It was as good a place as any for him to do his panhandling. It hadn’t always been this way; he hadn’t always made his living by begging. Once upon a time, there had been a job and a family. But then came the terrible accident. He saw it coming, but his hands were too slow. In a flash, his hands came up to shield his eyes, but the damage had already been done. He was in trouble. He could tell from the intense pain that ravaged his face that he was seriously injured. Weeks later, when the bandages came off, and he could open his eyes, he opened them to utter darkness. He was blind.
But of course, the blindness wasn’t the worst of it. One morning, many months after the accident, he awoke to find his rented house strangely quiet. Earlier that week, the landlord had been by to deliver an eviction notice. He hadn’t worked since the accident, and there had been no money to pay the rent. At first, the landlord had been patient and understanding, but that had eventually worn thin. And so, to avoid the indignity of a public eviction, his family had quietly packed up during the night and left him. He never heard from them again.
This week, though, the panhandling had been especially good. It was just a few days before Passover, and the traffic between Jericho and Jerusalem had been tremendous. Wealthy merchants were passing through Jericho with their wares, heading for the festival in Jerusalem, and they had been generous; anticipating, perhaps, the huge windfall sales that they could expect once they arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover. This time of year, more than any other, had put them into a compassionate state of mind, and into a spirit of charity for those less fortunate than themselves. Even beggars have something to celebrate at Passover.
But this Passover there was something even more wonderful to celebrate than the garnering of a few extra coins. Jesus was coming through Jericho, and when blind Bartimaeus heard about it, he started to put up a ruckus. And it must have been quite a ruckus, because it aroused the attention of the local sensibilities squad.
Now why blind Bartimaeus’ ruckus became such an inconvenience to the local sensibilities squad is a bit of a mystery to me. We’re only a few days away from Passover. There’s a festive atmosphere in the air. The streets are thronged with people who are passing through Jericho on their way to Jerusalem. Merchants and vendors are already hawking their wares.
There’s noise and hustle and bustle everywhere. Certainly one blind beggar shouting out at the top of his lungs, is not going to make a whole lot of difference in an already crowded and noisy environment. And yet, blind Bartimaeus’ shouting somehow became a inconvenience. Somehow it was viewed as being inappropriate and out of place. Mark tells us that many people sternly warned him to be quiet. Maybe we would have been among them.
Not every scholar and writer or theologian has been as charitable to Bartimaeus as I have tried to be this morning, with my fake, little made up backstory about him. He was obviously a street person, and a bum, and street people aren’t always our favorites. But perhaps Batimaeus also has some sort of reputation. Maybe blind Bartimaeus is already known for being an embarrassment. Maybe he’s some sort of troublemaker. It may be that he’s struggling with mental health issues, as so many street people do. Maybe he’s just a bit of local color that some of the locals wish would fade away. I don’t know. We can’t know. The only thing I do know is that lots of people don’t want blind Bartimaeus to be part of this story. He’s a problem and they want him to go away, or at least shut up.
Jesus, though, seems intent on making him a part of this story. Jesus does not seem to share the nervous concerns of the local sensitivities squad. When Jesus heard the people telling Bartimaeus to shut up, Jesus stopped. He stood still. I can almost see a few of the locals with embarrassment welling up within them, getting ready to run up to Jesus to apologize for the disturbance that Bartimaeus has caused. “We’re really sorry for all of this mess, Jesus, really, we are. We didn’t mean for this guy to be shouting at you like this. We know that this doesn’t look good, but this blind guy, see, he’s an awful embarrassment to all of us; we really just wish he wasn’t around. He’s certainly not showing you much respect by shouting after you like that, we’re really sorry. If there’s something that we can do…”
But before they can say that, Jesus says to the crowd, call the man here. Bring him to me.
And as soon as blind Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was asking for him, he jumped up, threw off his cloak, and made his way toward Jesus. Now there’s a picture here that’s not to be missed. It is a scene that needs to be seen. Bartimaeus was a beggar. He was a panhandler. He had all of the “go’bless you,” and the “thank you so much” stuff down pat. And in all likelihood, Bartimaeus’ usual posture was to sit by the road, cross-legged, with this cloak forming a sort of container between his legs, into which passersby would toss their coins. When blind Bartimaeus jumped up, the coins, which he had so carefully cradled, which were indeed his whole life, must have gone flying everywhere.
If this is the case, then we’re already getting some insight into the depth of this man’s hope. Suddenly, the coins don’t matter so much. Suddenly, the life, the living, everything that is meaningful to him, ceases to be of concern. There’s hope! Jesus has called for him! Even if Bartimaeus had been collecting his coins in a tin cup, it is highly unlikely that he carried the cup with him when he came to Jesus. The picture, is that of a man leaving his past behind and risking it all for the hope that lies within him. That’s faith, and up ’til now Jesus has done nothing for him. Not a thing. All Jesus has done is call for him.
When Bartimaeus got to Jesus, though, Jesus had a question for the beggar. From our point of view, this question is strangely out of place. The answer is painfully obvious or is it? If Jesus looked straight into our eyes and asked the same question, what would we say? If Jesus was able to break down all of the self-righteous barriers to our souls and say to us, “What do you want me to do for you?” How would we respond? Well Jesus, my car’s seventeen years old now, and my mechanic says he’ll only put one more sticker on it, and there’s all those college loans…
No! Not at all! If we were face to face with Jesus, the coins of our lives would drop to the ground. They’d be scattered all over the place. And they would certainly become completely meaningless. And with our souls bare naked, we would share with Jesus the greatest and deepest need of our hearts. Thing is, Jesus asks that question of us every single time we close our eyes in prayer. Do we hear him asking, are we prepared to answer? Our replies could radically change our lives.
Blind beggar Bartimaeus was prepared to answer that question because his heart was open. And because his heart was open, his eyes were also opened. Once again he could see. The metaphorical bandages hiding the wounds and scars of his life were removed and a whole new life opened up for him. So that’s a nice story about a blind guy who met Jesus, and had his life’s greatest wish fulfilled. Or is it?
This is the last healing story that Mark records in his gospel. Chapter 11 begins with Jesus and his disciples just outside of the city of Jerusalem. In just about a week, Jesus will be dead. His earthly ministry will be completed. And Mark has positioned this story very strategically. It is Mark’s way of telling everybody that now is the time to make up their minds about Jesus, because soon, very soon, Jesus is going to be dead, and it is going to be necessary for Jesus’ followers to continue the ministry of Jesus. Soon, it is going to be time for Jesus’ disciples and his followers throughout all of the ages, to call blind, panhandling beggars everywhere from out of the midst of the crowds that oppress them, and into the glorious freedom of salvation.
It is really cool that Bartimaeus got to regain his sight, because all around him were sighted people who were too blind to see the legitimacy of Jesus’ ministry to the poor, the outcast, the sinner, the blind, the broken, the sick, and the lonely. And so they rejected Jesus and every bit of his ministry, just as so many people do today. This world has far too many people, some of them followers of Jesus, whose true song is “I once was sighted but now I am blind.”
But even more wonderful than gaining his sight, Bartimaeus experienced salvation. Interestingly, in Bartimaeus’ case, Jesus pronounces that Bartimaeus has been healed before the miracle occurs. That is because Bartimaeus already has faith that can see and faith that can believe. The healing of his eyes is really a small matter compared the wholeness of his faith. It is Bartimaeus’ faith that Jesus commends, and it is the lack of faith evidenced by others that Jesus so strongly condemns.
With the healing comes a choice. Jesus simply tells Bartimaeus to go. Jesus says, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Implicit in that, is move on, Bartimaeus, choose your path. Walk where you will. For someone who formerly had to be led around by the hand, that is a tremendous invitation. It is the same invitation that Jesus gives to every one of us, once we have received our sight. Go, choose your path.
But Bartimaeus has already chosen his path. He will become a follower of Jesus. He will become a disciple. Bartimaeus, even though we will never hear from him again, will very likely commit himself to carrying on the ministry of Jesus, for why else would Mark be telling us his story? It is very likely that many of the earliest followers of Jesus knew just exactly who Bartimaeus was. Perhaps he was as well known as Rufus and Alexander.*
This morning, everyone of us has the opportunity to become a Bartimaeus. That moment occurs when faith becomes ministry and action. When faith becomes ministry and action, it means that we have stepped out of our blinded lives and out on to the path of discipleship in covenant relationship with Jesus and with one another.
Let us not be like those who intend to come to Jesus, but who first carefully gather up their coins and wrap them safely in their cloaks before they come along. There is much to lose, if we do that. Jesus has plenty and much to say about that, if we are brave enough to listen. If we will not listen, consider this: everything that we strive to save in this life, counts as loss against us. Jesus is calling us to leave behind our blind and beggarly existences and to follow him. Now is the time. For we, like Bartimaeus, have been healed by Jesus, to become the ones who carry on his ministry in this world. Jesus simply says, “Go.” What path will we choose? Will it be ministry, or will it be blindness?