Jeremiah 31:7-9; Mark 10:46-52
In C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the devil advises his apprentice that the best way to keep potential converts to Christianity from really embracing the faith is to keep them from doing anything. He writes, “The great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it; that is often an excellent way of sterilizing the seeds which the enemy plants in a human soul. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will. As one of the humans has said, active habits are strengthened by repetition but passive ones are weakened. The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able to act, and in the long run the less he will be able to feel. Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.”
We’re at that place in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus’ public ministry is just about concluded. Jesus and his disciples have arrived in Jericho, their last stop before Jerusalem and the final events leading to the cross. We’re told that Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, sitting by the roadside approaches Jesus and says, “Jesus, Son of David have mercy on me!” Now this is the second time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus heals someone of blindness. The first incident takes place several chapters earlier before we meet the rich young man and see Jesus’ own disciples grabbing for power. Bartimaeus wants to be healed of his blindness so he can be a disciple. While time and again we see Jesus’ disciples who have sight but are blind to what following him really means.
If we think back to the Gospel texts for the past couple of weeks, we see that Jesus desperately wants his disciples and those who come to him to see the world in a new way and then to act out of that vision by following him. So, however we understand these stories about Jesus restoring sight to the blind, an important dimension is as metaphor for a new way of seeing, knowing, and acting in the world as Jesus’ disciples. On a literal level, the blind man is cured. But on a deeper level—that has something profound to say to us in 2009—Bartimaeus’s blindness is the blindness we all share. What is particular about Bartimeaus is that he acknowledges his lack of vision, and he believes that Jesus is the key to a real vision for the world.
This is all so different from our experience with the other characters we’ve been meeting in Mark’s Gospel. Last week’s text revealed that two of Jesus’ closest friends, James and John, were still concerned about position and power after all their time with him. Rather than asking Jesus for a sharper vision of his mission, they wanted him to guarantee seats of honor in God’s kingdom. Their jockeying for position demonstrated an incredible blindness, perhaps out of fear, to the call of discipleship. And two weeks ago we met a rich young man on a spiritual quest. He had all the commandments memorized, and to his credit was trying to live them out. But for all his well-ordered religious life and well-stocked material life, he had a gnawing sense that something was missing, and he was right. Jesus loved him and saw right away that what was blinding and keeping him from real discipleship was the distraction of his many possessions. “Go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor.” The young man was stunned and walked away. That was no doubt a very sad encounter for him and Jesus.
Now Jesus doesn’t greet every rich person he meets with this same admonition, but Jesus is keen on breaking through what it is in our lives that keeps us from really putting our faith in God’s providence and then working on behalf of God’s kingdom in the world. In other words, what is it that blinds us to God’s promise of abundant life offered through Jesus? What is it in our lives that keep us from really following Jesus? In this case, it was all the stuff in the young man’s life that he thought would give him his sense of identity, security, and accomplishment. Jesus tried to say to him that he was worth so much more than all of that.
Like the rich young man, James, and John, we often come to Jesus with our list of desires and things that need fixing—our to-do list for him—but do we really want to follow him? Are we willing to act in the world out of our faith? Or, as Screwtape observes, do we mostly want to do anything but act, keeping our faith primarily a head game or as a way to encourage polite behavior and bolster the status quo?
That brings us back to Bartimaeus. When Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He responds, “My teacher, let me see again.” Not only does he regain his sight, but he drops everything and follows Jesus. You might think, well of course, Jesus has just healed him. But if you go back and look at the healing stories in the Scriptures, they don’t usually evolve into discipleship. But Bartimaeus is different, he is determined to follow Jesus and he asks for the vision to do so. He will not let the crowd’s pressure keep him from Jesus. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried even more loudly.”
Bishop William Willimon tells a story of a woman he knows who spoke up in a business meeting, opposing some policy the company was considering. When asked why she was so adamantly against this policy, she said, “Well for one thing, I’m a Christian and we just don’t believe in taking advantage of the weaknesses of people.” The next day the boss called her into his office and told her that she ought not to wear her religion on her sleeve and if it happened again she might look for another company.”
Jesus’ acts of healing are always intended to free us from that which blinds and binds us from acting in his name. The rich young man was blinded by his stuff. He wanted more meaning and depth in life, but in the end he just could not free himself of all that held him hostage from the rich life God intends for each of us. The disciples were repeatedly blinded by their concerns about security and position.
But here is Bartimaeus who seems really to get it. The lesson for us in this passage is not so much about a physical cure but about embracing a clearer vision about Jesus’ identity in our lives and in all that we do.
Martin Luther was so concerned by how easily we are fooled and misled by mere appearances, by all that glitters, by all that is impressive that he said the organ of faith is the ear and not the eye because we’re all seduced and blinded.
Whether faith comes by hearing or seeing, the real point of this story is that Bartimaeus wanted conversion in his life, and he asked Jesus for healing precisely so that he could follow him. And that is really all Jesus asks of us. “Follow me,” he says. In the Gospels Jesus appears far less concerned about if we have our beliefs all worked out in our minds; rather, he’s concerned about whether we will follow him or not. The rich young man, James, John, and Bartimaeus all believed in Jesus. But of this crew, Bartimaeus is the one that is held up as an example of really following Jesus, even when it’s not a popular thing to do.
Jesus is looking for a few good recruits who will actually do something in the world, even when the world tries to silence them.
The rich young man had a mind for religious matters; he knew his theology and had its categories down pat. He was an upstanding citizen. But while most of us may not be on Forbes’s list of the world’s wealthiest people, as he was, doesn’t his compartmentalization of life and polite, well-mannered religion that doesn’t ruffle any feathers or challenge any change sound all too familiar?
Jesus is on the road to Calvary. He sees right through our domestication of religion. He’s going to the cross because he’s stood up to the power brokers of injustice and he’s looking for followers who will carry on after he’s gone. He’s looking for a few disciples who will actually wear their religion on the sleeve—even if it might mean finding another job.
Like the rich young man and blind Bartimaeus, Jesus loves us and asks if we are willing to throw off our coats and follow him even when we don’t know where that will lead. And that question, of course, leads to other questions. What is it that blinds and binds us from saying “yes” to Jesus? Are we willing to allow our discipleship to influence our actions at home and work and the decisions we make about priorities? Are we willing to do something in the world on account of being Christian?