One of the most odious features of my life lately is that I received my second speeding fine! I’ve only received two speeding fines in my life and they’ve both been in the last year, and in both cases I’ve been picked up doing only 50-something kilometers an hour on a major highway that has suddenly become a 40 kilometer per hour zone, due to the presence of a school!
These experiences hardly qualify me as a drag-racer. Even so, they did remind me of the story of the priest I heard about who was picked up doing something over 120 km/h in a 60 km/h zone. In his case he was actually pulled over by a highway patrolman, who, when the priest lowered his window, could not help but be struck by the pungent stench of alcohol that almost overwhelmed him.
“Have you been drinking, Father?” the patrolman asked. “Oh no, my son” was the priest’s reply. “Can I ask you what’s in that hip-flask”, the patrolman asked. “Ah, that’s water” said the priest. “Would you mind if I take a look” the patrolman asked. The priest handed the officer the hip-flask, who screwed off the lid and took a sniff. “I’m pretty sure that’s whiskey, Father!” said the patrolman. “Ah, mother of God”, said the priest, “another miracle!”
And I confess that when I read through today’s Gospel reading again this week – the story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus, that was my first response too – ‘Mother of God, another miracle!’
For when we read through the Gospel stories (and we read through the Gospel stories here every week in this church building) miracles are a pretty common occurrence. It’s basically one miracle after another!
We’ve been working out way through the Gospel of Mark since the beginning of this year, and we began that journey with a story of Jesus healing a possessed man (Mark 1:21-28). By the end of that first chapter of Mark’s Gospel Jesus had healed “many who were sick with various diseases” (Mark 1:34) and the healings didn’t let up from there!
Jesus healed a leper (Mark 1:40-45), and a paralytic man at the opening of chapter two. In chapter five Jesus both healed a woman who was hemorrhaging and raised a young girl from the dead! (Mark 5:21-43). And with those particularly amazing stories and with the controversial encounter with the Syrophoenician woman in chapter seven and the healing of her daughter (7: 24-37) we might have thought that Jesus’ extraordinary career as a miracle-worker was reaching a crescendo of sorts. And then at the end of chapter ten we get this account – the last miracle recorded in the Gospel According to St Mark – the healing of blind Bartimaeus – and you’re left thinking … ‘ok, another miracle’! Why?
And I don’t mean why did Jesus heal the man, and I’m certainly not questioning whether Jesus healed the man, as I fully believe that Jesus did heal the man. My question is rather why the Gospel writer (Mark, in this case) bothered to record this particular miracle story because there were a lot of miracle stories, and far too many to record each one in detail. Why does he single this one out?
Mark’s fellow Gospel-writer, John, you may remember, said that Jesus performed so many wonderful deeds that if you tried to publish them all, the whole world couldn’t contain all the books (John 21:25)! That was a hyperbole of course, and one that doesn’t translate well into the electronic media, but we get the idea!
The Gospel writers filtered out the stuff they passed on to us. They did not record all of Jesus’ miracles. They recorded some of them because some of them were particularly memorable and because some of them contained specific lessons that the Gospel writers evidently thought should be passed on, which raises the question, ‘what is so unique and special about this story?
Bartimaeus himself seems like a very ordinary sort of guy. He was a blind man, and he was a beggar, and I assume he was a beggar because he was blind. He was sitting by the roadside, begging, on the main street heading out of Jericho, which probably would have been a reasonably good place to be if you depended on begging in order to survive.
I have never been to Jericho, but it is well known to be the lowest town in the world. It is 258 metres below sea level, which means it has a rather wonderful balmy climate, which would explain why Herod had built a palace for himself there, complete with aqueduct, amphitheater and swimming pool!
Being Passover season there would have been plenty of holiday traffic and lots of people of goodwill traversing those roads. Bartimaeus was a beggar who had situated himself in exactly the sort of place where a beggar would place himself. There is nothing extraordinary about that. And there is nothing particularly extraordinary about the initial encounter between Jesus and Bartimaeus either!
Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is coming by, and so he begins to shout out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” which is exactly what we would expect a beggar to do. The fact that Jesus stopped to deal with Bartimaeus is perhaps a little surprising. After all, there must have been lots of beggars on that road that day and any number of people calling out to Jesus. Was Bartimaeus the loudest and most persistent of them all? Is that why Jesus heard him and not others?
Those around Bartimaeus apparently did their best to shut him up, which would suggest that he was loud and persistent to the point of being irritating. It’s hard to imagine that this would have endeared him to Jesus, but Jesus stops for him.
The interaction that ensues between Jesus and Bartimaeus is by no means unique either, but that in itself is interesting, for the dialogue runs strangely parallel with the story that immediately precedes it in Marks Gospel, concerning Jesus’ encounter with His disciples, James and John, the sons of Zebedee.
Bartimaeus came to Jesus and Jesus asked him “what do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51). Just prior to this, James and John had come to Jesus, saying “do for us whatever we ask” and Jesus had to ask them exactly the same question, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:35-40).
James and John came to Jesus looking for advancement in Jesus’ Messianic management team, if you remember the story. They were shy initially in making their request, which is why Jesus had to ask them.
The disciples come across as being just plain greedy in their request, and it’s certainly easier to feel sympathy for Bartimaeus, though his request is equally self-focused, but I’m not really convinced that there’s anything more that we can mine from the fact that Jesus has to ask them all exactly the same question as, frankly, it’s the sort of question both He and His disciples had to ask all the time!
“What do you want me to do for you?” It may have been the most common question Jesus ever had to ask, as indeed it has been a question commonly on the lips of His disciples ever since, as indeed it is a question I have found myself asking more time than I can remember.
People come knocking on the rectory door all the time, and sometimes they stop me in the street when they see the collar or the lapel-crosses, and the question is always the same: “what do you want me to do for you?”
A lot of the time when I answer the door the guy at the door has his back to me, and I’ve worked out that it’s because they are rehearsing the line they are going to give when I ask the inevitable question, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Sometimes you do get a surprise. I’ve had a number of humbling encounters with people whom I have assumed are about to ask me for money but who surprise me by having a far more ‘spiritual’ agenda.
“What do you want me to do for you?” I ask, and judging by the shoddy clothing and the unkempt appearance I’m mentally preparing my spiel about how we don’t give out cash here but we can help with food and we can organise an interview with Anglicare if they need more comprehensive assistance, and then the guy says, “I want you to pray with me”, and I find out that there’s a lot more to this guy than I had given him credit for.
Was Bartimaeus’ response a surprise to Jesus? “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks, and perhaps the response He was expecting was “can you spare me a few shekels?”
That would have been the obvious response from a beggar, I would imagine. Did the fact that Bartimaeus asked for more indicate that he had somehow developed some degree of faith in Jesus? Had he heard about Jesus, made some probing enquiries, and through prayer and reflection come to a point of trust in the person of Jesus such that when he heard that Jesus was in the neighborhood Bartimaeus knew that his salvation was at hand … or was he just feeling lucky?
In truth, it’s impossible to know what was going through Bartimaeus’ mind when he first came to Jesus, just as it’s impossible to know why Jesus singled him out. There doesn’t seem to have been anything particularly special about the man Bartimaeus, nor anything particularly extraordinary about his encounter with Jesus. Yes, it would have been special for him, no doubt, but in the context of the Gospel according to St Mark it’s simply another miracle, except for one thing …
It’s what happens after the miracle, and it’s easy to miss if you’re not careful.
“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.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way”
Did you catch it? Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you well”, and that’s par for the course. Jesus said that sort of thing all the time. He’d say “Go, your faith has made you well” and the person would be healed and they would go. Bartimaeus also was healed, but he, it seems, did not go. Instead, were are told, he ‘followed him on the way’ (vs.52)
Now admittedly that could just mean that Bartimaeus, now seeing, wandered along behind Jesus for a space, clapping and shouting perhaps, after which he went home and got on with his life, but both the wording and the structure of the narrative suggest that the Gospel writer Mark intended us to see a bit more here. Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the way, and I’m guessing that by the time Mark wrote his Gospel (the first of the Gospel stories to be published) Bartimaeus was still following Jesus on the way!
This would also explain the one other obviously unique thing about this miracle story – namely, the fact that we know Bartimaeus by name!
The Gospels are full of miracle stories. All sorts of people are healed by Jesus and we know the names of almost none of them!
Going again through the Gospel of Mark, the demon-possessed man Jesus healed in chapter one – what was his name? We have no idea? What about the leper or the paralytic or the hemorrhaging woman – what was her name? We don’t know. What about that woman from Syrophoenicia? We remember where she was from but not what her name was.
And why would we? These people emerge out of the shadows and into the limelight of Jesus’ ministry and then they disappear back into the shadows as they get on with their lives and we never hear from them again, except when the extraordinary happens and someone isn’t just healed, but follows!
‘Bartimaeus! You don’t mean old Bartimaeus the Sunday-school teacher out at Jericho, do you? Was he blind when he first met Jesus? That’s hard to believe. He seems to have such perfect vision now!’
Yes, good old Bartimaeus. The rest of his life is forgotten to us now but Mark, the Gospel-writer, knew him by name, and I’m guessing that the first readers of the Gospel of St Mark knew him by name too – not because he was an extraordinary person and not because his story was particularly spectacular but simply because he followed Jesus on the way.
It’s sad when you think that the vast majority of people who experienced the love and the goodness and the healing power of Jesus went home afterwards and got on with their lives, and probably had nothing more to do with Jesus or His church. Bartimaeus is a simple man with a simple story, but he is given to us today as our model in the faith. He experiences the healing power of Jesus and so he follows Him on the way. May God give us grace to do the same?
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on October 28, 2012.
To hear the audio version of this sermon click here.