Mark 10:46-52 ‘seeing and believing

Reflection by Anne Stewart

What if there was something you wanted more than anything, something that would bring you back from the margins of life to community with others?  What if you believed this was all possible, because someone was coming by who you trusted could make that much difference in your life?  Would you throw all caution to the wind, including your cloak (your prized possession), in full expectation that an encounter with this person would be all it would take?  Would you break all the rules and do all you could to demand attention because this might be your one and only chance?  Or, would you hold back and wait for help to come in a manner more like you might expect, something more private, or predictable, or socially acceptable?

It’s not easy is it, to really put yourself in that space.  That might be something for you to reflect on later.  The story of the healing of Bartimaeus is a story that the more we sit with it, the deeper it takes us into the nature of how God meets us and what is real in our expectations.  The story is told in a style typical to Mark’s gospel.  It is simple, succinct and economical with words.  But there are some striking details in it. I want to work through these now and see what stands out.

This is the story of the final healing miracle told in Mark’s gospel.  The last story, but the first in which the person who is healed is named.  Some think Bartimaeus was named because he was a notable person, and others think he is named because of what he did as a result of the healing.  Whatever the reason, it is significant that this name was recorded and that we know it even today. 

Jesus has been having some trouble with his followers, the disciples.  Sometimes those poor disciples seem to be a bit slow to catch on.  Perhaps we could say that they appear confused or blind to what is going on around them.  A couple of chapters back, the story is told of Jesus becoming aware of the disciples worrying about how to feed the four thousand, and he says, ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see?’  And he goes on to remind them of the time that five thousand were fed from what they had on hand, finishing with ‘Do you not yet understand?’  The disciples had eyes but failed to see.  In contrast Bartimaeus had difficulties with his eyes but despite this he could still see who Jesus was, sufficiently enough to trust that this man would hear him if he called out to him and that he would help him.

In the time of Jesus, it was a general understanding that a physical challenge such as blindness meant the person afflicted, or their parents, must have done something wrong.  The affliction was understood as a punishment.  It led to those afflicted being pushed to the margins and denied a place in community.  We have different ways of understanding illness today, but I wonder if the same judgement of the person is buried not far below the surface.  We do tend to rush to explanations, maybe the person suffering didn’t eat well, or exercise, or they smoked, or they were inferior in some way.  I wish we rushed to help or have compassion as quickly as we rush to condemn or categorise or again push them to the margins.  Blame must surely be the last thing you need to hear when you are struggling.  Jesus’ acts of healing seemed to also include restoration into the community.

So, given the understanding of the times, it is not a surprise that a blind man like Bartimaeus would find himself having to beg on the roadside in order to live.  There were, most probably, not a lot of other options available to him.  I am intrigued, though, at the way in which someone on the margins knew about Jesus.  More than that he had a sense of exactly who Jesus was, calling him Son of David, and he trusted that Jesus could and probably would help him.  He got Jesus.  Perhaps in a deeper way than the disciples, who seemed to be struggling.  Bartimaeus could discern what those with physical sight could not.  He could ‘see’.

Bartimaeus also showed extraordinary spirit.  He trusted in what he knew, enough to call out to Jesus.  He crossed all number of societal boundaries and demanded Jesus’ attention.  He was rebuked and told to be silent, to know his place which is not to be thinking he has any right to demand any attention from a rabbi.  But he persisted.  Those nearby couldn’t believe Jesus would take any notice of a blind beggar.  But Bartimaeus seemed to know.  He seemed to know that Jesus would hear him, listen to him, understand him, and help him.

Jesus responded in an interesting way.  He didn’t call to Bartimaeus and ask him to come to him, he asked those nearby to bring him, to him.  He asked those who would silence Bartimaeus to assist him in his ministry to him.  Bartimaeus responded with a significant gesture, he cast off his cloak.  For a man in his position, blind (physically challenged) and needing to beg to live (economically challenged), his cloak would have been a prized possession and one he would not have given up lightly.  That he did this suggests to us that he expected his situation to change as a result of Jesus hearing him.  He expected to be transformed by the encounter with Jesus.  What a great story this is!  What a lot it has to tell us!  When Bartimaeus cast off his cloak he believed that he would no longer need it to sit on and depend on handouts from those passing by.  He threw it down in full confidence that his place in the community would be restored. 

Then comes the question from Jesus that the whole story pivots on. ‘What do you want me to do for you?’  There is no presumption on Jesus’ part that he knew what Bartimaeus needed, instead he gave the power to the man on the margins and asked him what he can do for him.  We can learn a lot from this way of determining need.  We tend to think we know what others need and often forget to ask.  It’s also a very personal and relational question what do you want me to do for you?  I wonder how we would respond to that question from Jesus.  What do you think you might say, if you heard Jesus ask you ‘what do you want me to do for you?  [Let’s take a moment and sit with that, what might you say in response?]

Bartimaeus responds with a very simple request ‘My teacher, let me see again.’  Had he seen before?  Did he want his sight restored?  In contrast, earlier in the chapter when the disciples, were asked a similar question, they came up with requests for honour or privilege.  Could they not see the kingdom of God in the way that Bartimaeus could?  Is that why Bartimaeus was so keen to have his eyes opened?  That he would see the new spiritual, social and material realities that are made possible when God reigns.   With his sight restored he would do the rest, he would humbly follow, he would stay in relationship with this God who he trusted to hear him and who he fully expected would transform his life.  And his name would be remembered for that.  Bartimaeus was asking for restoration so that he could follow Jesus who had showed him mercy. 

This led me to thinking about the various ways that Jesus responds when we call out to him; the responses we hear and especially those we miss.  Jenny Agnew shared a great story on Thursday – you might be familiar with it.  During a flood a man was sheltering on his rooftop convinced that his faith in God would rescue him.  As the waters began to rise a man came by in a jeep and offered the man a ride out, but the man declined because he had faith in God and he would be ok.  A little while later the waters continued to rise and a man came by in a dinghy and offered the man a lift.  No thank you, he said I have faith that I will be ok.  After a while a helicopter flew overhead and offered the man a rope and again, he declined because he believed that his faith in God would keep him safe.  So, the upshot was that he drowned and when he got to heaven he complained to God ‘why didn’t you come and save me during the flood?’  God replied, ‘but I sent you a man in a jeep, another one in a dinghy, and then a helicopter, but you declined my help!’  Sometimes we don’t see the hand of God when it is offered.  But Bartimaeus did.

I was visiting a young couple this week.  They have had some seriously difficult news to deal with, the news of a potentially life-threatening illness.  It was humbling to hear them talk.  They were not fixated with God waving a magic wand and bringing them a cure, instead they were fixated on the gifts they were experiencing through this time.  The gift of youth and general good health; of a medical team doing all they could for them; for friends and neighbours who were in this with them at a time when neither of their wider families can get to be with them; for their gorgeous young children who were keeping them focused; and for the season of Spring; and for the distraction of house renovations and what that might bring to their lives.  In their own way they were throwing caution to the wind and trusting in hope.  They were full of what it means to live every day to its fullest, in expectation of the possibility of encounters that bring life to them, here and now, and hopefully, ahead.  What if one of those encounters, or the sum of encounters changes the course of their lives? Their trust in the way that the small steps of now, will take them into the future was, to me, as phenomenal as Bartimaeus’ trust in the one he called out to, the one who heard him, and who helped him.