What do you want me to do for you?" What would you say?
I’d love to add 15 pounds of muscle in the shoulders and thighs. I’d love to be able to get grass to grow in the front of my yard. I’d love to be a little more patient than I am. But, with a deep breath we are drawn more fully into the question. We all have a list of family conflicts we’d like resolved, friends with cancer, people who are weak that we pray so desperately might walk again. I want my kids – these 2 and the one on the way – to be healthy and strong. I want the possibilities they have before them to be limitless! I want them to laugh and run and dream.
But I want Jesus to do something for us, for the church, too. I want us to understand that worship isn’t something we fit in when we can, but is an essential part of the faithful life. Every single week. I want every person, without exception, to find a way to be nurtured – through a group or class – as well as a way to use the amazing gifts God has given you to serve the world, from teaching Sunday School to signing up on our website to be a part of the Habitat build. I want us all to be invested. I want this place to be a church that demonstrates to the world that it is possible to be serious about one’s faith without turning your brain off at the door, and that proves that relatively homogenous churches of privileged folks aren’t simply social clubs, but remember who we are to be about. That will not rest until the 246 people a wonderful group of youth and parents served dinner to on Tuesday night at Urban Ministries all have clean places of their own to sleep. I want us to be a church that, even in this hyper-partisan election season, can disagree – even among our own pews – that knows that we are all trying to discern what is right together, and none of us owns truth.
I want Jesus to make this election to be over. Now. I want all this money out of our politics. I am sick of consultants and focus groups that hurl slogans that play to the lowest common denominator. I want troops home, parents invested in their kids’ schools, guns off our streets, enough affordable housing for folks who can’t live in neighborhoods we live in. But even more than that, here’s what I want: I want a world in which we understand that we are all in this together. That we look out for each other. That we notice and care about one another’s suffering. That problems don’t get solved by putting our blinders on when things get hard, but comes when we face up to our problems. When we understand that our kids in Hope Valley are bound together with kids being raised in east Durham, or in the slums of Manila, across the world -economically and politically, but even more importantly, theologically. All our existence and life and suffering are bound together in God’s greater sovereign love for all creation. So that we might remember that God binds us together, democrat or republican, even. No matter where we were born or what color we are or where we get our news or who we love or how convinced we are that the world is going to end if our guy doesn’t win the White House. We cannot do this in our own little enclaves. We must be in this together.
This Reformation Day we give bibles to our kindergarteners. As we do so we rejoice in one of the key facets of the Reformation – that this text is for all. I don’t stand up here and read in Latin and tell you what I want you to hear (not that you’d do it!). But we gather around this text together, that we hand it to our little ones, in kindergarten, and say to them, "come here, let’s read this together. You, too, are a part of this." And we pray that as they learn to read it the Spirit might ignite a passion for learning about this text, and this text’s God. As all of it seeks to bear witness to Jesus the Christ, who confounds our living, who reminds the large and busy crowd of the blind beggar on the side of the road, who stops all of them, calls him over, and calls him to faith. As we rejoice in Luther’s great revelation – which may have happened on the toilet, the apocryphal story goes – that reminds us that this grace is free. That it is God’s gift. That we can’t do enough or know enough or believe enough to merit God’s deepest love. God offers it as a gift.
Christ takes the crowd and Bartimaeus, you and us, and pushes us towards one another. What do you want me to do for you? he asks. I hope you will think about that question some this week, and offer to God your answer. I also hope that, as you are doing that, you will see the folks even right next to you – take a moment and look at them now – that you will see them through eyes of grace. That everyone you see this week, you might seem them through the eyes of grace. At the grocery store, in the office, sitting next to our kids in class. And we can go with Bartimaeus, as we follow Christ on the way.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary, New Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006), p 304.
2. Myers, Ched. "Binding the Strong Man," (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2006), p. 282. Both of these citations come from the Rev. Jessica Tate’s paper on this text at the 2012 gathering of The Well, Montreat, NC.
3. I am especially grateful to my friend Sam Knoll for his insight on Bartimaeus’s experience.
4. This line is from Tate’s paper.