What do we want from God?

Pentecost 21
Mark 10:46-52
Marian Free

In the name of God who opens our eyes that we might see. Amen.

On the surface, the healing of Bartimaeus, is a simple miracle story. A blind man seeks and receives healing. There are a few embellishments to be sure. The crowd tries to hush the man’s cries for help. For some reason the man throws off his cloak when Jesus calls him. And though the man asked for healing, Jesus tells him that he is “saved”. There are also a couple of puzzles. The gospel begins: “They came to Jericho.” We are told nothing more about the visit for the very next sentence is: “As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho.” Mark uses the Aramaic form of the man’s name and then explains it in Greek – the listeners would not have needed to be told that “Bar” means son of. The beggar refers to Jesus as Son of David and even though he is identified as a beggar, Bartimaeus does not ask for money, but for healing. (Healing for a beggar would mean the loss of his source of income and the need to find a new form of employment.)

For the last three chapters – 8-10, Mark has used the language of journey to frame his story. He places Jesus and his disciples on route to Jerusalem and uses the journey to reveal Jesus’ suffering and death, to highlight the disciple’s failure to understand, and to explore the nature of leadership in the community which he is forming. The journey narrative is framed by accounts of the healing of blind men. At the beginning of the journey, Mark recounts the story of a more elaborate healing. A blind (unnamed) man is brought to Jesus who takes him outside the village. Jesus spits on his eyes and the man’s sight returns, but is blurred. Then Jesus lays his hands on him and he sees clearly. When his sight is restored, he is sent away and told to not even enter the village.

In contrast with this, complex, private healing, the journey ends with the very public story of Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus is already outside the town and it is he who calls for Jesus rather than others who take him to him.  Bartimaeus uses the expression “Son of David”, foreshadowing the entry into Jerusalem when the crowds will welcome Jesus with that same cry. The naming of Jesus as Son of David also brings to mind a Jewish tradition that Solomon (David’s son was a healer and magician). The crowds, instead of taking Bartimaeus to Jesus try to silence him, but Jesus seeks him out and calls him to him. The healing is immediate and simple. Bartimaeus is commended for his faith and told that he is “saved”. He is not sent secretly away as is the man in the first story, but he becomes one of Jesus’ followers and follows him on the way – which, as the hearers of the gospel recognise, means to follow Jesus in the way of suffering and death.

The two stories of healing contribute to the larger story which begins with secrecy and ends with the full revelation of who Jesus is, and what it means to be his disciple. The healing of the blind man is followed by Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ. Jesus follows this by revealing what it means to be the Christ – he will suffer and die and on the third day rise. Peter is unable to comprehend this and is rebuked by Jesus who tells his followers that in order to be his disciples they must follow in his footsteps and be prepared to “take up their cross”, to put the call of God before the call of the world.
The nature of Jesus is made even more explicit by the Transfiguration, which is followed by an account of the disciple’s inability to cast out demons. Jesus again foretells his death and resurrection, to which the disciples respond by trying to decide which of them is the greatest. Jesus confronts their struggle for prominence by using a child to teach them about servant leadership. However, they fail to understand and their self-centredness is further highlighted by their attempt to prevent someone else from casting out demons in Jesus’ name.

Children are again used as exemplars of those who will inherit the kingdom, before Jesus predicts his death and resurrection for one final time. This time James and John respond by requesting seats at Jesus’ right and left in heaven – something which Jesus cannot promise. He again stresses that the nature of leadership in the new economy is that of service, not of seeking places of honour and lording it over others. Finally, in contrast to James and John who ask for places of prominence, the beggar simply asks for mercy indicating that it is he, not they who really understands the nature of discipleship. By “following Jesus on the way”, Bartimaeus shows a willingness that the disciples as yet lack – to follow Jesus, no matter what the cost.

So you see, the simple story of the healing of a blind man, is a story of faith which leads to salvation and discipleship which leads to the cross. It brings to an end an unfolding of who Jesus is and how his mission will be played out. Mark uses the story here to highlight the misunderstanding of the disciples, the cost of discipleship and to introduce Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem which begins the final chapter of the story.

In the wider context, a journey sequence that began with blindness and secrecy is now concluded with clear vision and complete openness about the nature and purpose of Jesus. Who he is, and what it means to follow him is now made known to all.

As listeners to this we are challenged to re-examine our own response to Jesus, to ask ourselves whether we are prepared to pay the cost of discipleship, and whether we understand the nature of community as Jesus imagined it would be. Are we, like the disciples, unable to really confront the implications of the crucifixion? Are we guilty of seeking recognitions for ourselves, rather than exercising our ministry in the service of others? Are we willing to express simple trust, or do we like the disciples want to turn away from the difficult things Jesus tells us?

Jesus says to Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks us that same question: “What do you want me to do for you?” Our answer to that question tells him everything he needs to know about our faith, our understanding and our trust in him. What is it that we really want, and what does that say about us?

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