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22 Pentecost

Psalm 34:1–8, [19–22]; Job 42:1–6, 10–17; Hebrews 7:23–28; Mark 10:46–52

Jesus said to Bartimaeus, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Mark 10:51

On the road where I live in Watertown, affixed to two light standards—one at the beginning of the road as it goes sharply uphill to Whitney Hill, and one at the top of the road, ending at the hill—is a diamond-shaped traffic regulatory sign that reads “Blind – Deaf Child.”  I have never met nor seen that child who, according to long-term residents, is now a young adult woman and is a residential student at Perkins School for the Blind, approximately a mile from my home. 

However, from long-term neighbors, it has been given me to understand that she visits family often, although is never allowed to wander alone outside of her parents’ home.  Nevertheless, I drive always no faster than 10 mph on a road that is so narrow, that two delivery vans cannot pass simultaneously, but rather one has to pull towards the curb, in order to permit the other to drive by.  Everyone, almost out of necessity, appears to take heed of the sign.

From those same long-time residents on the road, I learned that her parents, both of whom are professional, insisted early on that their daughter should have access to every option that connected her humanity to those around her.  Her condition from birth should not deny her a life that was as fulfilling as her condition allowed.  Helen Keller had paved a path, as it were, that affirmed the value of my neighbors’ daughter’s humanity.  The question today before the house is a simple yet weighty one: How does one lead a productive life when it seems that everything and everyone is in opposition?

This question stands at the center of Job’s story, which has been our first lesson over the last several weeks.  Job was a righteous man, holy and without fault, and therefore we could predict with 95% accuracy the outcome of his dilemma.  However, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar and son of Timaeus, causes us to think more seriously about the question and its resolution.  Unlike Job, nothing is given us about Bartimaeus’ moral, ethical, or religious purity.  We know only that he once enjoyed the sense of sight that, because of his condition, forced him to beg for a living (for there was no social support net), and that he desired to regain his sight.

Surely you will recall the story in the gospel according to John (Ch. 9) of the blind man whose sight Jesus restored.  You will recall as well that those who witnessed this occasion sought to attribute the man’s blindness to the man’s moral failure and even to the sins of his parents, or worse yet, to trickery on the part of the blind man, namely that he was never blind, but sought to benefit financially through begging under a fake condition. 

As recorded by Mark, nothing of this sort entered into the account of Bartimaeus.  Rather, if examined closely, what one sees is how Mark cleverly presents options, possible outcomes, based on how the blind man responds to the one question.  Although I am aware that, only now minutes ago, I read to you Mark’s rendition of how the blind Bartimaeus was dealt with, humor me, please, with another version.

  • Bartimaeus, aware that Jesus was in the vicinity, calls out to Jesus.  Question: How did Bartimaeus come to know about Jesus?  Had Jesus’ reputation reached even to the area where Bartimaeus lived?
  • Others nearby told him to “shut it.”  Question: what gave them the right to demand Bartimaeus’ silence?  Did they believe that Bartimaeus was unworthy of Jesus’ attention?
  • Bartimaeus refuses to be silenced.  Question: Where did Bartimaeus find the courage to ignore those who, because they could see, could have caused him bodily harm?
  • Jesus asks that Bartimaeus be brought to him.  Question: There were surely other beggars pleading for aid.  Did Jesus sense something in Bartimaeus that caused Bartimaeus to stand shoulders above others who flocked to Jesus?
  • Jesus asks Bartimaeus a question: “What do you want me to do for you?”  Question: Should it not have been obvious to Jesus what Bartimaeus would ask of him?  Does not this simple, seemingly neutral question illustrate that Jesus does not impose his will onto another’s, but rather allows the petitioner the option of choice?  Was Jesus testing Bartimaeus to see whether Bartimaeus would ask for one of Caesar’s coins, two denarii perhaps?
  • The options before Bartimaeus: to benefit only himself, or to become a living witness to the restorative power that Jesus brings to each encounter.
  • The Resolution: Bartimaeus requests restoration of his sight.

When I hear today’s gospel lesson about restoring sight to the blind Bartimaeus, another more recent statement comes to mind, one made by Helen Keller, to whom I referred earlier and who was both deaf and blind.  Helen Keller reportedly said, “The only thing worse than being blind, is having sight but no vision.”

Bartimaeus’ actions pose for us, people of faith, a question that we must ask ourselves daily: ‘Will we, individually, today, like Bartimaeus, have an inner vision, something of value that enables us to ignore those who would prevent us from achieving a laudable goal, that motivates us to want to reach out beyond ourselves, and whether we have that inner mechanism that makes us calibrate each day how we can achieve that vision?

In essence, Bartimaeus was treated no differently by Jesus than the rich young man, about whom we heard several weeks ago, who also came to Jesus.  Both desired an audience with Jesus, and the audience was granted to both.  Yet, the contrast could not have been more stark: a young man dressed in the finery of his class, probably attended by his servants, and, then, this beggar who, from all accounts, relied on others for his daily bread and a roof over his head. 

The wealthy young man came and knelt before Jesus.  No one kept him away or told him to keep silence.  He had access.  The young man was not a prodigal son.  He was no moral degenerate, shunned by people.  He was not addicted to alcohol or other drugs.  But something was missing—namely, his inner sight, that intangible vision that Helen Keller articulated.

And then there is Bartimaeus.  Any fair understanding of such a story must take into consideration the fact that the gospel writers are never thinking exclusively about physical sight.  The backdrop is always an attempt to draw a contrast between those who see and those who, in a figurative sense, do not see.  The hearers and readers of their day got it, just as we get it in the 21st Century.

This story about Bartimaeus takes on an almost pietistic meaning.  It’s embarrassing, actually.  To be sure, we gather as a community to make Eucharist, to make outreach to those less fortunate than are we, to give aid even to each other.  Yet, there is something reassuring, personally reassuring in this story.  How often have we played peek-a-boo with children, especially with grandchildren, where we have pretended that we are invisible?  That can be a fun thing to do. But it’s no fun if you truly are a person whom others ignore, wherever that slight may occur: in committee meetings, in long lines in supermarkets, in waiting rooms.  No one likes to be neglected or ignored and, too often, those slights lead to catastrophic blood-lettings, even in our own wonderful country.  That is why today’s story is for me one of the most comforting stories in the Bible.

Jesus paid special attention to someone whom so many others had neglected and ignored.  Many people walked past this blind beggar every day.  He could not see who passed by him.  Some were helpful.  Some were rude.  For some, he simply did not exist.  When Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was coming, he started to ask Jesus for help.  And even then, some nearby tried to quiet him, to keep him marginalized.  Jesus, after all, was a man of some stature, held in esteem even by those who disagreed with him. 

He could discuss theology with Pharisees, Scribes, and the teachers in the Temple.  People of note came to him: even a Roman Centurion, for help for his daughter!  Jesus, however, paid attention to this blind beggar, whose condition put him among those at the bottom of the socio-economic heap.  Jesus performed a miracle and Bartimaeus was no longer blind, nor a beggar.  He could see.  He followed Jesus and became part of the family of disciples who lived surrounded by Jesus’ love and care.

And this is what is so comforting and exciting to me in my cool Anglican intellectualism.  Bartimaeus is our example of what we know but rarely give voice to, namely that religion is also highly personal, that our relationship with the God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Miriam, Rebecca, Mary, and Jesus the Christ is as close and personal to us as we are willing to call out to our Divine Creator for sight, for insight for the journey of life before us.  And so today stands Jesus’ question before us: “What do you want me to do for you?”