You’ll know by now that one of the greatest joys for me in this exchange has been to walk alongside you for a time, to get to know you a little, to hear your stories and see what God, the Church, the world looks like from your perspective. It really has been a privilege to be welcomed into your homes and lives as tables have been shared, cups of coffee or glasses of wine drunk, and friendships have been made. I was enjoying one such time with your student intern, Gene, recently, [at Misceos, of course…other cafes are available…apparently!] and we got to sharing about our experience of laser eye surgery. Whilst I’ve been out here Gene underwent a similar operation to one that I had nearly 20 years ago, helping me to put times of lost, squashed and broken glasses behind me for a good few years. So, as our Jaffas melted away, we compared levels of pre-op short-sightedness, shared wonder at the immediate improvement of our vision and squirmed together whilst recalling the gruesome details of the operation – what was sliced where, what implement could be felt on the eyeball, where exactly did that burning smell coming from?!
Well, unlike other recipients of transformed vision in the gospels, Bartimaeus wouldn’t have much of a story to tell about the method of healing. No eyedrops and lasers for him; not even the mud and saliva approach that Jesus uses elsewhere. Just a question and a response from the wandering healer and ‘immediately’, we’re told, ‘he regained his sight and followed Jesus’. Of course it’s probable that Mark, in ever-breathless mode, streamlined what happened here but in any case, Mark’s account of Bartimaeus’ encounter with Jesus is a helpful reminder that Jesus’ healing encounters aren’t to be read as a ‘how to’ guide for medical miracles. Jesus wasn’t some first century Palestinian medical one man band. Rather, just like the parables, we need to linger a little longer with this passage, dig a little deeper, to discover what it might have to teach us about God, grace and how we might be Church.
First up – the context. Today’s reading can be seen as the bookend to a larger section of Mark’s writing in which blindness stands as a unifying theme, beginning back in chapter 8 where it takes Jesus some time and effort to restore sight to a blind man in Bethsaida. The threads of this theme run throughout the following few chapters including the verses preceding today’s reading. We’re told that;
35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” [Mark 10:35-36]
What is it you want me to do for you? Recognize those words from today’s passage? What do you want me to do for you? It’s a question that Jesus asks twice within 16 verses. Now Mark is no sloppy writer. Clearly we’re supposed to pick up on this repetition. So let’s compare accounts. First James and John – the quarrelling ‘sons of thunder’ who were always competing to be the best…if you’ve seen the Marvel films, think Thor and Loki, with a trickle of Trump mixed in! One of the many things I love about the gospels is that Jesus’ followers – those whom Jesus entrusts with his world-changing message of resurrection, wild grace and divine love – are wonderfully slow at times. Isn’t that gloriously reassuring?! Anyway the particular pitfall of Zebedee’s sons is the temptation for narcissistic aggrandizing. In other words, we’re back to the ‘it’s all about me’ outlook. Just look at the way they speak to Jesus. Mere moments after Jesus has once again foretold his coming trial, torture, death and resurrection, up they pop with the demand, ‘Teacher, we want you to do something for us’!
Jesus – once again smiling or sighing, we can never be sure – responds, ‘okay then guys, what do you want me to do for you?” and they answer, somehow with a straight face;
“We want the best seats in the coming kingdom. Plump cushions, plush upholstery and right next to you – me on your left, him on your right.”
Compare this then with the account of Bartimaeus. No front row seat to Jesus’ teachings for him. No easy access to the ear of the enigmatic preacher from Nazareth. On the contrary, he has to shout loudly and persistently – over the tuts and sighs and calls to shut up – just to get Jesus’ attention. “Hey Jesus”, he shouts. “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” Interestingly, he’s the first person in Mark’s gospel to use that royal title for Jesus…suggesting that perhaps blind Bartimaeus sees something that even Jesus’ followers haven’t yet come to realize…
“Jesus!” He continues. “Jesus! Son of David! Please have mercy on me!”
He is rewarded for his persistence – “Call him here,” Jesus says. And now, with the crowd on side, Bartimaeus jumps up, throws off his blanket – perhaps his only worldly possession – and is taken to Jesus, who listens and looks and asks;
“What do you want me to do for you?”
That question again. I wonder how James and John felt when hearing Jesus ask this to someone else. I wonder whether they squirmed with shame at their answer; perhaps willed this blind guy to come up with something better or worse than them; or perhaps they didn’t even notice. Who knows? But the crowd are waiting. The disciples are listening. It’s time for the noisy blind man to reply –
“Teacher,” the man whispers, voice cracking with emotion, “I want to see.”
I want to see. Well, two thousand years later, in a city built by pilgrims from the other side of the world, what if Jesus is asking us the same question he asked the blind man and the bumbling brothers. What do you want from me? How are we to respond as Church?
The temptation, of course, is to follow the same path as James and John for we too are in Jesus’ inner circle, at least we like to think. We too wouldn’t mind some nice, comfy seats beside Jesus – just like those thrones which were up here for the Methodist Conference a few weeks back. Isn’t it what we deserve, after all these years of following him – a little big of recognition, of power even? What do we want from you Jesus? Maybe a louder voice
Wow! Just as Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem and the storm that awaits him there; just as he’s getting somewhere with his talk of cross-carrying, of sacrifice, of masters becoming servants and the first trading places with the last, here come two of his most earnest followers, his closest mates, with a request that slaps him across the face with crass misunderstanding;
“You don’t know what you’re asking,” Jesus replies despondently. “For can you drink from the cup I drink?” A foretaste of the loneliness to come.
in the public square…a bit more money in our bank accounts…a bigger, better junior church…a full time youth worker for that matter…increased numbers, more success…to Make the Church Great Again!
‘You don’t know what you’re asking’, Jesus might well be saying back to us.
I wonder, instead, whether we’re supposed to respond like Bartimaeus, saying, “Teacher, we want to see.” For is it possible that this vulnerable plea was not just about Bartimaeus’ literal vision but about his world being transformed too?
Just think, Bartimaeus had come to experience the world, to make sense of it, not through sight but through his other senses. The feel of his mother’s face; the sudden clatter of soldiers approaching; the smell of the clear, fresh stream. He also experienced the prejudice, the pain and the loneliness of that world. He heard the accusations of sin, felt the disappointment of his family, perhaps even believed in the punishment of God. For Bartimaeus to see would change everything. He would be brought into a world of colour and depth and light but so much more than this – it would be a world of fresh possibilities and perspectives, a world of new relationships and expanding horizons, a world where he wasn’t to be defined as a deficient, outcast sinner but as a much-loved human transformed by God. This would be magnificent, of course, but also, I would imagine, quite scary. For who would he be, what would he do, where would he go? His life of sitting by the roadside calling out for money, for help, for someone to listen to him was what he knew. Where would this new life take him?
Well, we know exactly where for we’re told that Bartimaeus followed Jesus ‘on the Way’ – a reference to the pilgrimage of faith, no doubt – but also to the literal path that Jesus was taking, to Jerusalem. One day Bartimaeus could only see literal darkness, all too soon he would see a much more frightening kind.
‘Teacher, I want to see’, Bartimaeus said. Do we dare say the same? Teacher, we want to see all of life – its beauty and brokenness in technicolour 3D? Teacher, we want our world to be transformed; for everything we know and understand to be challenged, for everything we own to be at risk. Teacher, we want to follow you on the way to Jerusalem; we want to forego power and glory, to instead embrace vulnerability and weakness; to drink from the cup you drink. Teacher, we want to follow you to the cross; to feel our heart break at the injustice, the violence, the hurt of this needy world. It’s not exactly the kind of mission statement to drive the crowds in on a Sunday morning, is it?
Of course, there is still more for Bartimaeus, for James and John, for us to see. For Mark’s gospel concludes with a young man, dressed in white, speaking words of hope to a group of frightened women, saying, “Go, tell his disciples – tell those boisterous brothers, tell Peter, Bartimeaus and all his followers – that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee and there you will see him.”
When we ask God to let us see, it means looking at the messiness of our world, the horrors of humanity…but it also means looking with resurrection eyes – looking for signs of the kingdom in tiny seeds and found coins; in noisy beggars and teenage mothers. It means seeing hope where others have given up, seeing our neighbours, our enemies, even ourselves as much loved children of God. It means being open to glimpsing God’s presence in outcast women and criminals on crosses; in slow disciples and even slower institutions. Asking Jesus to help us see might just transform our lives, our Church, our very world!
Well, these past few weeks, my world has been transformed by a change of vision more profound than any laser surgery could perform. Over the last two months, you’ve helped me see God’s kingdom in toe-clippers, table talks and toddlers tapping tambourines. You’ve helped me glimpse God’s love around lively dining tables and in silent circles; in the taste of Whittaker’s and wine, Jaffas and pavlovas. You’ve enabled me to witness God’s strength as a city is resurrected from the rubble and a church refuses to settle for easy answers. And you’ve opened my eyes to the joy of team ministry, the delight of belonging to a global church family and the breath-taking beauty of the Land of the Long White Cloud. So ‘diolch yn fawr’ as we say in the valleys. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. This isn’t the end of course! Our churches have forged a bond which will long be enjoyed…I’m already planning on getting Martin and Anne on the preaching rota when they’re in the UK next year!…but for now…may God strengthen and surprise you; confront and comfort you; dazzle and delight in you; that everyone, everyone, everyone may come to know of God’s abiding peace, reckless grace and extravagant love. Amen.